One of the most challenging aspects of abuse is that it can be difficult to spot. This is particularly true when it comes to the abuse of children and older people, who are often being hurt by their caretakers. This makes it all the more important that professionals who are in a position to spot this type of abuse report it to the appropriate authorities.
Many professionals are required to report when they suspect that child or elder abuse has occurred. In California, healthcare practitioners are among the category of professionals that are required to report suspected cases of child or elder abuse. Although one may have been educated on the requirements for mandatory reporting, it is important to be cognizant of the strict rules regarding mandatory reporting. If a mandatory reporter fails to report suspected abuse, they could be charged with a criminal offense and/or disciplined by their regulatory Board.
Under California’s Welfare and Institutions Code, health practitioners are considered mandatory reporters. For purposes of this law, “health practitioner” is defined broadly to include:
This law also includes trainees and interns, as well as professionals in other industries such as childcare and education.
Under the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act (CANRA), mandatory reporters must report cases of suspected abuse and/or neglect to law enforcement personnel and social services agencies. The Welfare and Institutions Code also requires mandated reporters to report suspected abuse or neglect involving elderly and dependent adults.
Knowing that you are required to report suspected abuse or neglect is just the first step. For many healthcare professionals, the question is under what circumstances are they required to make a report to law enforcement and/or the appropriate social welfare agencies. For many practitioners, there may be a concern that overly zealous reporting may damage families and lead to unnecessary intervention by the government.
Generally, a mandated reporter is required to report abuse/neglect if they have reasonable suspicion or have reason to believe that abuse or neglect has occurred. The threshold of “suspect” is extremely low. According to Penal Code Section 11166, “reasonable suspicion’ means that it is objectively reasonable for a person to entertain a suspicion, based upon facts that could cause a reasonable person in a like position, drawing, when appropriate, on his or her training and experience, to suspect child abuse or neglect. ‘Reasonable suspicion’ does not require certainty that child/elder abuse or neglect has occurred nor does it require a specific medical indication of child/elder abuse or neglect; any ‘reasonable suspicion’ is sufficient.”
Under CANRA, child abuse is defined as any form of cruelty to a minor’s physical, moral, or mental well-being. Child neglect is defined as the negligent treatment or maltreatment of a minor by a person responsible for their welfare. This can include both acts and omissions.
Elder abuse is defined under the Welfare and Institutions Code as physical abuse, neglect, financial abuse, abandonment, isolation, abduction, or other treatment resulting in harm, pain, or mental suffering to an elder. It also means the deprivation by a care custodian of goods or services that are necessary to avoid physical harm or mental suffering. An elder is any person who is 65 or older, while a dependent adult is any adult aged 18 to 64 who has mental or physical limitations that limit their ability to carry out normal activities or protect their own rights, regardless of whether they live independently or not.
A mandated reporter is not expected to do a thorough investigation before referring the matter to the authorities. Instead, they are required to report when they have any reasonable suspicion of child or elder abuse or neglect. For this reason, if you have any “reasonable” suspicion that a child, dependent adult, or elderly person is being abused, then your best course of action is to report the suspected abuse or neglect.
If a professional fails to report suspected child abuse, they will be subject to both criminal and administrative discipline, EVEN IF no actual abuse occurs. Penal Code Section 11166(c) states in part that a “mandated reporter who fails to report an incident of known or reasonably suspected child abuse or neglect as required by this section is guilty of a misdemeanor.”
A failure to report suspected child or elder abuse or neglect is a criminal offense for mandated reporters. This misdemeanor crime can lead to imprisonment in county jail for up to 6 months and/or a fine of up to $1,000. If a mandated reporter fails to report and the child or older person is seriously injured or dies as a result of the abuse or neglect, then that penalty can increase to 1 year in jail and/or a fine of up to $5,000.
In addition, if you are charged with a crime for failure to report, your licensing board may take disciplinary action against you for conviction of a crime substantially related to your practice. It is also a violation of professional ethics to fail to report the suspicion of child abuse if you are a mandated reporter. This may result in discipline against your license, including a public reprimand, probation, suspension, and/or revocation.