Goals of Therapy Versus Goals of Investigation

Brent, we’ve talked a bit before about the difference between the therapeutic process and the legal process. As you said, the problem occurs when victims and therapists assume that the legal process is the same as the therapeutic one. Certain things are appropriate in the therapeutic process that are not acceptable in a legal process. Here is an example.


As you know, ABWE recently fired GRACE as its independent investigator for a number of shortcomings in the investigative process. While I have written elsewhere about flaws in GRACE’s investigative process as demonstrated by its own report on the NTM investigation, I’d like to discuss a point in the ABWE investigation. In the Philadelphia interviews of more than 20 witnesses (many of them alleged victims), GRACE housed them in the same hotel and allowed them to compare stories before the interviews. 

In the therapeutic world, group therapy is often helpful. Comparing stories can help people process what has happened to them and move forward. A therapist’s role is to help people work through their stories. Absolute factual accuracy is not the primary goal of group therapy, and the material will be kept confidential and not used to the detriment of any other person. So the fact that telling stories in a group setting may unintentionally change the fabric of the stories is not a bar to doing group therapy. 

In the world of an investigation, the goal is impartial factual accuracy. The results of an investigation may be used to discipline or terminate personnel, may be used in criminal proceedings against a person, or in litigation against the organization. Because of the high stakes, proper investigative techniques must not contaminate evidence. When there are serious allegations, independent corroborating evidence or testimony is important to help determine the truth of certain facts. Allowing people to chat with each other and compare stories destroys the independence and objectivity of this process. (GRACE’s response was that these people had previously communicated with each other on blogs and in other ways, and that the victims were not trying to work in concert or taint their stories.) The point is twofold:  comparing stories changes them unconsciously; and independent corroborating evidence must be independent.

Another area of legal/therapeutic difference is repressed/recovered memories. Of course, responsible therapists take precautions against inadvertently creating false memories. But if someone recovers a negative memory, such as of child sexual abuse, either independently or in therapy, the therapist assists the person to work through those emotions and trauma. In a way, it really doesn’t matter if the memory is true or not, because it truly affects the person. 

It is different in a legal setting. If allegations of abuse mean that someone is to lose their career or be convicted of a crime, or if an organization is to pay out large sums of money, there should be strong evidence that the abuse really happened (such as independent corroborating evidence). The same recovered memory that is taken seriously as the basis for therapy may not have sufficient support to warrant detrimental legal consequences.

Disclaimer: not official legal or psychological advice or opinion

Because of the generality of the information on this site, it may not apply to a given place, time, or set of facts. It is not intended to be legal advice, and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations