When you’ve grown up in foster care and you return to the system as a parent, it often seems like the court knows your entire mental health history. Because your current therapist also reports to the court about your progress, therapy can wind up feeling neither private nor safe.
Sonja Jacobsen, a lawyer for parents in Washington State, explains how to make therapy safer.
Q: Why is therapy important for parents when kids are in foster care?
A: When a parent or child is struggling, seeking out counseling can often help. Your therapist can also help you cope with the experience of foster care.
Having a good relationship with your therapist is also very important because judges put so much stock in what therapists say, sometimes more than anyone else in the case. It’s important to find a therapist you trust, who supports you, and who sees your strengths.
If you’re not comfortable with your therapist, your lawyer can help you find a new therapist and argue in court that it’s important for your progress.
Q: How do we know if it’s safe to open up in therapy?
A: When family courts try to get as much information from therapists as they can, that can make parents feel like they can’t share anything safely. Then therapy’s just a waste of time.
There isn’t a perfect solution, but one thing you can do is work with your lawyer to limit how much the court can know. When parents begin therapy, they’re asked to sign a release. Lots of parents feel like they have to sign the release even if it says that the court can know everything, because they don’t want to look non-compliant. But your lawyer can argue that limiting what the court knows is important if therapy is going to work.
Your lawyer can help draft a release that allows the court to know just basic information, like diagnosis, prognosis, participation and progress. If you’ve already signed a release you’re not comfortable with, your lawyer can help you change that.
Parents should also ask their therapist directly what she will report to court or to child protective services. Will she report a relapse? Will she report depression? It’s a therapist’s job to help you know exactly what to expect. You can also ask the therapist to share with you what she plans to share in court beforehand so you’re prepared. If you’re not sure if you can share something with your therapist safely, ask your lawyer how to get help without getting in trouble.
Lastly, you may want to ask your therapist early on what she will tell the court if you are doing well. As much as you want to keep some things private, you also want a therapist who will speak up for you.