If you’ve been to therapy, you may recall that your therapist will remind you that everything that is said in therapy stays confidential, with a few important exceptions. These are the limits of confidentiality, the areas that your therapist is legally required to break confidentiality and report to local authorities. The same mandate is true for clergy leaders, teachers, medical staff, etc. Often the list of exceptions is met with a nodding head from clients. But what does being a mandated reporter really mean? What happens when your therapist says they have to make a report? And why?
You may be familiar with the short list of scenarios in which your therapist must break confidentiality: if you disclose that you are going to harm yourself or harm someone else, any suspicion of child abuse (now including downloading and distributing child pornography), any suspicion of elder or dependent adult abuse, and any time the court subpoenas records. The main reason for any breach in confidentiality is safety, whether yours or another person who may be vulnerable. These designations are legally mandated from the state in order to protect the most vulnerable in our society.
If a report needs to be made, the first thing that will happen is a call to local authorities including Child Protective Services, Adult Protective Services, or the police with the basic information about the incident. The local authorities will then evaluate whether or not they will choose to investigate the situation. If they do decide to investigate, typically CPS (or another agency representative) will make a visit to the home or school and interview the alleged victim or family members. If they substantiate the claim of abuse, the family will then be referred to family services which may include parenting training classes, support groups, counseling, and respite care. The goal is always to keep the child or adult in the family as long as it is safe to do so. If safety benchmarks fail to be reached, the local authorities may make further recommendations or require that the victim be moved to a safer situation, perhaps with relatives, in another caring facility, or foster care, depending on the situation.
Your therapist is not legally required to share if or when they make a report, however they may choose to with you. This can feel overwhelming or like a break in trust. Sometimes it can feel as if it’s not in your best interest or to feel scared about what will happen next. It’s okay to share your feelings with your therapist and process each step of the journey.