Alaska v. R. H. Wetherhorn

683 P.2d 269
Brief Filed: 10/83
Court: Court of Appeals of Alaska
Year of Decision: 1984

Read the full-text amicus brief (PDF, 611KB)

Issue

Whether admissions of child abuse made during either voluntarily-obtained or court-ordered therapy are admissible in a criminal trial or protected by the state's privileged communication statutes and the right against self-incrimination under the state and/or federal constitution

Index Topics

Child Abuse/Child Witnesses (child abuse reporting laws); Confidentiality/Psychotherapist-Patient Privilege; Duty to Warn/Protect

Facts

A father (R.H.) who allegedly engaged in sexual conduct with one of his daughters voluntarily sought treatment from Dr. Wetherhorn, a clinical psychologist. After R.H.'s daughter ran away from home, the abuse came to the attention of a counselor and was subsequently reported in accord with the state-mandated child abuse reporting law. A state court declared the daughter "a child in need of assistance" and ordered the family to continue psychotherapy with Dr. Wetherhorn. The state then brought criminal charges against R.H. and subpoenaed Dr. Wetherhorn for testimony (before the grand jury) as to any admissions of abuse that R.H. had made during therapy. Dr. Wetherhorn refused on the basis of the psychotherapist-patient privilege. A state court upheld his refusal and Alaska appealed.

APA's Position

APA submitted a brief and gave oral argument on behalf of Dr. Wetherhorn arguing that: (1) statements made during voluntarily-obtained therapy are protected by the state's privileged communication statutes; and (2) statements made during court-compelled psychotherapy are also protected by the privilege against self-incrimination established under the federal constitution and the Alaska constitution.

Results

The Alaska Court of Appeals held that the psychotherapist-patient privilege protected Dr. Wetherhorn from testifying before the grand jury. The court further held that the mandatory reporting of child abuse by mental health professionals was intended solely for use in civil child protection proceedings and not for use in criminal proceedings. To use them in criminal proceedings would raise potential conflicts with the right to privacy and the right against compelled self incrimination as protected by the Alaskan state constitution. Additionally, their use in a criminal proceeding would place mental health professionals in an adversarial role with their clients and could potentially chill alleged abusers' willingness to seek therapy or submit to psychological or psychiatric evaluations.