Next, a well-trodden path of this blog: a subject that has received more ‘hits’ of interest than any other on this site—the subject of AB1775. This California law, passed in 2014, altered the 1980 Child Abuse & Neglect Reporting Act (CANRA), supposedly “merely” updating it for 21st century use, by adding language (words like “streaming”) that would require mandated reporters of child abuse to report to authorities clients/patients who disclose the viewing of sexual material depicting minors—in effect, those who view child pornography via digital media, which would include behaviors like sexting. Hitherto, it was optional to report such persons, not required. Well, as has been documented here and elsewhere, the proposed law passed easily (72-0) in the California legislature, aided in part by a demagogic political campaign that used slogans like “let’s stop child abuse”.
In our book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction, Joe Farley and I both write in opposition to AB1775, concerned primarily with the law’s chilling effect on client/therapist confidentiality. I argue that the law is grounded in a pair of dubious premises: firstly, that reporting to police authorities people who look at underage porn will necessarily prevent or reduce child abuse or exploitation (how did that rationale work out in the so-called drug war?); secondly, that those seeking help for the treatment of impulses towards child pornography (why else would they volunteer the info if seeking therapy prior to “being reported”? ) do not merit or require confidentiality rights.
To which we tiredly ask, what kind of mental health treatment model proceeds without affording a patient confidentiality rights, as a baseline arrangement of therapist-patient care? Well, it’s clear what kind: models that contain authoritarian assumptions and methods, polished with virtue-signaling euphemisms like “limit-setting” and “accountability” to gird an approach governed by a compliance/non-compliance dynamic.
Over the last 3 years, the California Supreme Court took up the question of confidentiality rights for those implicated by the AB1775 legislation, spurred by a lawsuit brought forth by, among others, mine and Joe Farley’s colleague, Don Mathews. In January of 2020, that court suspended judgement on the issue, not affirming the law, but rather sending it back to lower courts so that its premises could be further studied.
Where does that leave us? Nearly two years later, the likes of Don Mathews, myself and Joe Farley still sit with sex addicts, would-be sex offenders, who might decide to share about impulses they at times act upon, but owing to the consequences (reporting) outlined in our informed consent documents, also might think twice about sharing what they’re most troubled by. Supporters of AB1775 don’t care about this. They’d argue that the primary task of sex offender treatment is the protection of society, not the psychological growth of offenders. They’d secondly rationalize that sex offender treatment is not effective anyway (meaning, they think it hasn’t effectively changed the behaviors or pathological inclinations of offenders). Firstly, there’s no real evidence of that claim. Secondly, even if it is ineffective, then it’s likely a circular phenomenon. I agree that orthodox sex offender treatment sucks. If it’s ineffective, it’s because its models don’t follow the fundamental ethics of psychological treatment (offering confidentiality), therefore it doesn’t consistently elicit honest, substantive disclosures of actions and fantasy that could then be examined by trained clinicians.
Did the simpletons who wrote AB1775 even consider angles like this? No. They consulted police and other lawyers, and when they finally did disclose the law to therapists, via newsletter announcements via entities like the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists (CAMFT)—believe me, they got an earful of criticism. Also, in the rush to keep up with technology, what have they thought to do about entities like Snapchat, wherein images can be posted but then disappear without a trace—which is the point of that platform, actually. Anyway, now matters relating to AB1775 are in limbo, and so, on the eve of our publication, I propose something different, at least with respect to child abuse reporting law.
Before I share that, a bit more context: for reasons that are complex, the public at large is starting to tire of authorities overstepping in situations wherein mental health professionals ought to carry authority. With respect to other contexts, such as street interactions between police and the mentally ill, city governments are considering reducing policing involvement in situations wherein MH workers may be more effective. Why not in the context of sex addiction, or even sex offending? Perhaps it’s time to consider another amendment to the 1980 CANRA law, one that would create a special class of child abuse reporter, comprised of psychotherapists or psychiatrists—professionals who would not be “mandated” to report so much as granted latitude to decide whether a patient disclosing illegal, child abusing behavior ought to be institutionalized, or incarcerated if one prefers, or visited in the middle of the night by a SWAT team of computer-confiscating police officers (yeah, no doubt “upon consultation” with treating professionals). Otherwise, this professional might properly assess the context of a patient disclosure: determine whether there is genuine motivation for change amid an anxious presentation, for example, versus an aggressive, exhibitionistic disclosure indicating a sociopathic trait, or one of malignant narcissism. Either way, the law needs to be altered so that psychological assessment, or psychotherapeutic treatment, is given a proper chance.