Last time, I wrote about an experience I’d had running into an old client and what I took away from that experience. I often see my clients out and about but having a face-to-face encounter with a former client just doesn’t happen very often. So, I was quite surprised when, the same week, I again experienced a “blast from the past”. I opened the mail to find a wedding invitation. Yes! I love weddings! However, this invitation came with a twist. It was from a former client who I had seen several years ago. He had completed counseling and went on to achieve a great deal of personal and professional success. Now he was getting married and he had invited me to attend.
I am very up front with my clients about boundaries and how I handle public encounters. I do this primarily because being in a small town, we are bound to run across each other. I want them to be at ease and know I will not approach them. I must say, my clients generally respect and appreciate those boundaries. So the invitation caught me off guard. My initial reaction was to say no but then I thought maybe yes. On one hand, this was a former client. We are not friends. On the other hand, this was a client with whom I had worked closely and built a level of trust and respect. If I said yes to the invitation, would I be blurring the professional/personal boundary and maybe putting the client in an awkward position? If I said no, was I running the risk of offending my former client? What to do? I heard the voice of my mentor: “consult, consult, consult.”
I consulted with a couple of trusted colleagues. After some discussion, the verdict was “not sure”. What we wrestled with was the idea of benefit to the client. Our next stop was the ACA Code of Ethics. Section A.5.c. states “counselor–client nonprofessional relationships with clients, former clients, their romantic partners, or their family members should be avoided, except when the interaction is potentially beneficial to the client.” What exactly did “potentially beneficial” mean for this client? Section A.5.d. provided further guidance: “the counselor must document in case records, prior to the interaction (when feasible), the rationale for such an interaction, the potential benefit, and anticipated consequences for the client or former client and other individuals significantly involved with the client or former client.” So, with pen in hand, I sat down and did just that. In the end, I decided not to attend. The risks to my former client outweighed the benefits. I called him with my regrets. He completely understood and said he had not fully considered what my being there might mean for him. I congratulated him and wished him well. At that moment, I was thankful for all the ethics workshops I’ve sat through and for colleagues who tell me what they really think.
This encounter was a great reminder that ethical issues can and do arise even with former clients. On the surface, a situation may seem to be relatively straightforward. But add the counselor-client dimension into the mix and the situation takes on a whole new meaning. The solutions are not always “yes-or-no” or “black-or-white”. Often, they are “maybe’s” and shades of gray. If you find yourself wondering “yes or no”, it’s a pretty safe bet there is an ethical question looming. And you never know when one of those situations will arise. Who would have thought all this could come from a pretty little wedding invitation?
Dawn Ferrara is a counselor in private practice and clinical manager for a community-based children’s mental health program. Her areas of interest include disaster mental health counseling, lifestyle management, and counselor wellness.