Does A Statute Of Limitations Exist?

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Avoiding Liability Bulletin – September 2010

I have written extensively about child abuse and child abuse reporting requirements in prior issues of this Bulletin. Those articles can be found in the Avoiding Liability Bulletin archives on the CPH & Associates website. One area that I have not written about is the misunderstanding amongst some mandated reporters regarding the issue of an applicable “statute of limitations.” Suppose that a nineteen year-old patient tells a therapist that she was molested by an uncle ten years earlier. Or, suppose that a seventeen year old patient tells his therapist that he was molested by his uncle seven years earlier. What are the reporting requirements and what role, if any, does a statute of limitations play with respect to reporting in each of these examples? As I have written here many times before, state laws vary, sometimes in fine nuance, so my remarks below are based upon California law.

In the first scenario, there is no duty to report child abuse because the nineteen year old is not a child, but rather, an adult. Generally, there is no duty in California to report child abuse when an adult patient tells the therapist of abuse that occurred when the patient was a child. There is an exception to this general rule, but that is a topic for another article. If a thirty year old patient reveals that she was raped when she was fifteen, there is no duty to report. The patient, whether thirty or nineteen years of age, may choose to report the prior abuse if he or she desires. There may be an applicable statute of limitations that will prevent the perpetrator from being criminally prosecuted. The determination as to the existence of a statute of limitations affecting the prosecution, and the precise calculation, usually depends upon the advice of law enforcement (e.g., the police and/or the District Attorney) or a private attorney. Statutes of limitations are sometimes tolled (the clock does not tick) during certain periods of time or under certain circumstances.

In the second scenario, the therapist must report child abuse. A child (the seventeen year old) was abused (I of course assume that the child’s report to the therapist is credible and that reasonable suspicion exists). There is no statute of limitations applicable to the reporting of child abuse by a therapist. In other words, even if the crime is old, and even if the criminal prosecution of the perpetrator were barred by an applicable statute of limitations, the child abuse reporting law contains no statute of limitations with respect to the duty of the mandated reporter to report suspected or known child abuse – provided that the information conveyed to the practitioner is about a child, and not an adult who was abused as a child. As to the statute of limitations that may apply to the criminal prosecution, that determination is typically made by the prosecuting authorities.

Are the laws in your state similar to what I have described here? You never should fail to make a child abuse report that is required by law. Similarly, you should not make a report when no report is specifically required or authorized. To do so will likely constitute a violation of law for breach of confidentiality that can result in disciplinary action by the state and monetary liability in a civil lawsuit.


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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