Comparing ACA and AACC ethics codes: Multiple Relationships


Continuing our review of the ACA and the AACC codes for counselors, let’s take a look at how both codes address the matter of multiple or dual relationships. (See first and second posts about comparing the ACA and AACC code of ethics for counselors and mental health professionals.)

Multiple or dual relationships between counselor and client (or client’s family) are those that combine the professional relationship with one of another sort. If a counselor of a client is also that client’s pastor, that would be a multiple relationship. Other types could combine counselor and friend, counselor and business partner, counselor and employer, and increasingly possible, counselor and social media “friend.” Both codes are concerned about the formation of dual relationships because they become fertile ground for counselor judgment bias and harm to the client. Both see that once a counseling relationship has been formed, that relationship ought to be clear take priority over all others.

The ACA code of ethics prohibits outright the following dual relationships:

  1. Counselor and sexual partner: Counselors may not have sex with clients or their family members
  2. Counselors may not start counseling work with former sexual partners
  3. Counselors must wait at least 5 years before engaging in sexual activity with former clients (and even then may be prohibited)
  4. Counselors may not provide services to friends and family
  5. Counselors are prohibited from engaging in personal virtual relationships (social media) with current clients

Beyond the sexual arena, the ACA code warns counselors to avoid dual relationships or “extending the boundary” of the counselor or supervisor relationship

Counselors avoid entering into nonprofessional relationships with former clients, their romantic partners, or their family members when the interaction is potentially harmful to the client. This applies to both in-person and electronic interactions or relationships. (A.6.e)

When a counselor agrees to provide counseling services to two or more persons who have a relationship, the counselor clarifies at the outset which person or persons are clients and the nature of the relationships the counselor will have with each involved person. If it becomes apparent that the counselor may be called upon to perform potentially conflicting roles, the counselor will clarify, adjust, or withdraw from roles appropriately. (A.8)

So, notice the focus: avoid “extending the boundary” or what we used to call forming multiple relationships with current or former counselees or their family members. Document when you do so to illustrate informed consent, limiting of potential harm, and efforts made to rectify harm when it unintentionally happens

What about the AACC code?  It begins (ES1-140) with these paragraphs,

Dual relationships involve the breakdown of proper professional or ministerial boundaries. A dual relationship exists when two or more roles are mixed in a manner that can harm the counseling relationship and/or the therapeutic process. This includes counseling, as well as personal, fraternal, business, financial, or sexual and romantic relationships. Not all dual relationships are necessarily unethical—it is client exploitation that is wrong, not the dual relationship in and of itself. However, it remains the responsibility of the counselor to monitor and evaluate any potential harm to clients. (emphasis mine)

While in a counseling relationship, or when counseling relationships become imminent, or for an appropriate time after the termination of counseling, Christian counselors do not engage in dual relationships with clients. Some dual relationships are always avoided—sexual or romantic relations, and counseling close friends, family members, employees, business partners/associates or supervisees. Other dual relationships should be presumed as potentially troublesome and avoided wherever possible. (emphasis mine)

The AACC code then prohibits counseling relationships with family and close friends and warns against those “best avoided” (e.g., business associates, club members, etc.). Finally the code addresses counseling relationships within the church,

Christian counselors do not provide counseling to fellow church members with whom they have close personal, business, or shared ministry relations. Dual relationships with any other church members who are clients are potentially troublesome and best avoided, otherwise requiring justification. Pastors and church staff helpers should take all reasonable precautions to limit the adverse impact of any dual relationships. (ES-140-f)

This wording marks a change from the previous AACC code where dual relationships were more positively addressed. The old rule stated this, “Based on an absolute application that harms membership bonds in the Body of Christ, we oppose the ethical-legal view that all dual relationships are per se harmful and therefore invalid on their face.  Many dual relations are wrong and indefensible, but some dual relationships are worthwhile and defensible.”

Agreements? Disagreements? Both codes ban the ending of counseling relationships for the purpose of changing the professional relationship to different relationship, or to engage in sexual activity with a client or a member of the client’s family. The AACC codes requires 3 years before marrying a former client (assuming all other concerns raised are not an issue) whereas the ACA code requires 5 years before engaging in an intimate relationship. The ACA code as extensive concerns about the teacher/student relationship as well as the supervisor/supervisee relationship. The AACC code says little about these (though some can be inferred). The biggest difference, however, is found in the stronger language banning dual relationships in the ACA code where the AACC code warns against possible harm but leaves the door open as long as the counselor knows they have to prove no harm happened and informed consent.

 

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under AACC, christian counseling, christian psychology, counseling, counseling skills, ethics, Uncategorized

One response to “Comparing ACA and AACC ethics codes: Multiple Relationships

  1. Such a difficult subject. I remember, when I was in school, talking about the small-town, rural counselor who has no choice but to see people he already knows. As a counselor in a large church setting (I have belonged there for more than 25 years), I feel I am in a very similar situation. I currently belong to the ACA, but I am wondering if I can sustain that membership with integrity. Thank you for this VERY enlightening series of posts.

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