Child Abuse Investigations

February 2008

…Therapists and counselors are generally aware of their child abuse reporting duties. But, situations can occur that may raise issues concerning the duty of a counselor or therapist to maintain confidentiality once a mandatory report is made. Suppose, for example, that a client or patient tells a counselor or therapist about conduct that requires the practitioner to report child abuse. Further suppose that the practitioner makes the child abuse report in accordance with the requirements of state law. A few days later, an investigator shows up at the practitioner’s office and wants to talk with the practitioner about the client or patient. Should the practitioner cooperate? Must the practitioner cooperate?

The answer to these questions depends upon the provisions of state law. One state’s law, for example, allows the practitioner to cooperate with investigators – but does not require cooperation. After specifying the required contents of a child abuse report, that state law says that information relevant to the incident of child abuse or neglect may be given to an investigator from an agency that is investigating the known or suspected case of child abuse or neglect. Thus, if the practitioner is treating the alleged abuser, it would generally be wise for the practitioner to refuse to cooperate with the investigator by maintaining confidentiality. Of course, the practitioner can talk with the investigator if there is a signed authorization from the patient allowing the practitioner to cooperate.

A somewhat different case is presented if the therapist or counselor is treating the victim of the alleged child abuse. Once the required report is made, the investigator, as in the example above, may seek additional information from the practitioner. In this case, the practitioner may be more willing to cooperate with the investigator and would, in the state referred to, be permitted to do so. If the law allows cooperation, the practitioner would not be required to seek written authorization. However, a good habit is to seek a written and signed authorization whenever confidential information about the patient is sought by a third party – even if the third party is an investigator from a governmental agency charged with the duty to investigate child abuse reports. Check out the law in your state regarding your right or duty to cooperate with investigators following the required report of child abuse.


Richard Leslie

"At the Intersection of Law and Psychotherapy" Richard S. Leslie is an attorney who has practiced at the intersection of law and psychotherapy for the past twenty-five years. Most recently, he was a consultant to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), where he worked with their various state divisions to develop and implement their legislative agendas. He also provided telephone consultation services to AAMFT members regarding legal and ethical issues confronting practitioners of diverse licensure nationwide. Additionally, he wrote articles regarding legal and ethical issues for their Family Therapy Magazine and presented at workshops on a variety of legal issues. Prior to his work with AAMFT, Richard was Legal Counsel to the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (CAMFT) for approximately twenty-two years. He was director of Government Relations for CAMFT, and as such was the architect of CAMFT’s widely regarded and successful legislative agenda. He represented CAMFT before the regulatory board (the Board of Behavioral Sciences) and was a tireless advocate for due process and fairness for licensees and applicants. He was a regular presenter at workshops and was consistently evaluated as CAMFT’s most highly rated presenter. He also sat with the CAMFT Ethics Committee and acted as their advisor on matters pertaining to the enforcement of ethical standards. Richard is an acknowledged expert on matters pertaining to the interrelationship between law and the practice of marriage and family therapy and psychotherapy. For many years, he taught Law and Ethics courses for a number of colleges and universities in their marriage and family therapy degree programs. While at CAMFT, he provided telephone consultation services with thousands of therapists in California and elsewhere for over twenty years. He is highly regarded for his judgment, his expertise, his direct style, and his clarity. Richard has been the driving force for many of the changes and additions to the laws of the State of California that affect MFTs. In 1980, he was primarily responsible for achieving passage of the "Freedom of Choice Law" that required insurance companies to pay for psychotherapy services performed by MFTs. Passage of that law allowed MFTs to earn a living, allowed them to better compete in the marketplace, and strengthened the profession in California by leading to a great increase in the number of licensees and CAMFT membership. Currently, about half of the licensed marriage and family therapists in the country are licensed in California. While at CAMFT, Richard was primarily responsible for, among other things, the successful effort to criminalize sex between a patient and a therapist. He was successful in extending the laws of psychotherapist-patient privilege to MFTs, thereby giving patients the same level of privacy protection as when seeing a psychiatrist or psychologist. He fought tirelessly and successfully for the right of MFTs to refer to themselves as "psychotherapists," to perform psychological testing services, to be appropriately reimbursed by California’s Victims of Crime Program, and to be employed in county mental health agencies throughout California. Richard was admitted to the Bar in New York (1969) and in California (1973). While practicing in New York, he served as a public defender, and later, as an Assistant District Attorney. Shortly after moving to California, he worked for the San Diego County Human Relations Commission as their Law and Justice Officer. While there, he worked successfully to achieve greater racial diversity in the criminal jury selection system and to expose and stop police abuse. For such work with that agency, he was the recipient of the Civil Libertarian of the Year Award by the San Diego Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

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