Value Conflicts in Counseling

A graduate student has reportedly been dismissed from a counseling program at Eastern Michigan University for not agreeing to go through a program to “remediate” her conventionally religious beliefs and values regarding same-sex behavior. Onenewsnow is reporting that Julea Ward had a value conflict with a client’s same-sex behavior, and that she did not believe she should affirm it. Her supervisor had her make a referral to another counselor who did not have the same value conflict, and Ward did so. Ward was then required to participate in a program that would address/remediate her Christian belief system. When she refused, she was dismissed from the counseling program. The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) has filed suit.

Several questions arise from this case. One question is, When are referrals appropriate? One of the more common reasons for making a referral is when a counselor does not feel he or she is competent to provide services. Competence is determined by education, training, and supervised clinical experience, and mental health professionals are required to practice within the scope of their competence. So a referral is considered appropriate when a counselor who has no training in working with older adults, for example, refers an elderly client to someone who has that competence. But competence is not the only reason for referrals.

Are value conflicts a legitimate reason to consider a referral? Let’s back up a moment and ask this: How are value conflicts generally handled in counseling? Counseling ethics textbooks recognize that value conflicts are inevitable in mental health practice. A politically liberal counselor will meet with a client with strong conservative views; a gay counselor will meet with an Evangelical Christian client; a Catholic counselor will meet with a woman deciding on abortion; an atheist will meet with a devout Muslim. The question is, At what point does a counselor make a referral when a value conflict arises? The major mental health organization’s ethics codes each tend to stress respect for differences – these are often identified as differences due to age, gender, sexual orientation, religion, socioeconomic status, and so on. Showing respect for these differences can mean different things in counseling, but it at least means being aware of how these factors impact the client and their presenting concern. It often also mean taking these factors into consideration in assessment, case conceptualization, and treatment planning.

Generally speaking, ethics textbooks tend to look at whether a value conflict between a counselor and a client is significant enough to have a negative impact on their work together. If so, a referral is thought to be appropriate. According to the complaint filed by the ADF, the professor who chaired the hearing on Ward actually taught a course in which a textbook was assigned that indicates the appropriateness of making a referral when value conflicts arise – specifically citing the instance of value conflicts regarding homosexual behavior.

It will be interesting to watch this case, as it has significant implications for how counselors and other mental health professionals are to work with clients when value conflicts arise. As it stands, it certainly runs contrary to how ethics has been discussed in textbooks and practiced in the field.

Note: I do not ususally post at this site material that is also posted at the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity, but this story is one of those exceptions.

9 thoughts on “Value Conflicts in Counseling

  1. Thanks for keeping us informed on this. Above all, we as therapists must be professionals with integrity. That means that we behave according to our moral core. We must know what we believe, and have the freedom to practice within that belief system. We must do no harm to our client, and if that means refer him to another credentialed professional, then that is admirable and right. A therapist must be able to practice her own boundaries of who she will see, and who she will not see. This is an act of integrity. Asking a therapist to do otherwise is asking her to violate her own conscious. If she can not operate from her own conscious, then she has lost herself entirely and is no good at all for a client.
    I perceive that the faculty involved with the decision to dismiss her from the counseling program are acting manipulatively. It sounds like they have used threats and coersion to bully her from her convictions. And these are pscyhology facutly? Professors and supervisors? What they are doing is the height of narcissistic manipulation and intimidation.

  2. You write:

    According to the complaint filed by the ADF, the professor who chaired the hearing on Ward actually taught a course in which a textbook was assigned that indicates the appropriateness of making a referral when value conflicts arise – specifically citing the instance of value conflicts regarding homosexual behavior.

    This is inaccurate. The text at issue, which is excerpted in Ward’s complaint, does not endorse referrals in the case of value conflicts over homosexuality. I address this misconception in my post on the case.

  3. Thanks for stopping by, Angus. You have a unique web site, and your dissertation topic sounds interesting.

    I think what I wrote was accurate: The complaint filed by the ADF does make that allegation:

    “Ms. Ward was taught during courses she took from EMU’s counseling department that referring clients is an accepted practice within the counseling profession, including, but not limited to, those circumstances where there is a clash between a counselor’s values and a client’s values/goals. In fact, [the Defendant], who chaired the formal review committee that ousted Ms. Ward from the program, assigned a book in a course Ms. Ward was required to take that stated that referrals are appropriate where value conflicts arise. This book expressly states that referrals may be appropriate where a counselor who has strong convictions that homosexual behavior is immoral is asked by a client to provide assistance with his or her homosexual behavior/relationship.”

    The way I read the material from the book is that the chapter authors recognize that counseling is value-laden; it’s inescapable. They acknowledge that not everyone agrees with this understanding. They then note that sometimes value conflicts will arise. They also acknowledge that sometimes it’s appropriate to make a referral. The authors also hope that such a referral will be rare. They then go on to discuss several topics that often reflect value conflicts, such as abortion, LGB issues, and so on.

  4. I was briefly discussing this subject with the professor on my campus that teaches the Psychology of Ethics course. She is most assuredly of one viewpoint. She has summed up her position in her own blog (posted below). If I’m reading her correctly, she describes a situation in which a parent calls ahead and asks the counselor about their position on the subject of homosexuality. She seems to indicate that not answering directly in favor of luring the client into an affirming session is the preferred method of interaction. It’s slightly troubling. This is a clear example of the bias that exists against christians in professional counseling program and even in undergraduate programs. The only way to overcome this situation is to rally together and support one another. We can’t give up. We must persist.

  5. Your gloss on the book is a good one, Mark, and it doesn’t support Ward’s lawyers’ contentions.

    I read your original post as vouching for those contentions, but I may have read too much into it. I’ll amend my own post accordingly.

  6. God’s Word is law. That being said, in His eyes all sin is repugnant and all have sinned. Why do people go to counseling? To get help. Will Julea turn away all the people she disagrees with; the cheating spouse, the disobedient child? Maybe she is at the wrong school for the counseling she wishes to pursue. Ann

    • Ann,

      Your premise is fundamentally flawed regarding people seeking help and comparing it to other situations such as a cheating spouse or disobedient child. Do you REALLY think that counselors affirm and encouragage a spouse to continue cheating or a child to remain disobedient? In essence, your comparison suggests this very thing. There is a vast difference between a homosexual looking for remediation treatment and a homosexual seeking couples therapy with their same sex partner. Can you see the difference?


  7. Thanks for your thoughts about the topic Mark!

    What I get from all of this is consult, consult, consult! Whether you are in the student’s shoes or the administrative position consultation is important when making decisions about sensitive topics like this one. It seems that the student consulted a supervisor, but I wonder if the University did any consulting before they made their decision.

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