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Ethical and Legal Dimensions of MFT Practice

We all start our careers with a code of ethics. Some things feel wrong: lying about credentials, engaging in exploitative relationships. But a gut sense of what feels wrong is seldom enough to handle all the complexities that arise in professional life. Professional ethics is not so much about following a personal code as following the accepted code of the profession. The most widely accepted ethical code for the marriage and family therapy professions is the one developed by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), though it as at each state’s discretion whether to adopt it or develop a unique set of expectations.

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A person doesn’t necessarily have to have the intent of exploiting another person in order to break the established code of the profession. They have simply set up a situation where a conflict can arise or a client can be harmed. This isn’t always easy to foresee. It can be difficult to determine what is potentially exploitative. Is it a therapeutic relationship with a business associate? With a casual friend? With someone you see around town? The MFT profession errs on the side of a caution when it comes to avoiding potentially harmful dual relationships and possible breaches of confidentiality.

We often think of ethics as putting our responsibilities above our own self interests. But professional ethics also has to do with balancing the needs of competing groups and individuals. As an MFT, you treat both individuals and family systems. There is also a responsibility to greater society (as there is in other professions). At what point, then, do you break confidentiality? When do you take some action that may cause pain to a client or a colleague?

The AAMFT is one of your best resources for matters of legalities and ethics.

Issues can also arise when professional ethics or legalities conflict with religious training or some other part of your personal belief system. The law determines, for example, what issues a minor can expect confidentiality on, and at what age.

MFT Ethics and Legal Resources

Fortunately, there are resources. You begin exploring the complexities of MFT practice when you're still a student. Accredited marriage and family therapy programs include at least one course in professional studies. A big part of the course is ethics and legalities.

Training in ethics continues during the post-graduate period. While states set expectations differently, discussion of ethical issues is generally an expected, and often required, part of post-graduate training. Your clinical supervisor is generally not your employer. Many states require that supervision be provided by someone who has been trained to offer guidance. Often the training is provided by the AAMFT.

Marriage and family therapy programs include at least one course in professional studies.

The AAMFT is one of your best resources for matters of legalities and ethics. Local divisions provide continuing education classes. You don’t necessarily have to be a member to attend. If you join the organization, though, you’ll have additional resources, like access to an online library of articles about legal and ethical issues. Some of the issues covered under ethics are billing, use of nontraditional therapy techniques, and management of dual relationships in rural areas. In addition to print resources, the AAMFT will provide you with ethics consultation when you need it – you just have to send an email to the advisory committee. You can also call to schedule a free legal consultation.

Getting to Know Your State Board

It is important to focus on state-level requirements. States have different laws and rules. They may determine, for example, that a health professional has an obligation to report incompetency on the part of another professional. Some states have a jurisprudence test or test of laws and rules; others have you sign that you have read the pertinent statutes when you apply for licensing. Most states require continuing education for license renewal. Often there is a requirement to take an ethics course.

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