Ethics and Legal Issues in Counseling: Duty to Warn and Tarasoff

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Duty to Warn and Tarasoff

In this paper, I will discuss California’s law that stems from the Tarasoff case. Then, I will discuss how I would resolve ethical dilemmas about duty to warn. At the end of the paper, I will explain how the video in the learning resources contributed to my learning the concepts of confidentiality.

California Law Stemming From the Tarasoff Case

California was the first state to adopt duty to warn guidelines due to the Tarasoff case. The counselor is responsible to take reasonable precautions by warning or protecting a victim when a client threatens to physically harm them (Richards &Richards, 2005). California has struck a balance for counselors by ensuring that counselors would not face civil liability when breaking confidentiality to protect a victim. Weinstock & Leong & Silva (2001) declares, “California uses this exception to protect counselors by allowing them to testify against their client in a criminal trial” (p.2). California set a precedent for other states to follow when developing their duty to warn statutes.

With the Tarasoff ruling came some flexibility with how the counselor applied the duty to warn guidelines. The counselor could warn the victim directly or their relatives if they have contact information to reach them. They could also choose to notify the police (Bersoff, 2014). The problem is that this statute is very vague on what constitutes reasonable under the law.

How I would resolve Duty to Warn dilemmas in California

I would first make sure that I covered duty to warn and limits to confidentiality during the informed consent process. The ACA reminds us of the importance of continually going over confidentiality procedures with clients throughout the counseling process (ACA, 2014). I would utilize the rational decision-making model to help me work through the ethical dilemma logically. I would use this model to ask myself, ‘In this situation, what would be considered the reasonable duty of care expected of me legally?”. However, California has another statute about the duty to protect. Bersoff (2014) acknowledges that the counselor has met their legal obligations when they warn the victim and notify law enforcement (Bersoff, 2014). Noting that statute, I would need to follow those guidelines strictly in order to avoid legal and civil liability. If I continued seeing the client, I would emphasize why I had to break confidentiality and strive to regain their trust. If that is not possible, then I would give them a referral for another counselor. We always have to put our personal feelings aside and do what is in the best interests of the client.

How The Media Helped Me Understand Confidentiality

The video assigned gave me valuable insight on the importance of informed consent. It gave me more insight on how informed consent and confidentiality works together. I always thought of them as 2 separate entities, but they really work together in the counseling process. The video also helped me to reflect thoughtfully on how easy it can be to accidentally break confidentiality so caution is necessary. I also realize that throughout this counseling program I will have to constantly maintain awareness and continue to reflect on the meaning of confidentiality. It goes deeper than merely stating HIPAA requires it, but requires constant vigilance to make sure that we are doing the best we can to follow all confidentiality and duty to warn guidelines. It was very helpful for me to see a faculty member in the video who has been working in the counseling field  for years and can relate to the ethical dilemmas that we will continue to face in our professional careers. Her experience and the way she shared her experiences in the video made it easier for me to get a better picture of how confidentiality fits within the counseling field.

In conclusion, this week I got to reflect on confidentiality and the implications of the Tarasoff case. I had the opportunity to envision how I would resolve a duty to warn ethical dilemma, and explain what I learned this week.


N.A. (2014). Code of Ethics. Retrieved from:

Bersoff, D. (2014). Protecting victims of violent patients while protecting confidentiality. Retrieved from: Walden Library.

Laureate Education, Inc. (Executive Producer). (2012). Clinical mental health counseling: Confidentiality. [Video]. Baltimore, MD: Author.

Richards, R. & Richards, M. (2005). A tale of 2 states. Retrieved from:

Weinstock, R. & Leong, G., & Silia, J. (2001). Potential erosion of psychotherapist-patient privilege beyond California: Dangers of “Criminalizing” Tarasoff. Retrieved from: Walden Library.



Cite this page: Danielle Bosley, "Ethics and Legal Issues in Counseling: Duty to Warn and Tarasoff," in, July 11, 2017, (accessed September 30, 2022).