Association News On-Line

Social workers given equal protection under law

Licensed social workers have been recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court as professionals whose discussions with clients are protected from disclosure in federal trials. The 7 -2 decision, which cited the importance of "confidence and trust" in psychotherapy, is a victory for many individual liberty and social work organizations, including AASSWB. The association argued in an Amicus Curiae ("Friend of the Court") brief that the presumption of privacy is an integral element of effective treatment and public protection.

The brief was cited by Justice John Paul Stevens in the majority opinion, which stated that "If the privilege were rejected, confidential conversations between psychotherapists and their patients surely would be chilled, particularly when it is obvious that the circumstances that give rise to the need for treatment will probably result in litigation.

The ruling, handed down on June 13, 1996, was written in response to Jaffee v. Redmond, a civil case brought against a Chicago-area police officer who shot and killed a suspect, Ricky Allen, 31. The officer, May Lou Redmond, underwent therapy with a licensed social worker after the shooting. During the trial held to settle the civil suit filed by the family of the dead man, Redmond and her social worker refused to reveal the substance of her sessions. The judge in that trial instructed jurors that they could assume the withheld information would be unfavorable to Redmond. Subsequently, damages were awarded to the family.

On appeal, the decision was overturned, but the family of Allen protested to the Supreme Court, arguing that no rules of privilege for social workers existed in the federal courts system. The high court responded by agreeing with the appeals court, and definitively establishing the existence of confidential privilege.

"We're very pleased with the opinion," said Dale Atkinson, lawyer with AASSWB's legal counsel and one of the authors of the association's brief. "I think it recognizes the importance and need for social work services."

The brief and the AASSWB publication, Social Work Laws and Board Regulations, were cited in the majority opinion in regard to the rise of social work and social work regulation in the past 25 years.

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