How should therapist handle a suspicion of child abuse? What are a professional’s obligations to report? Who is entitled to information?
Texas law requires that anyone with knowledge or suspected child abuse/neglect report it to authorities. This mandatory reporting applies to all individuals and is not limited to teachers or health care professionals. The law extends to individuals whose personal communications may be otherwise privileged, such as attorneys, clergy members, and health care professionals.
Section 261.101 of the Texas Family Code mandates that anyone who suspects child abuse or neglect must report it immediately. The report may be made to (1) any local or state law enforcement agency; or (2) the Department of Family and Protective Services.
All persons are required to make the report immediately, and individuals who are licensed or certified by the state or who work for an agency or facility licensed or certified by the state and have contact with children as a result of their normal duties, such as teachers, nurses, doctors, and day-care employees, must report the abuse or neglect within 48 hours.
Texas law broadly defines “abuse” and “neglect” so that every action in which a child’s physical or mental health or welfare has been or may be adversely affected is potentially covered. The statute explicitly excludes an accident or reasonable discipline by a parent or guardian that does not expose the child to a substantial risk of harm. However, if there is a question whether conduct constitutes abuse or “neglect, one should always err on the side of the child’s safety and report the incident.
A person acting in good faith who reports or assists in the investigation of a report of child abuse or neglect is immune from civil or criminal liability. Failure to report suspected child abuse or neglect is a Class A Misdemeanor, punishable by imprisonment of up to one year and/or a fine of up to $4,000. Merely reporting the incident to a supervisor or manager is insufficient. DFPS has a report hotline; 1-800-252-5400, a number that can be dialed toll-free 24 hours a day. A report can also be made on a secure website: www.TxAbuseHotline.org.
Professionals must make a report no later than the 48th hour after first suspecting a child has been abused or neglected or is a victim of an offense under Section 21.11, Penal Code. A professional may not delegate to or rely on another person to make the report (Texas Family Code, Section 261.101). Professionals are not required to follow up their oral reports with a written report as they were in the past. Professionals include teachers, nurses, doctors, day-care employees and others who are either licensed by the state or work in a facility licensed or operated by the state and who have direct contact with children in the course of their job (Texas Family Code, Section 261.101).
It is critical that the report be made as soon as possible. The more time that passes, the more challenging it is for CPS to conduct a thorough investigation. Evidence can be obscured. It is important to know that in some cases, a professional may be aware of ongoing problems before beginning to suspect that the situation is abuse or neglect. DFPS encourages a person to report, even if he/she merely thinks that a child has been abused or neglected. The reporter is not expected to prove that abuse or neglect has definitely occurred. Delaying a report to check the situation or to gather more information can result in more serious harm to the child. There is a penalty for failure to report. State laws surrounding the issue of child abuse are constantly changing, so one should stay updated on state law.