A Child Abuse Law That Won’t Work (Part Two)

Which brings us to the matter of AB 1775, a new state law which will go into effect in January 2015, which will compel psychotherapists and other mandated reporters of child abuse, to report to police or social services individuals who view child pornography, which is defined as images depicting minors’ sexuality (therefore including teens sending nude pictures). Those who wrote this bill did so in consultation with law enforcement officials such as the Sheriff’s association, and child advocacy groups, not psychotherapists or other similar professionals who are trained to listen to disclosures of disturbing personal information and to facilitate interventions. Most therapists in California became familiar with the bill just three months ago, just one month prior to the bill’s signing by governor Brown, through the California Association for Marriage and Family Therapists (CAMFT), which sanctioned the bill with little or no information provided to the membership, and with only short notice as to the bill’s significance.

A statement by the bill’s author: “AB 1775 will further ensure the protection of children from the proliferation of sexual exploitation through internet child pornography. The State Legislature has a duty to ensure it does everything within its power to make certain the most vulnerable of our society, our children, are protected.” Given the demagogic politics of this language, it’s going to be almost impossible to have this law amended, much less have it repealed. Proponents needn’t even substantiate the claim that children will be protected by this legislation, though one might think that some within the ranks might question how this will work. After all, has making drugs illegal protected kids from drug abuse? Are mass arrests of pot smokers and crackheads exposing a trail of clues leading authorities to drug cartels, thus protecting society from the deadly scourge of addiction? How’s that plan coming along? Meanwhile, how many more reports to social services agencies will be generated by this law? Is the funding and thus the staffing there to field all these new reports? How many of these reports will lead to fuller investigations, arrests and incarcerations? And if these aren’t necessarily the intended consequences, then how many therapeutic alliances (between clients and therapists) will be unnecessarily disrupted–a fragile trust destroyed–by a therapist’s informant duties?

A colleague within CAMFT, a man interested in solutions more so than argument, has proposed a compromise: a plan to keep the overall rule with respect to AB 1775 in place but to advocate for mental health professionals to be an exception to the mandatory disclosure. The bill currently includes a huge list of mandated reporters, including such non-qualified persons as coaches, probation officers, “head start” teachers–people not trained to address or treat mental health conditions. I can sympathize with the argument that if these people discover that someone is viewing child pornography then their best course of action may be to report the event to social services. However, one could make the argument that the best thing for offenders is to talk to a mental health professional in the hope of obtaining early intervention before someone is hurt more directly. **BTW: this argument does not imply that child subjects in pornography are not victims (as in “hurt”), merely that such damage is not inflicted directly by those viewing the images.

And if you want to have the conversation about such viewers enabling child pornographers/exploiters of children, thus deserving any punishment they might receive, then we must have consistent intellectual honesty and talk about how our entire consumer economy exists on the back of unfair labor practices across the world. If you’re not sure what I’m getting at then get out your precious new I-phone 6, contemplate its manufacturing and assembly of parts, imagine the wages earned by those responsible, and consider trading jobs with the adults and children that are performing that work.

Regarding amendments and AB 1775, it probably won’t matter what gets proposed. As CAMFT (committing, perhaps, its own version of political suicide) has implied through its action, involved discussion is moot and inexpedient. Fifty years ago, legislators wanted private exchanges revealed such that communists could be pulled from their closets. Ten years ago the Patriot Act extended its tentacles into the therapist’s office, mandating professionals to report those suspected of terrorist acts. There will always be a core of people in society who will fundamentally resist the confidentiality of institutions, religious or secular. As therapists, we know that the media, that the NSA, that parents, Apple and AT&T, all want in the room so they can hear, direct, and sell. They want in so they can do everything except really listen, actually.


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2 responses to “A Child Abuse Law That Won’t Work (Part Two)

  1. Hi Graeme,
    Thanks for your thoughtful concerns about this unfortunate legislation. I appreciate that you remind us of the context that politicians, legislators, law enforcement, and demagogues have little respect for the value of confidentiality in treatment of psychological disorders. Given this history, I would hope and expect that organizations such as CAMFT that are charged with advocating for the ethical values and clinical objectives of our profession would be more cautious when promoting legislation that may compromise the confidentiality of our clients.
    Charles King, Ph.D.

  2. Thanks Charles. I likewise hope that CAMFT will take a closer look at what it chooses to endorse

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