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Handling Kids' Mental Health Records When a Marriage Fails

In Illinois and elsewhere, separation or divorce can be hard on a family, especially on children. Often, parents will find a counselor to help their child through the difficult time -- a trained professional who can work with the child to resolve trust and anger issues, to sort through the push and pull that especially accompanies custody disputes. The basis of therapy is confidentiality: What happens in therapy stays in therapy. That confidentiality helps to establish trust, and trust between the counselor and the client is essential if the therapy is to be effective.

For kids, though, the rules of confidentiality are different. Because they are minors, their parents or guardians (including guardians ad litem) may have access to counseling records. There are risks associated with disclosure, and parents should be careful about how the records are used.

The "golden rule" is the best interests of the child. Parents are allowed access to their children's health and mental health records in order to keep them up to date on the child's progress and to make sure the treatment is appropriate. Parents say, too, that looking at their children's records helps them understand their own role in their child's treatment.

The problem is that the information in the records can be used just as easily against the child's interests. Parents in a custody fight will pore over the notes for ammunition against one another. And they risk finding out things about their own relationships with the kids that will cause even more problems. They risk destroying the trust between child and therapist as well as the trust between parent and child.

There are laws that govern the kinds of disclosures therapists can make. For their own part, parents should find other ways to check on progress and to learn more about their own role in their child's treatment. Face-to-face meetings, phone calls, emails -- there are a number of alternatives that make it possible for the therapist to tailor the information to the specific request and to limit access to damaging information. These alternatives are less onerous to the therapist and less offensive to the child.

Custody issues can be fraught with drama, and children should be allowed to work through it with a trusted professional. It's a delicate balance, guided in part by professional training, laws and regulations and, of course, the best interests of the child.

Resource: Wisbar.org "Children's Mental Health Records: Risks Versus Benefits of Disclosure to Parents or Other Parties" 11/3/10

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