Duty to Warn

Duty to warn refers to the responsibility of a counselor or therapist to breach confidentiality if a client or other identifiable person is in clear or imminent danger. In situations where there is clear evidence of danger to the client or other persons, the counselor must determine the degree of seriousness of the threat and notify the person in danger and others who are in a position to protect that person from harm (Herlihy & Sheeley, 1988; Pate, 1992).

For example, if a student tells the school counselor that another student is planning to commit suicide, the counselor is obliged to investigate and should not leave the indicated student alone until the parents or guardians have arrived (Davis & Ritchie, 1993).

The legal precedent of this concept was set in the case of Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California (1976). In this case, according to Keith-Spiegel and Koocher (1985), a University of California student named Prosenjit Poddar was seeing a psychologist at the university's student health center because a young woman named Tatiana Tarasoff had spurned his affections. The psychologist, reasoning that Poddar was dangerous because of his pathological attachment to Tarasoff and because he intended to purchase a gun, notified the police both verbally and in writing. The police questioned Poddar and found him to be rational; they made Poddar promise to stay away from Tarasoff. Two months later, however, Poddar killed Tarasoff. When Tarasoff's parents attempted to sue the University of California, health center staff members, and the police, the courts dismissed the case.

Keith-Spiegel and Koocher (1985, p. 62), describe what happened next:

"The Tarasoff family appealed to the Supreme Court of California, asserting that the defendants had a duty to warn Ms. Tarasoff or her family of the danger and that they should have persisted to ensure [Poddar's] confinement. In a 1974 ruling, the court held that the therapists indeed did have a duty to warn Ms. Tarasoff. When the defendants and several amici curiae [literally, "friends of the court," or entities who file a brief with the court even though they are not parties to the suit] petitioned for a rehearing, the court took the unusual step of granting one. In their second ruling (Tarasoff, 1976), the court released the police from liability without explanation and more broadly formulated the duty of therapists, imposing a duty to use reasonable care to protect third parties against dangers posed by patients." (p. 62)

McWhinney, Haskins-Herkenham, and Hare (1992) note the effects of this case:

"The case of Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California (1976) imposed an affirmative duty on therapists to warn a potential victim of intended harm by the client, stating that the right to confidentiality ends when the public peril begins. This legal decision sets an affirmative duty precedent in cases of harm to others that is generally accepted within the social work profession." (p. 3)

According to Davis and Ritchie (1993), this case indicates that "notifying police is not sufficient action to protect the counselor from a lawsuit if the client's threat is carried out" (p. 27).

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