Do therapists have to report a crime?

By David Joel Miller.

Do counselors report crimes? Morning Question #10

The general answer is NO! The more you can talk to a therapist about the more likely you will be helped to change your behavior. Therapists have a legal and ethical duty to NOT repeat what you say. Any exceptions to that rule are determined by law. See my posts on “How Much Should You Tell a Therapist?” or “Why pay a therapist when you can just talk to a friend?

So could a government somewhere make a law that the therapist had to report a crime? Sure could.

There are laws in many places that protect patient and psychotherapists communication, very similar to doctor and patient privilege. The relationship between a patient and a psychotherapist is held to be special, like that between a person and a religious priest.

The principle exceptions to not having to report crimes are, abuse of children, the elderly and the disabled, (see – Does abuse of seniors and the elderly get reported?), and if you are suicidal or plan to kill someone else. Also if you are being investigated by homeland security we may have to report. As long as homeland security confines their investigations to known terrorists I am OK with this, as it falls under that duty to protect other intended victims. Some therapists have worried that this could be interpreted as needing information of a particular religion or political party and we would mostly be opposed to that sort of reporting.

Short answer: past crimes usually do not get reported, future and ongoing crimes like abuse or a plan to kill probably will be reported.

See also – How much should you tell a therapist?

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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog check out my Google+ page or the Facebook author’s page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books


41 thoughts on “Do therapists have to report a crime?

  1. Pingback: How much should you tell a therapist? | counselorssoapbox

  2. So if one were to describe a past experience in which they abused a child but that abuse is no longer happening, and the client is not abusing any children in the present, would the therapist still have to report it? Or even have the ability to?


    • This really depends on the laws in the jurisdiction in which you live. The general rule in most places is that everything you tell a counselor is confidential and probably protected under patient privilege statutes UNLESS there is a specific exemption in the law. Most places REQUIRE the counselor or other mandated reporter to report abuse of a child and the counselor could lose their licensed if they did not do so. If the “victim” is still a child and the counselor knows enough to identify the child then most everywhere the professional would need to report this. Child Protective Services (or police) would needed to investigate. The important thing they should be looking for is not just is the abuse continuing but what impact has it had on the child. Have they developed a mental illness or behavioral problem as a result then the abuse. Does the child and the family need to be sent for services of some kind? When in doubt discuss the matter with the counselor you are working with. The goal should be to help both the person who did the abuse and the child to recover from the past but different places handle this differently.
      Hope that helps.


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  8. My family doctor is referring me to a therapist for anxiety. I am embarrassed about some of the things I will need to talk about. Nothing illegal just embarrassing personal things. I don’t want my family doctor who to know these things. Does the therapist have to tell him in a report of my progress? I am nervous about well…….everthing about seeing a therapist. What can I talk about what can’t I? For example: I left a store and realized I didn’t pay for something I had in my cart (not on purpose) and I didn’t go back in and pay for it can they turn me in? I know it sounds like a small thing but I really worry about these kind of things.


      • You do not sound silly to me. It is bothering you so it is a problem. We all have our issues, yours just happens to be wrestling with the worry monster. Best wishes on your recovery.


    • Talk about the felling not the facts. Why you are anxious is less important than learning to mange that anxiety. No the therapist will not need to report the details to your doctor. Only that you are coming to therapy and weather your symptoms are getting better or worse. Talk with you therapist like you would a friend and see if you feel comfortable telling them more. Counseling is all about the relationship.


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  12. I just left a sexually abusive therapist. Now I’m seeing another. The old one is still practicing. I’d like to tell my new therapist but worried they will involve law enforcement. Can that confidentiality be broken to report the abusive therapist that might still b doing it?


    • In California and most other states, If you are under 18 it has to be reported as child sexual abuse. If you are over 18 counselors are not allowed to make that report as it would violate confidentiality. We are required to give clients a book titled “Professional Therapy never includes sex.”
      Available on line at
      We then encourage the client to make the report but they are the only ones who can make that report.
      If you live in another state check with your consumer protection agency web site or the web site of the agency that licensed the professional you were seeing.
      Hope that helps.


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  14. Your site is very helpful. Thank you. My question is this: If a child (10) tells her parents that her 15-year-old brother touched her inappropriately (no sexual intercourse), do the authorities need to get involved? Or can she and the brother both go for counseling without involving the authorities?


    • Think about it this way: If a 50 year old neighbor touched her that way would you want that reported? If it is inappropriate touching it gets reported and it being her brother or him being a minor will not prevent that. Yes a mandated reporter will probably have to make the report, depending on the exact details. If you have both children in therapy and after they check the house out and find that there is nothing else wrong then they will most likely close the case. In some cases what they find is that there is drug use, domestic violence or other abuse has gone on and they they need to step in and alter the situation. Even if it does need to be reported I believe you owe it to the children to get them some counseling before this turns into something much bigger.


  15. I have two questions regarding this topic. The first is that, I knew someone’s daughter (14) who went to therapy and admitted to her counselor (an intern I found out at the time) that she had been abused by her older brother (18) but was no longer. Even though it was no longer happening, and the girl expressed this, the trainee reported that it had happened anyway– I’m not certain how long ago it was for the girl. I found out later the trainee also never explained reasons for breaking confidentiality to the girl prior to the session. Was that still proper even though it could have been several years ago? The second question is completely hypothetical of course, but what if a client mentions in therapy that they did a serious crime in their past like was an accessory to murder or something and this was years ago? Would the counselor still have to report this or keep it confidential? If I was a counselor I would report it but I’m curious to know your answer. I’m sure these sound silly because you’ve just answered them similarly above but I’ve been wondering about these two for a while when it comes to the profession and this topic.


    • The intern should have covered the exceptions to confidentiality. In a large agency this may have been done by the person who did the intake before the client even saw the therapist. Most places have clients sign a “notice of privacy practices” some also have other forms for informed consent the client signs and gets copies of. It is possible the parent signed and was given copies but this was not explained to the child. I prefer to tell the child it they are old enough to understand.
      A mandate reporter, that includes teachers and day care workers, must make the report no matter who did the abuse or when. If the victim is under 18 it must be reported. If a child was abused at age 5 and tells the therapist at age 17 it is still reportable. In old cases or when the perpetrator is dead CPS may elect to not do anything but they still have to investigate. Consider what if the mother allowed her boyfriend to sexually abuse the child when she was 5 – does mom and child need some services? Maybe not take the daughter away, but make sure there are no younger children being abused.
      Re Questions 2: Crimes may not be reported no mater how the counselor feels about them unless they fall under a specific exception to confidentiality. So they tell the counselor they did the murder, the counselor still CANNOT make that report unless the victim was a child, elderly person or disabled person. Hope that explains it.


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  17. Would a Councelor lose her license if: her spouse was sentenced to prison for robbery (of a gas station) which would result in him not being allowed to ever own a firearm, but he owns several and keeps them in their mutual residence? The residence is in OR, I think the robbery took place in Virginia.


    • This sounds like a legal question. This counselor needs to see a lawyer and probably one that knows the laws and the regulations of the agency who licenses counselors in the state she lives in. What also concerns me is just how healthy this relationship is. The counselor may need to see another therapist to work on either confronting this spouse and getting this resolved or deciding that counseling is not for them.


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  19. I find it frustrating that someone who committed murder or rape years ago can be assured of 100% confidentiality, yet a mother/father who inflicted deeply regrettable episodes of physical or emotional abuse (although never condonable) are trapped and cannot talk to anyone about it without fear of breaking confidentiality and causing MORE suffering.

    I fully understand the seriousness of any kind of abuse, but it boggles the mind that murderers and rapists essentially have more “rights” to confidentiality than someone whose terrible mistake all those years ago had far fewer repercussions. A murder or rape has just as much, if not more potential to cause long term harm, so why is it seen as confidentially protected? The personality of someone who is able to murder or rape surely has no less “ongoing risk” as a past abuser.

    Again I understand the seriousness of child abuse and how it can indeed have long term impact on that child’s life, therefore must be stopped when it is known to be occurring, but there are parents out there (some who have even admitted on their own blogs/forum posts) who are so disgusted by what they did in a moment of rage and abandonment, that they are already on a path of change, vowing not to let any more suffering into their home and just need that extra help in moving forward. It’s a shame these people cannot be 100% open about their past and have the same opportunities as those who have committed the most heinous of crimes.


    • Thanks for your comment. I think I “get” what you are saying. I my work with clients over the time I have been a counselor I have seen lots of people who have made a mistake and want to fix it. Whenever possible I prefer to work with those parents who regret what they have done to try to help them change. The law requires me to tell someone so that the child can be protected. The therapist does not get to go out see the home, and make decisions on what should happen. Some social workers are better than others. Most of the time I think our system does all they can to keep the family intact and try to help them to heal. It should only be when the parents can’t change or won’t change that the system should remove the child to keep that child safe. If the parent is truly sorry for what they have done most workers will work with that family and offer services to help them recover. If the system takes away children that could have remained in the home, if they leave children and the abuse continues the system harms the child. This is a tough call and one I am glad I do not have to make. Therapists can sometimes work with the family and the agency to help get the best outcome for all involved. In most places once the child turns 18 there is no longer a need to report child abuse as there is no child that could be being abused. Lots of these old things do not come up until the child becomes an adult and one or both of the people involved what’s to work on healing their past. At that point there is probably no reporting requirement in most places. If someone has abused a child my recommendation is for them to go for therapy and if that is reportable ask the therapist to help them get through the process and help get that child the help they will need to heal. As imperfect as our system is sometimes this is the best we seem to be able to do to balance helping all the parties involved.


  20. What if a 16 year old girl is being sexually abused by her uncle and he threatens her not to tell anybody, but she tells her therapist. On the other in the girls culture, any girl who lost her virginity before marriage should be killed, what would a therapist do in this situation?


    • Thanks for reading and for commenting. This is a tough question and a difficult situation. Your question deserves a longer answer than I can give here. I will try to write a longer post on this topic. Whenever there is a conflict between law and ethics the counselor, and the client are in a bind. Most trainings will tell the counselor to follow the law. But most counselors would never want to harm the client. Short answer is that the client probably should not tell unless they can do so safely and the counselor should do every thing possible to keep that client safe. Lots of other factors like the age of the uncle and where this is a happening come into play. For those women who live in places and countries were these things happen all I can do is hope that the laws and the culture change. But we humans have a long way to go to see those things change. Stay tuned and I will try to provide some more answers to this question.


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  22. What if the crime was a capital offense? Such as murder or witnessed a murder? If some one seeking help admits to such events trying to rid themselves of the burden, let it be self-defense or otherwise, does the therapist report this?


    • Here in California, and most other places I would think, the answer to this is NO, it does not get reported. Unless something meets one of the exemptions to confidentiality, like abuse or danger to self and others, then crimes do not get reported. Once we start making exceptions to reporting of crimes, no matter how serious, then more and more crimes could end up on the list of reportable things. If people have to worry about what will be reported they can’t really talk and get help. The focus of therapy is on changing the possible futures not on judging the past. Unless that murder victim was a child it would not be reportable as an exception to confidentiality and the therapist could lose their license for reporting this.


  23. Pingback: Top Mental Health Blog Posts – 2015 | counselorssoapbox

  24. If a patient tells their psychologist that they view child pornography, but that is the extent of their abuse of children, is the psychologist required to report it? And if so, is this also true in the case of viewing drawings of fictional underage characters engaged in sexual activity?


    • Tough Question. In California since 1/1/2016 viewing child pornography would be reportable as child sexual abuse. In the past it was generally not reportable. You would need to ask a lawyer in your jurisdiction. The trend is to make this reportable to reduce the exploitation of children. I am not a lawyer but my thinking is that viewing cartoons or drawings would not be reportable as no children have been abused.


      • P.S. No counselor should be telling any client what they should feel. You are entitled to your feelings. You may not have been the parent but you had a very close relationship and you need to grieve.


  25. If a patient tells their psychiatrist that they were viewing videos of on YouTube of a child showing their feet is or such as things like twerking is he doing the same as viewing child pornography?


    • As far as being reportable I do not believe this is the same thing. There may be people who look at pictures of children for sexual arousal but you can find lots of catalogs showing kids in various clothing on very conservative web sites. The goal here is to sell clothing not to “exploit”children sexually. To be reportable it needs to meet some definition of pornography. Mostly this means pictures of children involved in sexual activities with someone or something. Defining porn is a legal issue. Why the person looks looking at pictures of children may well be a psychological question but I do not think it requires reporting.Twerking or any other kind of dancing – who knows?


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