ETHICS SCENARIO: RECOGNIZING AND OVERCOMING BIASES
Shannon meets with her Linda Delhaven, the director of the clinic, for her weekly supervision.
Linda: Hello, Shannon! How are things going?
Shannon: Good, thanks, Linda. My caseload feels pretty manageable and I feel like I’m getting a handle on the documentation.
Linda: Well, it’s not easy, but you do seem to be taking hold well. What about your individual cases? Anything going on there?
Linda: Is it a particular case, or type of case?
Shannon: I guess it’s both.
Linda: Well, Shannon, it’s okay if you’re having trouble. You don’t have to be perfect, and the fact is that you’re a new therapist and difficult cases are how we learn. In fact, I’ve been doing this for a long time and I still learn every day from my clients.
Shannon: It’s just a little awkward. I feel like this shouldn’t bother me, but it does.
Linda: Just tell me about it.
Shannon: It’s the two women. The lesbian couple?
Linda: Andy and Jennifer?
Shannon: See, this is why I didn’t want to bring it up. It’s such a small town and everybody knows them…
Linda: That’s true, but we’re not talking about them. We’re talking about your approach to helping them. So tell me what the trouble is.
Shannon: I know I shouldn’t feel this way. But I just am having trouble with them. I mean – not with them. It’s just that they’re the only lesbians I’ve ever met! And I can be nonjudgmental and all that, but I can’t forget that I really don’t believe in gay marriage.
Linda: We talked about those biases before. We all have them. So it’s not that you shouldn’t feel this way. The main thing is to be aware of those biases, and to not allow them to dictate your actions. Have you been doing that in sessions?
Shannon: I think so. I mean, I don’t know if I always am, but there was a session where I really was aware of them. I really wanted to say something, but I didn’t…
Cuts to the session Shannon is using as an example.
Shannon: Hello, Jennifer! Hello, Andy. How are you both today?
Jennifer: Fine, thanks.
Andy: Yeah, fine. Just splendid.
Shannon: Andy, I get the feeling there’s something specific we’re going to talk about today. You seem pretty upset.
Jennifer: She’s been impossible for three days.
Andy: Impossible? Try angry. I hate this town.
Jennifer: You don’t hate this town. You don’t even know this town.
Andy: Exactly. They don’t want to get to know me in this town.
Shannon: What’s going on?
Jennifer: It’s my cousin’s wedding.
Andy: To which the black lesbian is not invited.
Shannon: Can I ask that you slow down a bit, Andy? I’d like to help, but I need the full story before I can do that.
Andy: You tell her.
Jennifer: So the other day we got the invite to my cousin Kristen’s wedding.
Andy: You got the invite.
Andy: Go ahead.
Jennifer: Anyway, yes, I got the invite to my cousin Kristen’s wedding. I was all excited at first, because I haven’t seen Kristen in a long time and I didn’t even know she was seeing someone. But when I opened it, the invite was addressed just to me, and there wasn’t a plus-one line to fill in on the RSVP. At first I didn’t think anything of it, but then I got to wondering. So I called my Aunt Margaret—Kristen’s mother—and I asked her about it. And Aunt Margaret told me – indirectly, of course – that it would be better if Andy didn’t come.
Jennifer: You know how people talk here in Minnesota. Nobody says what they really mean. So I just asked her directly –which is a big no-no around here, but I did it anyways. I said, “Aunt Margaret, are you saying that you would rather I did not bring my wife of three years to my favorite cousin’s wedding?” She wanted to hem and haw some more, but she finally said that was what she meant. I was so angry.
Andy: Not angry enough.
Shannon: What does that mean, Andy?
Andy: It means she’s still planning to go.
Shannon: Is that true, Jennifer? Are you going to go to the wedding?
Jennifer: I don’t know. I just don’t see how I can’t go. Kristen and I grew up together. And I’ll never hear the end of it if I don’t go.
Andy: But I’m your wife.
Jennifer: I know that!
Shannon: Andy, what are you thinking right now?
Andy: It feels like Jennifer isn’t taking my side. If it were my family, I would refuse to go if Jennifer weren’t invited.
Shannon: Jennifer, what about you? It doesn’t seem like you’re feeling completely solid in what you’re going to do about the wedding.
Jennifer: I’m not. I want Andy to come with me. I know Kristen loves me, but she and Aunt Margaret feel really strongly about their faith. And I get that.
Andy: Religion is no excuse for bigotry! And it’s no excuse for excluding someone from a family event. I’m new in town and they’re excluding me. What an incredibly unloving this to do.
Back to Shannon’s meeting with Linda.
Linda: So how did you handle this situation?
Shannon: Well, what I wanted to say to Andy was, “Hey, we’re talking about people’s deeply held religious beliefs. You need to respect that!” But then I thought, well, Andy’s not religious. And from her perspective, these people really aren’t being very loving, and it’s totally natural for her to get angry about being excluded. So I was able to remind myself that Andy and Jennifer are my clients, not Jennifer’s cousin and her mother. Even if I share more in common with them in terms of faith, my job is to help Andy and Jennifer process their feelings and decide how to handle the situation.
Linda: Good work. See how that works? You don’t have to give up your own beliefs to help your clients. You just have to know where the lines are, and keep your training in mind. You’re right: the couple is your client. It’s their relationship you want to help with, not other relationships, and you’re here to help them figure out what they want to do, not to tell them what they should do.
Refer to the media piece from this unit’s Studies, Ethics Scenario: Recognizing and Overcoming Biases, linked in Resources.
Andy is not welcome at the wedding of Jennifer’s religious cousin. Shannon helps the couple talk through their feelings.
For this discussion’s initial post, address the following:
It there an ethical dilemma in discussing religious beliefs? How does Shannon handle her own biases?
What steps need to be taken when a client’s beliefs or values run contrary to the therapist’s?
What does the AAMFT Code of Ethics say about recognizing and overcoming biases?
Justify your positions with support from the unit readings, the ethical code, and other relevant resources. Cite your references in current APA style and format.
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