Child Protection Law: Do Psychologists Have to Report Past Abuse?

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Reader’s Question

How confidential are therapy sessions? To what extent are psychologists obligated to report something? If something happened really far in the past do they still have to report it if I am over 18 and do not want to?

Psychologist’s Reply

The short answer is: it depends.

Generally speaking, the information provided by a client during a session with a psychologist is legally confidential. However, there are important exceptions to this general rule of confidentiality. These exceptions include criminal or delinquency proceedings, serious danger to self and/or others, grave disability, and instances of suspected child and/or elder neglect and/or abuse. All psychologists are mandated reporters of child abuse and neglect. As such, psychologists are legally required to report any information concerning child abuse and neglect to the appropriate authorities.

Mandated reporting of child abuse and neglect laws vary from state to state and country to country. In the state in which I practice, Colorado, the law states that any psychologist (or other mandated reporter) “who has reasonable cause to know or suspect that a child has been subjected to abuse or neglect or who has observed the child being subjected to circumstances or conditions that would reasonably result in abuse or neglect shall immediately upon receiving such information report or cause a report to be made of such fact to the county department or local law enforcement agency.” Failure to report such information is a crime. However, the reporting requirement does not apply if the psychologist (or other mandated reporter) “who is otherwise required to report does not:

  1. learn of the suspected abuse or neglect until after the alleged victim of the suspected abuse or neglect is eighteen years of age or older; and
  2. have reasonable cause to know or suspect that the perpetrator of the suspected abuse or neglect:
    1. has subjected any other child currently under eighteen years of age to abuse or neglect or to circumstances or conditions that would likely result in abuse or neglect; or
    2. is currently in a position of trust with regard to any child currently under eighteen years of age.”

As defined by Colorado law, “a person in a ‘position of trust’ includes, but is not limited to, any person who is a parent or acting in the place of a parent, and charged with any of a parent’s rights, duties, or responsibilities concerning a child, including a guardian or someone otherwise responsible for the general supervision of a child’s welfare, or a person who is charged with any duty or responsibility for the health, education, welfare, or supervision of a child, including foster care, child care, family care, or institutional care, either independently or through another, no matter how brief, at the time of an unlawful act.”

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Basically what that means is that if you are over the age of 18 and disclose past abuse or neglect, a psychologist practicing in the state of Colorado does not have a duty to report the information as a mandated reporter unless the perpetrator who abused or neglected you is abusing or neglecting or has abused or neglected any other child currently under the age of 18, or is in a “position of trust” with any child under the age of 18 (as defined above; examples include a parent/guardian, a teacher, a coach, a camp counselor, a childcare worker, etc.).

However, as stated previously, mandated reporting of child abuse and neglect laws vary from state to state and country to country. Any psychologist with whom you meet should provide you with a written notice of privacy practices, which should include clear information regarding mandatory reporting guidelines. The psychologist should also explain these exceptions to confidentiality to you verbally at the first session, before you disclose any information.

If you are located in the United States, the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Child Welfare Information Gateway website provides a summary of state laws related to mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect.

It is important to remember that the goal of mandated reporting of child abuse and neglect laws is to protect children and keep them safe. If a person abused you when you were a child and is abusing or has the potential to abuse other children, that person should be held accountable for his/her behavior and be reported to the authorities in order to protect other children and keep them safe. Although it may be difficult, please do not let the potential of a report dissuade you from seeking treatment for yourself. A skilled psychologist will be able to guide you through the process should a report need to be made and help you work through these issues.

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