“I Can’t Promise Not to Tell”

Youth workers have ethical and legal duties they must fulfill.

Most teens struggling with a problem aren’t going to set up a formal counseling appointment. Instead, they might drop hints during a group discussion or approach you quietly after youth group. Some might share what’s troubling them only if you promise you won’t tell their parents or anyone else.

That’s a dangerous—if not impossible—promise to keep.

Most states have laws requiring certain professionals, such as doctors, teachers, and police, to alert authorities if they suspect that a child is being abused physically, sexually, or emotionally. In many states, these laws extend to pastors, childcare providers, and youth workers. “If you’re a mandated reporter and fail to comply, you place yourself, your ministry, and its leadership in jeopardy,” authors Rich Van Pelt and Jim Hancock write in The Youth Worker’s Guide to Helping Teenagers in Crisis.

Just think of the consequences if a youth worker learned that a young woman was being molested by a relative, and he didn’t report it as required by law. The young woman (and possibly other victims) could suffer years of continued abuse. In addition, if authorities learn that a church worker had knowledge of the crime and could have reported it years earlier, they could charge the youth worker with failing to report a crime and hold him partly responsible for the emotional and physical injuries the woman suffered at the abuser’s hands.

It’s important to know the laws in your state. Youth workers are expected to follow them, so a ministry would be wise to provide training regarding confidentiality, abuse disclosure, counseling licensure, and other issues that can arise during crisis intervention. Ignorance of the law is no defense.

Walking the Tightrope

Confidentiality can be a two-edged sword. On one hand, teens won’t share painful information with you if they believe that you can’t be trusted (and you can be sued for sharing secrets). On the other hand, you can get into serious legal trouble for keeping a confidence that should be reported, such as child abuse or knowledge that someone is in imminent, physical danger.

Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company has handled claims for both types of situations. In one, a youth leader learned through counseling that a young girl in the youth group had engaged in a sexual act. The leader told a friend of the family what was going on, in order to explain changes in the family’s behavior. After the friend contacted the family to encourage them, the family threatened to sue the youth leader for breach of confidentiality.

In another, a church leader counseling a minor found out about sexual abuse during the counseling, but decided not to report it as required by law. The church leader was held liable for failure to report a crime. “Generally, even clergy confidentiality requirements contain an exception for this type of abuse,” says Ronald Troyer, manager of casualty and litigation claims for Brotherhood Mutual.

So how do you walk this tightrope? Take a young person’s concerns seriously, and develop legal and ethical pastoral counseling guidelines for your ministry.

“On occasion, a young person has asked me why I won’t promise not to tell anyone,” Richard Van Pelt says in The Youth Worker’s Guide to Helping Teenagers in Crisis. “My response is simple and straightforward: ‘Because it may not be in your best interest, and there are certain situations in which I’d be violating the law by keeping that promise.'”

All lay counselors should know who to contact immediately if they suspect any state-mandated reporting matter. Each year, Richard Hammar, an expert on keeping kids safe from abuse, produces a report—”Child Abuse Reporting Laws for Churches”—on the most relevant provisions of child abuse reporting laws in each state. You can find the report, which appears bi-annually in the May/June issue of Church Law & Tax Report (Christianity Today).

Some tips:

  • Learn the laws in your state regarding abuse reporting, as it pertains to pastoral counselors and lay youth workers.
  • Protect private information shared with you in a counseling setting, unless you’re legally required or specifically granted permission to share it.
  • Be upfront. Let young people know what you can and cannot do.
  • Don’t promise more than you can deliver.

Drawing the Line on Counseling Advice

Youth workers face another legally perilous situation when they counsel teens in trouble. If a youth worker offers advice that goes beyond the realm of pastoral counseling, a court could rule that he or she was providing counseling without a license. Pastoral counseling typically involves providing guidance, insight, and encouragement based on biblical principles.

“Our advice, traditionally and today, has been that you cannot step across the line from being a spiritual counselor to being a clinical counselor,” says John Sandy, senior corporate attorney for Brotherhood Mutual.

“I’m always concerned if there’s a lay youth counselor who reads a book and recommends in a counseling setting that a person do something that doesn’t work and injures the person or others,” Sandy says. “If the lay youth worker is judged by the same standard in court as a clinical counselor, then he or she likely will not fare well in defending a lawsuit related to improper or negligent counseling if the advice was not biblical but of a clinical or psychological nature. The trouble will be determining, where’s that line?”

Mental health licensing laws vary from state to state. Generally, pastors employed in a church are free to provide pastoral counseling to church members and are exempt from state licensing. States differ, however, in their exemption from licensing for lay persons who will provide lay counseling on behalf of a church. Some state mental health licensing laws set restrictions relating to:

  • Licensing exemptions if you charge a fee for counseling
  • Providing or advertising pastoral and lay counseling services to the general public
  • Using certain titles or descriptions of service

In their guide, Van Pelt and Hancock recommend that no use of the term counseling should be allowed unless staff are formally trained and currently licensed to provide clinical counseling services.

Instead, they suggest using terms like helping relationship, discipling relationship, mentoring relationship, coaching, pastoral care or even pastoral counseling to represent what you do.

If a teen’s crisis is urgent or complex, he or she may need more help than pastoral counseling can provide. Concerned adults need to be aware of behavioral, emotional, and physical signs that can indicate a problem, such as sudden outbursts of temper, excessive fighting, decline in academic performance, talk about running away, erratic behavior, frequent nightmares, and a marked change of weight or appearance, among others.

Since even the most experienced youth worker will encounter situations that are beyond his or her knowledge, training, or ability, it’s vital for your ministry to form relationships with trained professionals in the community to whom you can refer hurting teenagers.

Forming a Referral Network

Having a strong network of professionals trained to deal with the crises your youth will face can help you get them the assistance they need. Some issues, such as a problem stemming from poor communication between a teen and her parents, might be successfully addressed within a pastoral counseling setting. Others, such as a teen suffering from suicidal thoughts, may require immediate clinical intervention.

It’s vital for youth workers to know how to assess critical situations and help teens obtain the professional help they need. Several guidebooks available today offer youth workers practical assessment tools for a wide range of emotional, physical, and psychological issues, from addictions and anxiety to underachievement and unplanned pregnancy.

Referral is a crucial component in any crisis intervention model, say longtime youth leaders Van Pelt and Hancock. “No one we know is capable of knowing all, loving all, and healing all,” the authors write. “Referral isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength.”

Some resources to have at your fingertips include contact information for:

  • Church-related support groups and counseling services
  • Crisis hotlines and help centers
  • Counselors: psychiatrists, psychologists, and family therapists
  • Hospitals that offer specialized mental health services for teens
  • Crisis pregnancy centers
  • Drug and alcohol abuse counselors, centers, and support groups

If it doesn’t have them already, every church should develop guidelines for referring counselees to physicians, mental health practitioners, or other professional caregivers in the community. It’s best to identify the mental health resources in your community before you need them. When you’re in a situation in which minutes count, you’ll be ready.

Planting a Hedge of Protection

Sometimes youth workers can get into perilous legal situations through either innocence or inexperience. It’s important to plant a hedge of protection around youth workers by establishing pastoral counseling guidelines for your ministry and requiring youth workers to follow them. Here are examples of some guidelines recommended for a church lay counseling or pastoral ministry:

Informed Consent or Lay Counseling Agreement. An Informed Consent form or Lay Counseling Agreement sets forth the conditions under which the church will provide lay counseling. For example, the conditions might explain the following:

  • Confidentiality parameters pertaining to minors
  • The limit on the number of counseling sessions available
  • The ability of the counselor or counselee to terminate counseling sessions at any time.

It should be clear that lay counselors will provide biblical counseling, and that they are not

In situations in which minors are being counseled, the minor’s parent or guardian should sign an Informed Consent form or Lay Counseling Agreement. You can find samples of these forms in the Lay Counseling Risk Management Guidebook by John L. Sandy (Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company).

Sexual Misconduct Prevention Guidelines. A church should take steps to deter sexual misconduct and false allegations of sexual misconduct in pastoral counseling settings. Consider establishing the following guidelines:

  • Prohibit any youth worker from providing counseling privately with someone of the opposite gender.
  • Have a parent or second adult present when counseling a minor.
  • Limit the hours when counseling will be available at the church.
  • Limit counseling sessions to 45 minutes or an hour, and establish a set number of counseling sessions that an individual counselor can provide to an individual; six counseling sessions, for example.
  • Counsel only in a specifically located office or room that has a window, and is within view of a secretary or another adult.
  • Caution counselors about physical touching that might be misinterpreted.

Ethical Guidelines. Youth workers should understand and follow the church’s guidelines for referral of counselees to physicians, mental health practitioners, or other professional caregivers.

They should also be instructed to:

  • Not interfere with a counselee’s medically prescribed drug regimen.
  • Immediately report to their manager any state-mandated abuse reporting issues, a counselee’s suicidal threats, or a counselee’s threat to harm another person.

The church’s attorney should consider developing an Informed Consent form or Lay Counseling Agreement that includes reporting of such information as an exception to confidentiality requirements.

Record-Keeping Guidelines. Youth workers should be encouraged to keep notes, even if very informal, of the interactions they have with teens in crisis. The notes should document the date of a conversation, what information the teen shared, and any advice the youth worker offered. Just like more formal counseling files, these notes should be confidentially maintained in a safe and secure place. If stored on a computer hard drive or disk, the information should be password protected.

Counseling files or other private information contained in any portable electronic devices, such as laptop computers, should be encrypted. The files should be considered the property of the church, and church leaders should discuss record-retention guidelines with the church’s attorney.

Responding Swiftly and Sensibly

Realizing that young people may seek counsel when wrestling with life issues, ministries should take time to understand the legal and ethical issues involved in ministering to youth in crisis. Churches are full of caring, empathetic adults who could make an eternal impact on hurting or lost individuals. With the help of your church’s attorney, develop pastoral counseling guidelines for youth workers that can help you address and manage those risks.

Laura J. Brown is a writer and communications specialist with Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company. For free resources from one of the nation’s leading insurers of churches and related ministries, visit BrotherhoodMutual.com.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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