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The term “mandated reporting” can be applied to a variety of instances and professional roles. As a clinical social worker, I am bound by the law, my professional code of ethics, and my license to take action when someone’s life is at imminent risk.
I’ve heard from many individuals that they have withheld information from therapists in the past because they were protecting themselves or others. Several people have shared that they never disclosed ongoing abuse in their home because siblings still resided there. They felt that the foster care system would be far worse. And we know that it can be (though this certainly isn’t true in many cases). Reports indicate that the number of abusive foster placements is much lower than the general public tends to believe (one recent study indicates 0.2% of cases were perpetrated by foster parents). Despite the data, it is understandable for individuals to feel protective of family members when the foster care or department of children and families is an unknown entity. Many believe that they can better protect or support family members if they stay within the home and remain accessible.
Beyond abuse and neglect, the mandate for many professionals to take action around suicide plans makes things more complicated. The “duty to warn” when an individual shares a credible threat to another person/people with intent is much easier for me to grasp than intent to commit suicide. This comes from my belief in bodily autonomy from birth until death without question. You don’t get to determine who lives or who dies outside of yourself. Full stop.
This means that I am left with an ethical dilemma when someone discloses suicidal thoughts with a plan and intent. Most individuals who have experience within the mental health system are savvy enough to know what terminology to use in order to avoid (or seek) involuntary hospitalization. Yet here again, this means an individual must shield parts of their authentic experience in the very place they should be able to share it – therapy.
With this said, it is extremely rare. Most often someone is sharing suicidal plans with desperation, with fear, with anguish that they cannot seem to get out of that dark place. It is quite less common for someone to share a plan to kill themselves with intent and means in a matter-of-fact way without knowing that this will lead them to be evaluated at a hospital.
There are many instances outside of a therapy office that require mandated reporting. On a college campus, a student may wish to share her/his sexual assault with a trusted professor. She or he cannot do so if they want to maintain their confidentiality, as the professor has an obligation to report this (most often to the institution’s Title IX coordinator). What does this mean for the student who may not want to put the professor in an awkward position? How can that student, who is seeking support from places of comfort and strength, be expected not to use a significant person in his or her life while dealing with such a tremendous trauma?
The idea of mandated reporting on college campuses seems to come from a good place – the professor or staff member shares what happened and the student is offered support whether he or she decides to move forward with charges or not. Though I can’t help but wonder if we are doing a disservice to students by the regulations around it. How terrifying it must be for a person to share in confidence something deeply personal and horrific and have that person be required to share it with someone else. And even more so, what if the campus has an incompetent Title IX coordinator? What about simply an insensitive one? It further disempowers the survivor to have them discuss the topic with another person they do not choose. When someone violates one’s bodily autonomy, the targeted individual should have the absolute power to decide who, if anyone, gets to know about it. Though the assault can never be erased, it is the first step in empowering the survivor to make whatever choice he/she feels they can. There should be no “buts” at the end of that sentence.
If colleges truly work toward addressing rape culture, they will spend time and resources on massive prevention efforts as well as ways to hold predators accountable without question. In a warm, supportive environment that stands up to rape culture time and again, mandated reporting would not need to be present at all because resources would be well advertised, well supported, and readily accessed.
With all of this being said, mandated reporting was designed with the best of intentions. The point is simply to protect people from harm – through abuse, neglect, sexual assault, or suicide. My argument is not that it is malicious or pointless; simply that there needs to be a more thoughtful and nuanced response based on each individual case. An individual who is a mandated reporter cannot (and should not) ethically ignore a report of child abuse. What we can do is respond rather than react, gain as much information as possible, and attempt to see the whole picture before taking action. Mandated reporting should be a process that is openly and honestly communicated throughout so that a plan can be made with the individual seeking services rather than for the individual. Someone sharing with a professor that they were sexually assaulted may not be happy about that professor needing to report the assault, but they can be part of the process and understand each step that is taken. An essential piece to honoring this person’s integrity and story must include an absolute commitment to privacy to the extent that it is possible. If we allow individuals to share their stories while being direct and open about our own reporting mandates, it will create a safe space within the relationship. And that, in the end, is the goal.