Most psychologists misinformed on ‘duty to warn’

By John Thomas
January 15, 2014

duty-to-warn-usa-mapNo more than a third of psychologists know their legal obligations when clients threaten violence, an expert told a packed workshop at the annual Ohio Psychological Association Convention in October.

“The other two-thirds don’t know what the hell they’re talking about,” said Bob Stinson, Psy.D., J.D., who led the workshop on Psychology and the Law.

Stinson drew on statistics compiled in 2008 and published in Professional Psychology: Research and Practice that reported 75 percent of psychologists are misinformed about their legal duties when confronted with clients who are potentially dangerous to others. The same survey said that 90 percent of that same sample of psychologists described themselves as confident in the accuracy of their legal knowledge in this area.

The forensic psychologist and attorney at law said the biggest misconception is that every state has adopted the so-called Tarasoff, the 1976 California duty-to-warn court ruling.

The Ohio Legislature, Stinson said, decided that it wanted something stronger than a “duty to warn” and made Ohio a “duty-to-protect” state. He noted that laws encompassing the legal obligations psychologists have in dealing with threat-making clients differ among states and he was discussing only what Ohio mandates.

Part of the confusion over duty-to-protect state laws, including Ohio’s, is that they are poorly written, Stinson said. Ohio’s law is not much more than a page long, but appears to be a single sentence.

He said that as a general rule in duty-to-protect states, a psychologist may be held liable in a civil action for failing to predict, warn or take precautions to provide protection from the violent behaviors of a client. The duty to protect requires action if the psychologist believes that the client has the intent and ability to carry out the threat.

Psychologists also have a duty to protect when an immediate family member or an individual who personally knows the client reports that the client has made threats against clearly identified individuals or buildings.

Psychologists can earn immunity from civil actions by having the individual making threats hospitalized; developing a treatment plan to eliminate the possibility that the individual will carry out the threat or reporting the threat to law enforcement officials. Psychologists also need to explain why they choose a particular approach instead of another in order to fulfill the immunity requirement.

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