Most therapists follow the ethical guidelines for their profession. Being a licensed counselor, I follow the ACA Code of Ethics. The ACA just came out with a new code of ethics this year. I got it in the mail with my copy of Counseling Today. There was an interesting question about having a records custodian that I thought I should talk about on the site. Learn what a records custodian is and why you need one.

As unpleasant as it to think about it, sometimes a counselor in private practice could die suddenly. We need to think about this possibility and what might happen if it did. If a counselor dies or becomes disabled, what will happen to the protected health information that they keep? You don’t want to leave your loved ones in the awkward position of not knowing what to do with all your client notes and charts. I don’t think my family would even realize they couldn’t throw those records away.

The records cannot end up in the garbage. The clients who those records really belong to might need them at some point. Think about the clients who are trying to get disability and really need it. Think about leaving your clients to go to a new provider who has no idea what you’ve done. They would have to start all over. I have clients who need to continue doing certain things to remain stable even if I’m not the counselor. How would a new counselor know what those things are if I’m not around to tell them?

What is a Records Custodian?

The ACA Code of Ethics defines a records custodian as “a professional colleague who agrees to serve as the caretaker of client records for another mental health professional.” (ACA Code of Ethics, 2014) Basically, a records custodian is another counselor who is willing to keep your records if something should happen where you are disabled, incapacitated or die.

The ACA guidelines say we should appoint a records custodian “when identified as appropriate.” I think my situation and that of most private practice providers is an appropriate situation to have a records custodian. If you are working in a solo private practice, you need a records custodian. Even if you are in a group practice, you should ask a colleague you trust to be your records custodian.

Finding a Records Custodian

Finding a records custodian can be a difficult task if you have not been networking and building relationships with other private practice providers. If you find yourself without a couple obvious choices, you need to start networking and build those relationships now.

When I read the article about having a records custodian in Counseling Today, I immediately thought of two people in private practice who would be appropriate. But a while ago, I would have had to contact people who work for agencies because most of the counselors I knew weren’t in private practice. While they would be appropriate, I think it would have been more difficult for them to take custody of the records since they don’t have an office of their own. It doesn’t seem practical to take such records to their office because it is owned by the agency they work for. But it isn’t a good idea for them to have the records in their home. You really need to appoint someone in private practice because they already store their records in their office so storing yours wouldn’t be that big of a deal.

What happened that changed things for me was that I started networking with people in private practice. I had been in private practice for over a year and was feeling isolated. I wanted to connect with other professionals in my area. I have some social anxiety issues so I didn’t feel comfortable just calling people I didn’t know. Instead, I started contacting people through LinkedIn. I ended up starting a group for people in private practice. You can’t imagine how many opportunities this opened up for me. I’ve gotten offers for referrals, to join other practices and just made a lot of new friends. Plus, I have people now that I can rely on to be a records custodian.

Don’t be afraid to get to know some of your fellow professionals. Most of them are just like you. Don’t think of them as your competition. You are shorting yourself and them if you think of them as competition.  Think of them as your colleagues. As colleagues, you can help each other grow and learn.

American Counseling Association. (2014). ACA Code of Ethics. Alexandria: American Counseling Association.