By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.
Reporting abuse of a senior citizen or a disabled person.
Most people are well aware that child abuse and neglect get reported, but reporting abuse of other vulnerable people gets forgotten. This is a legal and an ethical question. For legal advice please consult with a lawyer or your local statue. There are lots of ifs, and’s and exceptions here. I will keep this simple.
From a California LPCC and LMFT’s point of view here are some things to think about. Every two years when we renew our licenses we have to take a refresher course on Law and Ethics, so we stay up to date and don’t forget things we are required to do. Sometimes we need to check out the fine points of the law also.
There are two types of report categories, mandatory and permitted and then there are categories of victims of abuse, children, seniors, and the disabled.
In most places, there are groups of people called “mandated reporters.” These are people who work with a vulnerable group of people, may learn about abuse or neglect, and are required by law and ethical codes to report abuse and neglect.
In California, mental health professionals (LMFT’s LPCC’s, LCSW’s, etc.) are mandated reporters. In short, if we know or should know about some abuse or neglect, we have no choice, we have to make the call and report this.
This does not mean that we go around the neighborhood looking over fences for a crime. Mental health professionals are not the police. We don’t report crimes and as a rule, are required to keep anything the client says confidential EXCEPT that abuse and neglect stuff.
But if while doing therapy, we are told about abuse or neglect we can’t let that go. We have to make this report.
There are some iffy areas here that can vary from place to place and are open to interpretations. Cruelty to animals and domestic violence are deplorable but most of the time this does not trigger mandatory reports. Some agencies would like to expand the number of things we have to report but if the list swells beyond what is absolutely needed it keeps people from coming to their therapist and telling them things that they need help with.
Because we have to make this report and others, we are supposed to inform our clients of the things that we must report. This along with fees and other stuff like that is called “informed consent.” You can’t very well consent if you have not been informed, can you? Remember in most counseling settings, the abuse gets reported, like it or not and neither you nor the counselor has a choice in this.
Any member of the public can report abuse at any time. Permitted reports can be anonymous. The reporting person is supposed to be kept confidential but sometimes people do things they are not supposed to do like tell the person involved who reported them.
My understanding of this is – if I am a mandated reporter, I can’t make an anonymous report. Some of my colleagues have argued with me about this. But the first thing they ask me on the phone is “are you a mandated reporter?” Once I say yes I can’t very well try to make an anonymous report. Besides if I am required to do this I want a record that I did it. It took a lot of work to get these licenses and I want to keep them.
One difference between mandated and permitted reports may be that mandated reporters have lots of protection if they make a report, whether it turns out to be true or not. We don’t investigate people. We report it once and unless we learn more down the road we are done.
People who make Permitted reports get in a lot of trouble for making too many unsubstantiated reports. In divorce cases, there is this temptation to think your ex should never be allowed to see these kids again. He cheated on you, right? Cheating on a spouse is most likely not abuse of the child. If you make daily reports on your ex, pretty soon the authorities stop listening to you and they may even come after you for false reporting.
So the people who might get abused or neglected are Children, the elderly (seniors), and the disabled.
Child abuse and neglect are the most common by far.
Remember abuse is really bad stuff, not just stuff we don’t like such as strict parents. Lots of parents want their 17-year-old daughter’s 18-year-old boyfriend arrested for them having sex. That may be statutory rape, a crime, but it is not generally child sexual abuse. Counselors don’t report crimes they report abuse or neglect, which just happens to be a crime also.
If that 18-year-old boy is having sex with your eleven-year-old daughter that is pretty much child sexual abuse everywhere and that will get reported to the proper authorities in a heartbeat.
Abuse or neglect of Senior citizens and the disabled are also reported.
It is probably a mandated report if you are a mandated reporter. For sure it is here in California. These are classes of people who because of their age or disability cannot fully take care of and or protect themselves. Society steps in to take care of them.
Besides the types of abuse that apply to children, another type of abuse is common when it comes to the elderly and the disabled, financial abuse.
Now some seniors choose to have relatives live with them or give those relatives gifts. But if that other person does not care for the elderly person and bullies them or cheats them out of the money then it may be a crime. It may also be elder or disabled person abuse.
One warning here
Some people come to therapists and tell us tales of people being abused but they don’t want to get involved or make the report. All that second-hand information may not meet the criteria for a “mandated report.” Calling a therapist to tell them about your suspicions will not help the person. The therapist can’t go out and investigate. If you think someone is being abused, you should be the one making the report.
Hope this helped to get you thinking about the problem of abuse and neglect in our society and the role of the mandated reporter and the possibility that abuse and neglect could include senior citizens and the disabled.
Staying connected with David Joel Miller
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