As a small child, she killed a kitten. She was never allowed to forget it. Through her whole life, family and relatives criticized her, often reminding her of the kitten. Now an adult, she agonized to her therapist that she is a terrible person.

"I explained to her that the age when that happened is a stage of emotional development called 'pre-moral.' No child that age has any sense of right or wrong," says Christopher J. McCullough, a psychotherapist and certified marriage and family counselor, in Cary, N.C. "She felt hugely relieved."

A New Jersey man, most of whose life had been hindered by near-disabling shyness, sought the help of a Philadelphia counselor. Reassured that he could overcome the problem, he began a day-by-day schedule of behavior modification, supported by regular talks with his counselor.

Six weeks later, the man had progressed nicely. But during a brief conversation, the counselor detected a sudden turn inward. Further talk revealed that the man had been trying to work up the courage to break his next appointment. "He was going on a hayride and he felt guilty about canceling," the counselor says with a laugh. He told the man to forget about the appointment, go on the hayride, and consider his problem solved.

In both of these cases, the consultations were conducted entirely over telephone lines; patients and therapists never met face to face. Some mental-health experts wonder whether therapies such as the tele-counseling and on-line computerized counseling services, now advertised in many cities nationwide, cross a line professionally into unresearched methods that may prove unethical -- and even detrimental to patients.

At the very least, as 800- and 900- telephone directories are cluttered with telephone dating, telephone erotica, telephone confessions and telephone tax tips, so-called dial-a-shrink services are providing one more twist on reaching out and touching someone."What makes it okay for me to do this educationally and professionally and ethically is that I am not doing psychotherapy," says Christopher McCullough in a telephone interview from his North Carolina office, where almost a year ago he started a tele-counseling business called Fee Advice.

Specializing in "anxiety disorders," McCullough previously had treated agoraphobics over the phone, their intense fear of leaving home the rationale for the remote technique. The idea of expanding that to people with other problems occurred to McCullough almost as a joke. One of his patients mentioned he'd sold glib advice at a school fundraiser, like Lucy in the "Peanuts" comic strip, for a nickel, and was amazed at how seriously people took it.

McCullough was hesitant at first. "I was afraid it might be playing into a kind of quick-fix, fast-food mentality," he says. "But, at the same time, it seems to be that somewhere between reading Ann Landers and going in to see a psychotherapist, there ought to be some availability for the average person who just has an ordinary life problem."For $25 (prepaid along with a signed disclaimer), a caller gets 15 minutes of consultation with McCullough or one of his associates, "personal advisers" as he calls them, all with graduate degrees in counseling or education. About half of his on-file clients call from time to time; a quarter of them request a series of consultations over three or four weeks; others are one-time callers. He estimates Fee Advice has handled 100 callers in the past six months.

Aware that the treatment of patients exclusively over the phone is controversial and that the American Psychological Association (APA) "frowns on it," McCullough takes pains to clarify that Fee Advice isn't psychotherapy. He refers to tele-counseling callers as clients rather than patients. He emphasizes that for a reasonable price, he provides advice grounded in sound psychological principles for people who might not otherwise seek help.

"This is pretty much limited to relationship questions -- with the boss, the girlfriend, the children or whatever," he says, "and not just for people in deep trouble. ... Just because you can't get John to take out the garbage doesn't mean you have to go see a shrink."Thomas Nagy worries that telephone therapy could prove to be a wrong number for some patients. "To give advice over the phone when you haven't met the person is like a physician giving antacids for a stomach ache when he hasn't checked the bladder first," says Nagy, a Palo Alto, Calif., psychologist who chaired the APA's task force to revise its ethical principles. "It has risks. The task is making a diagnosis without a hell of a lot of nonverbal information that you would miss over the phone."

To make his point, Nagy recounts the time he was talking long-distance with a patient he'd been treating for years for a multiple-personality disorder. The conversation went without incident until one of the alternate personalities interrupted and said, "Tom, don't you realize he has tears running down his face right now?" Says Nagy, "Obviously it was a cue I couldn't see over the phone."

Other questions about tele-counseling remain unanswered, says Nagy: How does a consumer know if the disembodied voice on the phone belongs to someone qualified? What becomes of the intimacy of the therapist-patient relationship? The undivided attention of face-to-face sessions? Confidentiality?

Nagy calls it slippery ground. "There's not much research on this," he says, explaining that the APA's official position on tele-counseling isn't clear-cut. The ethics code only indirectly addresses it when outlining principles of a professional therapist-patient relationship. "There aren't too many guidelines. It is very easy to take the postion that the Federal Trade Commission may take, which is that it's a buyer's market and if they want therapy over the phone, let them have it. But there are ethical principles involved that concern the quality of the care and the consumer welfare."Legitimate concerns, of course. But some mental health professionals believe remote therapies may be ideal for some types of patients. "Any kind of therapy with a reputable therapist is better than no therapy at all," says Muriel Goldfarb.

A psychiatric nurse, Goldfarb and her partner, psychologist Daniel Rubinstein, six years ago started a correspondence therapy service in Manhattan, called Counseling By Mail. Without advertising, they now average 20 to 30 mailed consultations (written or cassette tape) a week. For $40, in response to a three-page letter describing his problem and feelings, a patient gets back a three-page therapeutic letter.

"There are people who are sick or crippled or paranoid, all sorts of problems people have, and they languish," says Goldfarb. "Primarily, those who use this service are people who are ashamed of their problem ... So this is not a question of which is better. This is a question of are you going {to get therapy} or not?"

Other proponents attribute criticism of tele-counseling to growing pains as the profession moves into the electronic age. "You can't stop technology," says Joseph Waldman, the owner and director of Inter-act Group Telecounseling Service in Philadelphia. "It is unstoppable like an ocean wave; you either ride the wave or get wet."In the five years since Waldman started the 24-hour-a-day service "with $83 and a phone line," the college dropout who once majored in music has built a large clientele that ranges from agoraphobics in Philadelphia to alcoholics in Alaska. His staff now numbers five. The fee for a 30-minute consultation is $20.

Two years ago, Inter-act almost folded under the pressure of investigations by the APA and the state licensing board, initiated when a Pennsylvania psychologist complained about the service. "When I called Inter-act to find out their credentials, I found the owner and most of the counselors were not licensed in any profession," says psychologist Franklin Helsinger, director of the Summit Psychological Center, in Feasterville, Pa. "They had a radio commercial that advertised that people who might have psychological problems, including phobias, should call them and they would be treated over the telephone ... Is it a proper way to treat people with psychological problem?"

Waldman agrees all psychological problems are not appropriately treated that way. "About a third of the calls that come in are inappropriate for us and we immediately refer them elsewhere," he says. "We treat only things like stress-related phobia problems, people who are elderly or disabled and find it hard to get to a counselor."

As for charges that he and some of his staff are unqualified, Waldman points out that anyone can "hang out a shingle" as a counselor in Pennsylvania. No license is required. And, besides, since he's not an APA member, he isn't bound by its standards.

"But I've never misrepresented myself," he says. "People would call and say 'Are you a psychologist?' And I'd say, 'No, I'm a bum.' Actually I'm a businessman. Ideally a psychiatrist should answer the phone on all intake calls. But look at other services. If you call suicide hot line, you won't get a psychologist; you get a person who has taken a six-week training course.

"We're in a twilight zone suspended between hot line and office visit. We have counselors, we have psychologists, we even have a psychiatrist on staff now ... So what am I being accused of? Am I doing anything wrong? We're in a society where you can get phone sex with a credit card, but you can't talk to a psychologist over the phone?"

Waldman argues that the psychological community might have better things to investigate. "There's an astrology ad I see all the time that answers questions about career, love and money, advice from 'a real psychic' over the phone. There are a lot of primal scream therapists; I've heard of past-life therapists. Yes, we give people advice over the phone. But we're not selling snake oil."