Dear Dr. Jones: Ethical Decision-Making Example #2: Truth or Consequences
JULY 26, 2017
BY: KEVIN JONES, PH.D.
Welcome back, ethics enthusiasts! Mentoring maniacs! Problem-solving pros!
I am delighted you have returned for Round 3 in this series on ethical decision-making in youth mentoring programs. In the off chance that you missed the near-viral(ish) first and second posts, you can find them here and here.
Post #1 introduced an innovative framework for mentoring professionals, programs, volunteers, and others to address challenging ethical dilemmas in practice. The second installment tackled a real-life reader-submitted ethical dilemma that I analyzed and discussed using the framework as a guide.
So what’s behind door #3?
Nope, it’s not a new car. But it is another formidable ethical dilemma straight from the case files of an actual youth mentoring program. Here it is:
Lindsey, a 17-year-old high school student, volunteers to be a mentor in a Head Start program. She wants to pursue a career in education. Her parents are divorced and she lives with her mom. She has done well academically and socially. She has volunteered in the past and loves being around children. Callie is a 4-year-old Head Start student who is very reserved. She is having trouble making friends at preschool. She could benefit from a mentor. She lives with her parents and 3-year-old brother. Her parents fight a lot and have split up several times. The Head Start Program Manager interviews Lindsey and decides she would be an excellent mentor for Callie. At the interview, the Program Manager gives Lindsey basic information about Callie’s behavior in the classroom, mentioning some conflict in the home but not providing specific details about the family.
Callie and Lindsey meet in the Head Start classroom and hit it off right away. They have fun playing together. The Program Manager arranges a home visit for Lindsey to meet Callie’s parents. At the visit, Lindsey meets with Callie’s mom while Callie’s dad is at work. They have a nice visit and decide the mentorship will be good for Callie. During the visit, however, Lindsey notices a picture of Callie’s mom and dad and recognizes Callie’s dad as Ryan, the man her mom was dating 6 months ago. Lindsey’s mom wanted to marry Ryan until she found out that he was already married. Lindsey enjoyed spending time with Ryan until he hurt her mom. She is still angry with Ryan.
The question is should Lindsey be allowed to continue to mentor Callie knowing the history between their parents? Should it even be an issue since the mentoring will take place in the Head Start classroom?
This type of dilemma is common in the mentoring world…sensitive information is discovered and someone has to decide: “Do I tell someone?” “If so, who?” “Is not disclosing information dishonest or deceptive?” “Whose interests are served by disclosing or not disclosing this information?” Certainly a tricky situation. Let’s see what we can figure out with a little help from the framework.
Before we dive into the discussion, I want to remind you that a diagram of the ethical principles and a description of the decision-making stages are available in the first blog post here.
I also want to suggest, as I did last time, slowing down and using the framework as a tool to resist the urge to jump to solutions. In workshops and presentations, I have had participants arrive at unexpected conclusions using the framework because there were principles or perspectives they hadn’t considered at first. I have also had participants have their initial gut-feelings confirmed by the decision-making process. Either way, whether the results of the process are surprising or expected, people report feeling much more confident about their decisions when they have used a structured, comprehensive, and collaborative approach to get there. This is one of those times when my social worker self emerges to say, “Trust the process!”
Stage 1: Principles
Now let’s get to the first step: determining which ethical principles are relevant in this case. Upon review, some of the principles that stand out to me are conflict of interests, honesty and full-disclosure, confidentiality, and self-determination. You may see others—which is great, and illustrates why a team approach is so valuable in this process!
Conflict of interest: Lindsey has a relationship with Callie's father, Ryan, who was previously dating Lindsey's mother. Lindsey’s anger and other negative feelings toward Ryan could compromise her ability to work well with Callie. In short, there is a conflict of interests present—not one related to profit or material gains, but rather Lindsey’s personal interest in the parents’ relationship history and dynamics versus her wish to be a good mentor for Callie.
Honesty and full-disclosure: Honesty means telling the truth, but does it always require full-disclosure when sensitive information could be hurtful to someone? In this situation, the Head Start Manager has information about Ryan’s relationship with Lindsey’s mother that may influence her decision about whether or not to proceed with Lindsey as Callie’s mentor. Is the Manager obligated to share this information with Callie’s parents or with Lindsey’s parents? Honesty in this case may mean sharing truthful information as necessary to fulfill the program’s obligations to the children and families involved.
Confidentiality and privacy: Confidentiality is related to honesty, but confidentiality focuses on the nondisclosure of sensitive information. Lindsey knows a lot about Callie's parents, and she knows Callie's father dated her own mother—should this information be kept confidential? If Callie’s father was dating other people while he was (or wasn’t) separated from his wife, is it ethical for the mentoring program to directly or indirectly reveal this information? Where is the line between full-disclosure and confidentiality?
Self-determination: Self-determination is the ability to make important decisions for oneself. Lindsey is a young person entering adulthood, so should she be given the opportunity to decide if she can handle the challenges inherent in this situation? And what about Callie’s parents: should they have the right to decide who their child’s mentor is and make a decision that’s best for their family? This is a great time to emphasize that sound decision-making relies on having as much information as possible about the situation at hand. What questions could the Head Start Manager or others ask to learn more about this situation without posing additional risks to confidentiality or privacy? Who might be able to provide additional insight or information that could be useful in making a well-informed decision?
Stage 2: Perspectives
Lindsey: Lindsey is a volunteer mentor who wants to help Callie be successful. Lindsey is in a very difficult position due to her positive relationship with Callie, her knowledge of Ryan’s relationship with her mom, her own feelings toward Ryan, and the possibility that Callie’s mom does not know about Ryan’s other relationships.
Callie: Callie is four years old and has been identified as a good candidate for the mentoring program. She has met and connected well with Lindsey. Would there potentially be harm done by ending their relationship now? Is there greater potential for harm (or good) if the relationship is allowed to flourish? What are the possible consequences for Callie if her Ryan’s relationship with Lindsey’s mother is revealed?
Callie's mother: Callie’s mother wants a mentor for her daughter and believes Lindsey would be a good match. She is in the difficult situation of being unaware of Lindsey’s connection with her husband, Ryan, who apparently had an extra-marital romantic relationship with Lindsey’s mom. If the relationship between Lindsey and Callie continues, it is possible that she will discover the truth eventually. If the mentoring program decides to end the relationship, what should they tell Callie’s mother about the reason for termination?
Ryan: Ryan is unaware that Callie was matched with Lindsey in the mentoring program. It is probably fortunate that he was not at home when the visit occurred, but what should he be told now? Is the mentoring program obligated to protect information about what appears to be an extra-marital affair? Of course Callie’s mother may inform Ryan that Callie has been matched with a nice 17 year-old student named Lindsey, but he may find out another way. What is the best way for the program to address Ryan and his secret?
Head Start Manager: The program manager arranged the mentoring relationship between Callie and Lindsey, and while she was previously aware of some problems at Callie's house, she is now burdened with the information of the relationship between Ryan and Lindsey’s mother. She must decide what is most beneficial for Callie while protecting Lindsey, the rights of the parents, and the integrity of the program.
Lindsey's mother: Lindsey’s mother was in a relationship with Ryan until discovering that he was married. If Lindsey’s relationship with Callie continues, the situation could create more emotional pain for Lindsey’s mother, which very well could affect Lindsey, and possibly Lindsey’s relationship with Callie, as well.
Stage 3: Priorities
Since Callie is enrolled in the Head Start program and is the intended beneficiary of the mentoring relationship, it makes good sense to begin with Callie’s interests and well-being as a starting point for priorities. What is best for Callie in this situation?
Two facts from child development research may help here. First, parental conflict is harmful for children. There is a real chance that allowing Lindsey to continue mentoring Callie would introduce significant stress and potential conflict into Callie’s parents’ relationship. This is unfortunate, since Lindsey and Callie are blameless and both stand to lose a potentially positive relationship experience. Second, the mentoring literature strongly suggests that positive parental involvement is important for successful mentoring relationships. What are the chances that the involvement of Callie’s parents will be positive if Lindsey is the mentor for their child? Again, the risks seem to outweigh the potential benefits in this case, particularly since Callie could be matched with a different mentor who would not introduce either of these risks.
A decision to find Callie a new mentor would place priority on addressing the conflict of interests present in the situation as well as protecting the privacy of Callie’s parents and the confidentiality of information that could cause significant harm to Callie’s family, who are the primary customers or clients of the program. This choice sacrifices the ethical principles of honesty and full-disclosure with regard to Callie’s parents as well as self-determination for Lindsey. Under the circumstances, the program cannot share with Callie’s parents the true reason they are finding a new mentor for Callie. Lindsey, for better or worse, would be relieved of the responsibility of deciding whether she can handle this sensitive situation in order to continue as Callie’s mentor.
Even without prioritizing Lindsey’s self-determination, the program can still prioritize her well-being, especially since she is not to blame yet stands to lose her relationship with Callie after she already lost an important relationship with Callie’s father. She is a young person herself, and the mentoring program may want to take extra care with her under these circumstances, providing some emotional support and guidance as well as an opportunity to become a mentor for another child if she wishes.
Just for the sake of illustration…
What if we prioritized differently?
It is possible that the Head Start Manager could prioritize self-determination and honesty instead of focusing on privacy and conflict of interests. The Manager could allow Lindsey to remain on as mentor for Callie if she wished, and answer truthfully any questions Callie’s parents might have about how and why Lindsey was chosen as Callie’s mentor. The Manager could be honest without providing “full-disclosure” about the information she has about Ryan’s relationship with Lindsey’s mother.
It is also possible that Callie’s mother knows about her husband’s past relationships, which may (or may not) have occurred during the periods when they had “split up.” The Head Start Manager may decide to pay less attention to the hypothetical situations related to adult relationships and possible indiscretions, and prioritize what she knows could be a positive and meaningful relationship experience for Callie and Lindsey in the Head Start classroom.
Although this scenario includes some of the risks described earlier (e.g. parental conflict), it is still grounded in a number of important ethical principles identified in the first stage. So, if one way forward is not “more ethical” than another, on what can we base our ultimate decisions? Stage four, considering the possible outcomes of the options before us, helps clarify how one choice compares to others in terms of its risks and potential benefits.
Stage 4: Possible Outcomes
As we consider the possible positive and negative consequences of various options, I will reiterate, and demonstrate, the value of using “If…then…” statements and considering “pros and cons” along the way. For example, in this case, it is reasonable to believe that:
- If Lindsey is not allowed to continue as Callie’s mentor, then:
- Callie and Lindsey will likely both be sad about losing their new friend
- Lindsey will be relieved of the option, as well as the responsibility, of dealing with a difficult dual relationship with Ryan, avoiding a conflict of interests on Lindsey’s part
- The information about Ryan’s prior relationship with Lindsey’s mother and Lindsey’s family will not be revealed—possibly avoiding additional conflict in Callie’s family
- Callie and Lindsey could both be rematched, with the possibility that the new relationships could be as positive as their current relationship, or less so
- The program would not have to decide whether (or to whom) to reveal the information about the relationship between Lindsey’s mother and Ryan
- If Lindsey is allowed to decide whether to continue as Callie’s mentor, then:
- Lindsey may decide to continue as Callie’s mentor and navigate the difficult situation with Callie’s parents
- Lindsey may decide not to continue as Callie’s mentor, which may disappoint Callie
- Callie may get to continue her positive relationship with Lindsey
- The information about Ryan’s relationship with Lindsey’s mother may be revealed, possibly causing additional conflict in the family
- The program would have to decide whether and to whom to reveal the information about the relationship between Lindsey’s mother and Ryan
Are there other potential options that are consistent with the ethical principles in the diagram? Absolutely! And it is HIGHLY recommended that the decision-making team talk through all of those potential options together, so that the deliberation is as thorough and comprehensive as possible. In this dilemma, the well-being of two young people and their families are at stake. It is worth the time and effort to do due diligence and to feel confident that the choice that is ultimately made is the best one available under the circumstances.
Think back to when you initially read the ethical dilemma above. What were your first thoughts and impressions? What did your gut instincts tell you? And now, after some analysis, what do you think you would decide? While I am emphatic about this process not yielding a “correct” solution, but rather a menu of ethically-sound options, I do think this case includes serious risks to a family that are important for the program to address. Callie’s parents are allegedly prone to conflict, and it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which the risk of creating more conflict is worth the price. While it is unfortunate that Lindsey was matched with Ryan’s daughter, of all people, there does seem to be a path forward that minimizes the potential harm and provides an opportunity for Lindsey and Callie to benefit from participation in the mentoring program if they can be successfully rematched.
At the beginning of this post, I encouraged you to take it slow and try not to jump to conclusions. However, taking it slow should definitely not be confused with ignoring your professional experience and wisdom. This framework is not at all intended to replace your instincts and your intuition…think of it rather as a way to examine your own theories, challenge your own assumptions, and to systematically include the worthwhile perspectives of colleagues and others in your decision-making process. The framework requires you to slow down and consider many different perspectives, explore options (including those you may not have considered initially), and think thoroughly about the potential consequences of the choices being made. In the end, I hope the framework supplements and enhances the substantial skill and knowledge that you all, as mentoring professionals, bring to your work.
And now, once again, it’s YOUR turn. Please click here to share your story or stories of ethical dilemmas—big and small—from the world of youth mentoring. Maybe it’s an issue of race and culture that your colleagues are grappling with. Or perhaps there’s an agency policy that seems to conflict with the needs of a child in your program. Whatever it is, please share it so others may learn from your experience. Confidentiality is a high priority and your identity, as well as the identities of everyone involved, will be protected. Please click here to submit!
As always, your thoughts about the case examples and the framework are welcomed and encouraged in the comments section below. If you’re interested in a training for your organization on ethics and ethical decision-making, please make a request through the NMRC portal.
Finally, a heartfelt “Thank You” to everyone who has read and contributed to this series so far. Let’s keep the conversation going!
Until next time!