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MANDATED CHILD ABUSE REPORTING IN ONLINE THERAPY – A Sobering Reality?

Child Abuse ReportingThe recent Penn State child sexual abuse tragedy points to a fundamental problem that seems to be going unnoticed by many online practitioners who practicing with anonymous clients and patients. That is, the professional does not obtain the full identify and contact information prior to delivering care.

This is a practice that I have repeatedly commented upon. There is nothing innovative or professional about failing to meet our legal responsibilities as mandated reporters, despite the fact that some of our colleagues think they are better serving clients and meeting an “unmet need.”

If you aren’t aware of the sexual abuse story that has been emanating from Penn state, you may want to have a quick look at this New York Times article for a summary.

While different states have slightly different legal codes when it comes to reporting abuse, for the most part, they are similar to that of Pennsylvania, where the following groups are classified as “required reporters” of child abuse – a licensed physician, medical examiner, coroner, funeral director, dentist, optometrist, osteopath, chiropractor, psychologist, podiatrist, intern, registered nurse or licensed practical nurse; hospital personnel engaged in the admission, examination, care or treatment of persons; and a Christian Science practitioner, member of the clergy, school administrator, school teacher, school nurse, social services worker, day care center worker or another child care or foster care worker, mental health professional, peace officer or law enforcement official.

The Pennsylvania law goes on to say that required reporters are to “immediately notify the person in charge of the institution, school, facility or agency or the person in charge’s designee of suspected abuse. The person in charge, or the designee, shall be responsible and have the obligation to make a report of the suspected child abuse to ChildLine [Pennsylvania’s child abuse reporting system] immediately.”

Legislative Change?

It’s only a matter of time before we start seeing stories of online mental health professionals failing to meet their legal requirements with regard to abuse, homicide and suicide reporting and management. Let’s remind any online colleagues working with anonymous clients and patients that we all are mandated reporters, regardless of the anonymous platforms various businesses may offer us. Such companies may consider their bottom line more important than our laws, but we can’t.

Any action that we fail to do individually will not only reflect poorly on all of us who are working diligently to legitimize online practice, but also may seriously harm uncounted innocent children or elderly persons.

What Else Can We Do?

Pennsylvania is responding to the recent media attention to this problem with legislative attention: Penn State case spurs movement for new child abuse reporting laws.  The federal government is also examining the issues: Mandatory Reporting Laws Under Scrutiny.

Anyone active in the recent legislative up swell of attention to child abuse reporting may do us all a favor by encouraging the need for legislation to explicitly extend the definitions of mandated reporting to online work as well as in-person care.

These are some of my thoughts. What are yours?

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