Child Abuse

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Avoiding Liability Bulletin – May 2007

… Some forms of child abuse may not be readily recognizable to practitioners. That is why a thorough knowledge of child abuse reporting requirements, which vary from state to state, is necessary in order to avoid being faced with the charge of failure to report – which could result in a criminal case against the therapist or counselor, or perhaps a licensing board action to revoke or suspend one’s license. Some examples of situations possibly requiring a report, which may not at first glance seem like child abuse, follow.

Suppose that your client tells you that he was in an automobile accident and that a child in the other car was injured. In a later session, your client tells you that he was intoxicated (from alcohol or perhaps cocaine) at the time of the accident and that he veered into the other lane on the highway, which caused the accident. In some states, a report is required because the Legislature has passed a law that specifically covers such a situation and categorizes it as child abuse. In other states, it may be reportable if such action fits the definition of, for example, child endangerment or unjustifiable corporal punishment of a child. At first blush, this may not seem like child abuse. It may seem like an accident caused by a negligent driver – not by a child abuser. What is the law in your state?

Suppose that a patient reports that her husband struck her with his fist in the presence of their 10-year old child. Does this constitute child abuse? Is it reportable (mandatory or permissive) as emotional abuse of the minor or child endangerment? Does domestic violence not committed in the presence of a minor (although the minor is present in the residence) constitute reportable child abuse (e.g., child endangerment) if a weapon is used and the perpetrator is drunk? Or, suppose that the parents of a 12-year old child engage in drug dealing out of their house and that unsavory people are coming to the house on a regular basis. Does this constitute child abuse in the form of child endangerment or perhaps neglect?

These various situations may or may not require a report of child abuse – depending upon state law. It is important that counselors and therapists recognize when a child abuse reporting issue arises and that they have the resources available to get an informed answer to their questions. The important thing is to first recognize that there is a reporting issue.


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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