Law Note: The Social Worker and Protection of Privacy

by: Carolyn I. Polowy, JD and Emily Goldberg Kraft, JD
Published: February 1999 © NASW
Pages: 21, including appendix


Clients receiving psychotherapy risk social stigma should their "private" mental health information be disclosed. Disclosures may affect many aspects of a client's life including the ability to obtain gainful employment or run for public office. Harm may be inflicted through the very fact of disclosure-that is, simply through other people's coming to know facts or feelings that a client and psychotherapist expected to be kept confidential.

"The [client] may feel embarrassed, vulnerable, or otherwise violated, as well as feel betrayed by the [psychotherapist], and personal or other relationships may suffer." Access to medical and mental health records is currently "safeguarded" under a patchwork of case law, statutes, regulations, federal and state constitutional law, and personal injury tort law. No overriding federal rule of law directly controls or protects the privacy of all persons in the United States, although some state constitutions guarantee privacy for citizens in a particular state. An invasion of privacy in the exposure of confidential mental health treatment records may have no legal recourse.

The purpose of this paper is to provide social workers with a brief overview of the current state of privacy law and how it impacts on the provision of mental health services and treatment. With an informed understanding of the many issues affecting privacy, social workers will be able to engage in the debate taking place regarding comprehensive federal legislation as well as recognize issues within their states that require response and appropriate action to ensure that client privacy is properly protected.

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