I’m sure by now you’ve heard about the confession of a murder in an online support group. While I won’t go into the details of this sort of thing here (you can read them for yourself), it is interesting to note how much media attention this story has received. The story is an intriguing one — an active member in an online alcohol-recovery support group (Moderation Management) by the name of Larry Froistad drunkenly confesses to the alleged murder of his daughter years earlier, in her death in a house fire. The police at the time determined it was an accidental death. However, three of the group’s members decide to go to the police with this information and the suspected murderer is soon arrested. The psychologist who helps run the support group list is Frederick Rotgers, Psy.D., Director of the Program for Addictions Consultation and Treatment (PACT) of the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies. He was not one of the people who reported Mr. Froistad’s confession to the police. This event raises a number of troubling questions about ethics, morality, and the law. It also nicely illustrates how the media will grab onto a story about anything relating to the Internet and blow it out of proportion because it involves the Internet. Let’s examine some of these questions and what to make of them…
Some of the first questions asked might be, Why would someone confess to such an act if he didn’t do it? What was he thinking (or not thinking)? Was this confession influenced at all by the perceived anonymity of being online? This last point seems unlikely, given that Mr. Froistad used his real name on the mailing list and on his Web site. Maybe it was simply the case of a man who had to too much to drink one night deciding to confess his soul? Or was it the case of a man who had too much to drink one night deciding to play “games” with other list members…? Often, when a person is inebriated, they will say and do things that they would never do when sober. This includes saying things which they don’t really mean, and even lie. Why would he lie about such an important matter? Why does anyone lie? In this case, the reasons could range from an attention-getting ploy, to overwhelming feelings of guilt making him feel as though he had murdered his daughter in the fire, because he survived the fire and his daughter did not. We may never know.
One item of note that caught some list members’ attention was that Mr. Froistad used the word murder rather than killed or was responsible for his daughter’s death. Word-choice, in a word-oriented medium such as a mailing list, is very important. Some say the reason some list members were so disturbed by Froistad’s message was because of his use of the word murder. Yet, again, we cannot know if a person is exaggerating when inebriated or not. For instance, we wouldn’t think twice about not believing someone who was drunk and claimed they had been one of the people responsible for JFK’s assassination. When drunk, people are more likely to do and say things which have little basis in reality. Think of how many times you or someone you know has taken the keys to a car to drive home after a night of drinking, knowing they are not equipped to drive home. When asked, the person so often lies about their state of inebriation and says, “Oh no, I’m fine to drive home.” It’s a lie influenced by the alcoholic intake and a complex underlying set of social, personal, and environmental factors not easily or readily understood.
If I come up to you, and you know me extremely well from hundreds of personal interactions with me previously, would you believe whatever I said to you in a drunken state which went against everything you knew about me previously? It is unlikely you would do so. This support group was a close-knit group of people, many of whom knew one another as much or as well as you could ever know another person in this life. Just because their social and interpersonal interactions occurred only online doesn’t decrease the strength or potential strength of their relationships. In fact, some research has shown that social interactions and relationships can often be stronger online, because of the disinhibitory effect of online communication. The professional therapist who knew Mr. Froistad decided that, based upon his own personal observations and interactions with Mr. Froistad in the past, what he was saying was highly unlikely to be true. So Rotgers took a conservative plan of action — he e-mailed Larry privately, “urging him to seek the help of a face-to-face therapist who (in my mind) would be better able (by virtue of having all of the nonverbal cues from Larry that were missing on the listserv) to more adequately evaluate the situation, and if necessary (as actually happened, it turned out) urge Larry to turn himself in, if there was convincing evidence in that person’s mind that Larry had, in fact, ‘murdered’ his daughter.”
Now some other professionals are second-guessing Rotger’s judgment and playing Monday-morning quarterback. That’s just untenable. They weren’t there and they didn’t know the circumstances of the relationship or the confession, outside of third-hand news reports (which tend to sensationalize and gloss over important facts). I have been on mailing lists where the indignant professionals on the list have said they called the therapist’s professional association to file an ethics complaint. But what exactly is the ethical violation? Let’s try and find out…
Tarasoff is the case most therapists cite when in a situation where (a) a professional therapeutic relationship exists and (b) the therapist becomes aware of a likely danger to some third party because of the client’s disclosure. “Privilege ends where public peril begins.” While some states have adopted this as law, others have not. It is, however, considered standard practice within certain professions and failure to act could result in professional disciplinary action brought against the therapist. The question is, did Rotgers or another therapist on the list have what is traditionally defined as a professional therapeutic relationship with Mr. Froistad, and was Rotgers aware that Froistad’s behavior was going to harm another? Well, in the latter question, the harm has already been done. There is nothing in the psychologists’ ethical principles which codify reporting criminal behavior, except:
5.05 Disclosures. (a) Psychologists disclose confidential information without the consent of the individual only as mandated by law, or where permitted by law for a valid purpose, such as (1) to provide needed professional services to the patient or the individual or organizational client, (2) to obtain appropriate professional consultations, (3) to protect the patient or client or others from harm, or (4) to obtain payment for services, in which instance disclosure is limited to the minimum that is necessary to achieve the purpose.
So, one might argue there is a potential ethical obligation that, if one becomes aware of an illegal activity which was committed in the past (such as a murder, which has no statute of limitations), to report such an activity (at least under psychologists’ professional ethical codes). But this is not at all clear-cut. In this case, nobody was aware of Froistad actually committing the crime. All they were aware of was that, in a drunken state, he said he did. The police report filed at the time showed the fire was an accident. A report from a knowledgable source close to this incident reported to me that,
[Upon checking with numerous attorneys, t]here is no obligation to report knowledge of a crime. However, there is an obligation to assist in any police investigation, and certainly to not obstruct the progress of any such investigation. In [this] case, evidence of the same level of validity as the confession (i.e. an email from Larry — that was subsequently borne out by press reports) indicated that there was no investigation ongoing and that the fire had been ruled accidental at the time (arson had already been ruled out). So [not only] was there [no] legal obligation to report him, there was no investigation to obstruct!
Without knowing that a crime has been committed, it becomes a question of personal ethics and personal morality as to what one does in a questionable situation. There is no law or professional ethics which can guide a person in a nebulous situation like this.
It is also clear from the mailing list itself that no professional relationship exists between Rotgers and Mr. Froistad, nor Rotgers and anyone else on the list. Yes, Rotgers helps maintain the list, but he doesn’t appear to have what is traditionally defined as a professional relationship with the members of the list (from direct, personal observations of postings to the list). Rotgers doesn’t “lead” the group, but he does participate from time to time, although nearly always as a factual resource, rarely as an advisor or therapist. His main role on the list is as a technical and clerical resource, not as a professional.
Something important happened here, and we musn’t miss it with all this talk about who’s to blame or who were the horrible people for doing nothing. Remember, Mr. Froistad was more than just another name in cyberspace — he is a real, breathing person with whom many on the list were close friends. Think about how difficult it would be to turn in any close friend of yours after such a confession and you see the serious dilemma the list members were facing.
From now on, individuals participating in online virtual support groups must be more careful about what they say. There seems to be little or no outcry about the privacy trampled in reporting this story, and other list members’ confidentiality (some of their words were printed verbatim in the original New York Times article which “broke” this story). That is the real shame of what happened — media coming into a private group and using the group’s internal dynamic for the media’s own needs. Privacy being lost to report a story about a difficult ethical and moral dilemma that, for most people on the list, had no “right” answer.
I’m not aware of a state law which exists today which protects the privacy of members in a support group, whether it be real or virtual. Such laws currently exist to protect attorneys and their clients, doctors and their patients, and therapists and their clients. But no similar type of protection exists for support groups today. This means anything you say in what you thought was an open and caring, supportive, close-knit community may be used against you in a court of law in the future. Your fellow support group members, whether virtual or real, may one day be your accusers. How can people still “open up” and share their deepest, darkest, and scariest secrets (some of which, heaven forbid, might be illegal!) with one another with this potential threat looming over their heads?
I sincerely hope this doesn’t have a chilling effect on other virtual support groups and their members’ ability to share with one another openly and honestly on their lists. You never know what may be used against you, even in what you thought was a safe refuge and place to share online. Keep that in mind in your virtual travels, no matter what kind of mailing list you subscribe to.