Family Law Blog

Was It Illegal For My High School Chaplain To Take Me To Therapy Without Telling My Parents?

teenager in therapy

This question touches on a lot of rights of adolescents under Ontario's Health and Education Laws.  It might also seem to related to Family Law.  Mostly, it is a questions of children’s rights. 

Health Care and Consent Laws

To start, in almost every situation, teenagers have the right to go to therapy without parental consent.  The work of both psychologists and psychotherapists is covered by Ontario's Health Care Consent Act, 1996 (because those are both self governing health professions).  

Under section 4 of the Health Care Consent Act, every person is presumed to be able to understand the information relevant to treatment and the consequences for making a treatment decision.   There are no age limits on what "person" means, so everyone is entitled to make their own health care decisions (including therapy decisions.)  The only exception to this is where the health care professional has reasonable ground to believe that the person does not have that understanding.   A young child, or a person with a serious mental illness or a developmental delay may not be able to have that understanding.  But, unless the health care professional believes there is a problem, any person, including a child, can consent to treatment, including psychotherapy.   Most teenagers can have the necessary understanding of what therapy involves, and what any risks of therapy might be, to be able to consent to it on their own.

It is also important to note that section 15 of the Health Care Consent Act, 1996 recognizes that a person (including a child) can have the required understanding to consent to one type of treatment even if he or she cannot understand others.

The impact of the Act is that a child can direct the treatment he or she understands, even when there are treatments the child does not understand.   Check out this page for more about children directing their own health care.   

Note that leading institutions, such as the Hospital for Sick Children ("SickKids") are very careful to respect the rights of children to direct, or participate in directing, their treatment.  Additionally, some practice areas, such as Adolescent Medicine Specialists, usually assist older children without the involvement of their parents.  So, a child getting therapy without a parents permission is not "against the law."

The Code of Ethics for Canadian Psychologists is consistent with Ontario Law.  It does caution psychologists to be careful around vulnerable groups and people who may not have capacity (such as children), especially when there are multiple people involved in the therapy or aspects of it.  But, that is not the case here.  

The Professional Standards of Practice for Registered Psychotherapists in Ontario specifically reference the Health Care Consent Act, 1996 and adopt its principals. So, the therapist did not do anything wrong either.

Family Law

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Family Law does not apply to the school chaplain because he or she is not acting as a parent, at least not on a continuous basis.  Family Law does not give parents the right to interfere with their children’s  therapy either.  Ontario's Children's Law Reform Act addresses custody rights when parents are separated. Section 18(2) of that law says the custody provisions apply to children up to the age of 18. The term custody, which will soon no longer exist under Canadian Law, includes the right to make medical decisions.  However, that law does not supersede the rights of the child under the Health Care Consent Act, 1996. Family Law applicable to separated parents has no applications when parents are not separated.  

Children’s Aid Societies sometimes get involved if a child is not getting necessary treatment, but rarely start intervention into a family over what therapy a child should be receiving.   Section 74(2) of the Child Youth and Family Services Act allow Children's Aid Societies to intervene when a child is not receiving treatment to prevent the child from suffering harm.  That section explicitly states that the Society is not able to intervene when a child has capacity to make treatment decisions under the Health Care Consent Act.  Although, there have been court cases where the Children's Aid Society has challenged whether the child has capacity.

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Education Law 

The Chaplain is not a member of any recognized self-governing profession and is either an employee of volunteer with the school board or school.  Things are little greyer there.  Since you agreed to go with the Chaplain, the school was not kidnapping you or otherwise committing a criminal offence, but it is not clear that taking you out of school is permitted by the Education Act

If the Chaplain was a teacher, or a teacher (including a principal or vice-principal) was involved in these activities, then there may be an issue of a breach of the Ontario College of Teacher’s Ethical Standards.  The duties of teachers of fairness, openness and honesty involve maintaining the trust of parents.  A teacher who did not consider those duties may be the subject of professional discipline.  

Under section 21 of the Education Act, every person between the age of 6 and 18 is required to go to school on every school day.  Under section 21(5) of the Education Act, it is the duty of parents to make sure their children do attend school.  The Education Act does provide some excuses for not attending school, one of which is because the student is "unable to attend school by reason of sickness or other unavoidable cause."   Your circumstances may or may not have met that criteria.  But, the duty of parents to make sure their children attend school probably gives them some right to have a say in whether one child  can "skip school” for any reason, including for therapy.  That neither you nor the school told them about the therapy at all might be a problem. 

Depending on which School Board is involved, there may be School Board Polices or insurance requirements that prevent a school employee or volunteer from transporting a student for a non-school related matter.  That could get any school employee or volunteer into trouble with the Board for transporting a student without proper authorization.  There might have been bigger trouble if there had been a car accident and the insurance company was able to deny coverage.   However, those would have been internal School Board issues and not necessarily legal ones involving students - unless the Board decided to fire the Chaplain. 

Under Health Law, Family Law and Education Law, your Chaplain did not do anything that was clearly illegal.  And, it may have been the right thing to do for you.  Still, it might have been better for the school to follow the legal process for helping exceptional pupils to get you the help you needed. Hiding things from parents can lead to bigger problems down the road, but that might have been something that the therapist helped with.

Children’s Rights Lawyer, John Schuman, and his colleagues have extensive experience in assisting children and parents with Education Law and Family Law issues.  We can provide legal representation or we can just provide information and advice about the process or along the way at each step.   Call us at 416-446-5847, email us, or use the contact form below to set up a consultation to set up a plan to meet your child’s needs and your budget.

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