The APA has updated and republished their “Record Keeping Guidelines” (2007 American Psychologist, 62:9, 993-1004). In this they discuss 13 separate guides (e.g., content of records, responsibility for records, confidentiality of records, retention of records, disposition of records, etc.).
How long should psychologists keep their records? This guideline suggests the full record is kept for a minimum of 7 years after the last service contact (for adult clients). Why should a psychologist destroy records? Some records might contain out-of-date assessment data that is either no longer valid or superseded by better tools. Some records might include information that was based on a very limited context and could be used against the client (e.g., 15 year old is seen for criminal activity but this information comes out at the age of 50…).
But consider the other side of destroying records. I once saw a client at a counseling center who was returning after 12 years for more counseling. This person had been in counseling for 3 years with a previous counselor who was no longer with the agency. Rules had allowed the disposal of his record. When I told him I could not review his prior record (he had asked that I do so) he was surprised and hurt that we did not keep his record. He felt that we had violated his trust in some way and that the good work that he had done was minimized. He felt the agency didn’t care about him and should have handled his history with more kindness.
So, how would you feel to go to your old therapist and find that your records no longer exist?