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Don't Tell: Confidentiality and the Volunteer Situation

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The Samaritans are a UK-based charity that provides confidential emotional support to those who are depressed or suicidal. Volunteers provide this service through 24-hour crisis-lines and e-mail response centers. One of the keystones of The Samaritans philosophy is that their service is absolutely confidential. Their belief is that clients will be more likely to seek Samaritan services and freely express their state of mind if they feel that their conversation is protected from disclosure. In October 2003, a volunteer for the UK branch of The Samaritans, encountered a difficulty in keeping to this promise of confidentiality.

One of his callers confessed to a murder of a young girl.

He reported this to police, who then, with the cooperation of The Samaritans, tapped further conversations between the volunteer and his caller and eventually arrested James Ford for the murder of Amanda Champion.

The Samaritans then terminated the volunteer, citing his breach of the Samaritan confidentiality policy.

As you might expect, when this became public knowledge it ignited a bit of a debate in the UK over whether asking volunteers to remain silent about such matters is a good idea. After all, allowing confessed murderers to run around free doesn’t seem like the best service to the public.

While this is clearly a worst-case scenario, this situation prompted us to make a few comments about client confidentiality, volunteers, organizational responsibility, and the implications of the debate.