The duty to report sexual abuse

I recently came across an astounding scenario in a standard ethics textbook. I use the term “astounding” because it presents an example of a clear, legal problem that is in reality not an ethical dilemma at all! I’m going to paraphrase the dilemma as follows:

You are a mental health professional conducting research concerning family relationships involving at least one minor child. As part of the research design you interview each family member personally. You also interview the family as a unit. During one such interview, with Mary, a nine-year-old, she tells you that her fifteen-year-old sister, Clara, has sex with her stepfather, Igor. What would you do?

The answer is clearly driven by the law. Most states impose a duty on members of the public to report suspected child abuse, including sexual abuse. Even if it were not a state-imposed requirement, the legal duty to practice reasonably competently as a mental health professional–as discussed in this website– demands reporting of the incident.

Comments are invited!

10 thoughts on “The duty to report sexual abuse

  1. I’m not sure the legal question is all that clear here. Many states impose requirements only on certain categories of people considered to have adopted a duty of care toward children, such as doctors, teachers, babysitters, and the like. Moreover, mental health practitioner standards of care may not apply to researchers.

    Second, there’s the question of whether the girl is a credible source of information about her sister’s sexual activities. People should always presume victims of sexual abuse are telling the truth when they themselves disclose abuse, but I’m less comfortable with extending that presumption to statements by family members of the alleged victim. This is especially an issue when the professional has only limited experience with the family member making the statement, as would be true in a research context.

    I’m not saying that I wouldn’t ultimately report in this situation, but it doesn’t seem totally straightforward to me.

    • Thanks for your insightful comments. I want to stress first that my primary point is that the question of whether there is a responsibility to report this matter is a legal one. This suggests that all mental health professionals, including the researcher in our scenario, must be aware of the specific laws in their home jurisdictions governing this issue. In our scenario, the researcher is identified as a “mental health” professional, making it highly likely in a majority of states that the researcher would be subject to a duty to report in appropriate instances. In most jurisdictions, the rule governing the duty to report requires that there be a “reasonable suspicion” of child abuse/neglect. In many states this duty applies to all persons, not just those trained to recognize child abuse. Hearsay information, such as the child’s statement about her sister’s involvement in sexual activity in the present dilemma, can be sufficient to create a reasonable suspicion. Once the reasonable suspicion is created, I would argue that in most jurisdictions the law would compel revelation of this information to an appropriate authority, thus permitting a trained protective services professional to investigate the matter by talking to both children and either confirming or ruling out sexual abuse. In a sense, the law here requires in this situation that we err on the side of caution. In our scenario, I don’t think that the researcher has the training or competence to investigate the matter further by interviewing Clara. This would seem to me to present a grave danger that Clara could be gravely traumatized through the intervention of an untrained, albeit well meaning, individual. We certainly want someone to talk to one or both children, but we want that someone to have appropriate clinical skills.
      Thanks again for your excellent observations!

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