Counselors are often the first to become aware of a client's dangerous situation due to the trusting relationship they develop with their clients. A counselor's duty to report often refers to how a counselor who is working with children should act when if she suspects a child is undergoing some type of abuse; however, it can also be applied to other situations. The decision to make a report is difficult due to the confidential nature of a therapist's session, but ethical rules outline when it is appropriate to break this confidentiality. Rules differ from state to state, but they have many basic similarities.
When a counselor believes a child is being abused or neglected, she is required to report this to law enforcement or the state's child protective services. The American School Counselor Association's ethics rules require this report, but exactly how the report is made is governed by individual state law. In general, school counselors should not actively investigate the child abuse, but simply report incidents they observe or suspect to the authorities. They should also take care when asking a child questions to discern if he is being abused and make sure they don't ask leading questions that could negatively affect law enforcement's investigation.
Although confidentiality is of utmost importance in developing a trusting relationship with clients, a counselor has a duty to report planned crimes in which other people may be endangered. A counselor must decide if her patient has a specific plan that warrants bringing in authorities. For example, if a patient says he is planning to kill his parents, a counselor should warn the parents and law enforcement. If a patient is venting and says he's so angry that he feels like he could kill someone, the decision may be a little tougher to make. The decision to report hinges on whether there is a sense of urgency and the likelihood that the client might act on his thoughts.
Most states also require that counselors report incident of elder abuse or abuse of adults whose mental or physical incapacities cause them to be dependent on others for care. The specific laws vary from state to state, but in general, counselors must report physical or sexual abuse, financial abuse, neglect or abandonment to the proper authorities, including law enforcement. In California, for example, elder law applies to anyone 65 or older, and a counselor who fails to report may be charged with a misdemeanor that comes with a fine or imprisonment.
There are many other situations in which a counselor may have a duty to report. These vary according to each state's individual law. Some states require reporting of suspected domestic abuse. However, some states, like California, only require doctors to report signs of domestic violence and not mental health professionals so that victims of domestic abuse aren't discouraged from seeking help. Counselors may also have a duty to report a patient who may harm himself or attempt suicide. In Texas, counselors are required to make a report to authorities if they believe their patient is in imminent danger of harming himself. The American Counseling Association also requires that counselors report to authorities and affected third parties if a client has a life-threatening disease and is in danger of passing that disease on to others.
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