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Commentary :: Human Rights
Do you Want to Confess?
01 Apr 2007
Alcohol/Drug Recovery Participants,
Not Always Informed—about the
“Limits of Confidentiality” at
Court Ordered Recovery Meetings
Judges each year order thousands of people to attend Self-help Alcohol and Drug Recovery Meetings: At meetings—court ordered attendees among others, are encouraged to talk freely and repeatedly about their addiction. But how freely—should they speak? Alarmingly many participants are not informed or don’t fully understand the legal “limits of confidentiality and privilege” at their recovery meeting. Consequently a person attending an alcohol or drug recovery, might “mistakenly believe” what they said at a meeting—can’t leave the room when the recovery meeting is over and can’t be used in a legal proceeding. Not always true: See 2nd Circuit's ruling Cox v. Miller, 01-2515.)

Contrary to what some Self-help recovery participants might believe, since the—U.S. Supreme Court decision in Cox v. Miller, it would appear that participants in non-profit “Self-help programs” can reveal to outsiders what they hear in recovery group meetings: and in certain situations, be forced to testify in legal proceedings. Unlicensed “non-professionals operate Self-help recovery group meetings.” Court decisions have not supported the idea that “the right to privacy” is so broad it protects statements made by individuals at Self-help recovery meetings. With the huge expansion of Self-help programs, why haven’t all states—required “non-profit Self-help Recovery Programs” to fully explain verbally and in writing, to every participant, before a recovery meeting begins, a meetings’ legal “limits of confidentiality and privilege?”

Revealing Information to a “Sponsor” / When to Consult an Attorney?

In some individual cases, a 12 Steps participant may believe it prudent to consult an attorney before disclosing confidential information to their “Sponsor” if legal issues might be involved. Depending on the controlling “jurisdiction”, certain statements made to a “Sponsor” may be neither confidential nor privileged. The attorney can determine whether the “sponsor” will have a “legal duty” to keep confidential the recovery participant’s information.” And importantly, determine if the law requires the “sponsor” to report to police the participant’s “confidential information.” The recovery participant might want an attorney to determine what could happen if their “sponsor” is subsequently subpoenaed to reveal their private information. The Patriot Act made “not reporting knowledge” of certain federal and State crimes, a federal offense. Subsequently members of the public and businesses have been quick to report to police, information or behavior they think—shows an indication that a crime has have been committed.

Are you Legally Informed?
A person in recovery, who is “not fully informed” about the “Limitations of Confidentiality and Privilege” at their rehab group meeting, might mistakenly disclose damaging legal or other information “in the erroneous belief” their information must be kept confidential by group participants. Or mistakenly trust “private information” to another participant. Subject to applicable law and the controlling legal jurisdiction, statements made by a person at a recovery meeting might be admissible in a civil or criminal court proceeding and/or be used by police in an asset forfeiture investigation—to seize someone’s property.

Public Defenders don’t help much, when they fail to provide their clients on Probation, information explaining the “limits of confidentiality and privilege” at recovery meetings—courts order their clients to attend. Physicians who refer patients to established self-help recovery groups and don’t fully explain the “limitations of confidentiality and privilege” at meetings could be subject to disciplinary action and civil liability depending on the controlling jurisdiction.

Do you want to Confess?
It is possible that a 12 Stepper that plans to “Confess” the exact nature of their Wrongs to another person or make Amends to someone they have harmed might believe it prudent that they first consult an attorney if their planned confession or amends could involve civil or criminal matters. An attorney may help a 12 Steps participant decide if his or her confession e.g., to another 12 Steps program participant, a Clergy or other human being could potentially precipitate legal action. Example: states have different laws what constitutes confidential and privileged religious communications. Some state laws require Clergy to report to police certain crimes they learn about from people that they provide religious consultation.

Some jurisdictions have passed laws to prevent “licensed professionals” that operate addiction recovery meetings from “revealing” in legal proceedings, statements made by a participant at a recovery meeting. Exceptions: drug and alcohol counselors, depending on the controlling state or federal jurisdiction can operate with different “exceptions” to client-privilege. Importantly these laws may not prevent rehab-participants from repeating or testifying about what they heard. In some cases it may be prudent for a person in drug/alcohol rehab to ask their “counselor” to clarify in writing what the counselor’s “limitations of confidentiality and privilege” are during a “one on one counseling meeting” and at a “group rehab meeting.” Find out if the law binds group- participants from disclosing to others what a person said in a recovery meeting.

Should 12-Steps recovery programs eliminate “Steps” that encourage participants to tell another human being the exact nature of their Wrongs or to make Amends to person(s) they harmed? In some individual cases, these Steps might have the potential of creating legal issues for a recovery-participant. Poor persons in 12 Steps Self-help programs may not be able to afford to consult an attorney, even if they wanted to, before “telling” another human-being the exact nature of their wrongs or making “amends” to a person they harmed.

This work is in the public domain
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