Questions in color
by Kathryn Krase, Ph.D., J.D., MSW
Editor’s Note: This article is part of an ongoing series.
Congratulations! You used your education, experience, expertise, and critical thinking skills to make a tough call. Now you’re wondering what’s next…
Working with CPS After Making a Report
For most reporters of suspected child maltreatment, their responsibilities end after the call is accepted by Child Protective Services (CPS). For social workers who make a report to CPS, this may not always be the case. In cases in which the social worker as mandated reporter cannot or does not make the report anonymously, CPS may reach out to the worker after the report to ask for clarification of concerns. (For information on when you can/cannot make an anonymous report, see Making the Tough Call Part III: How do I make a report? in the Summer 2013 issue of The New Social Worker). You, as the mandated reporter, also have the right to contact CPS yourself.
When you communicate with CPS after you make a report, it is important to remember that you are still responsible to protect your client’s confidential communications. Even though the law allows you to breach client confidentiality to make a report of suspected child maltreatment to CPS, you are required to minimize the breach. (See Making the Tough Call Part IV: Conflicted Over Confidentiality, in the Fall 2013 issue of The New Social Worker).
The NASW Code of Ethics highlights the social worker’s responsibility to minimize harm to a client from the kind of disclosure made in a report to CPS. Social workers are expected to provide the least amount of confidential client information necessary. When you make a report to CPS about a client, you only need provide the information necessary for fulfilling your legal obligation to report, as well as your ethical obligation to the larger society, while protecting as much of your client’s privacy as you can.
Depending on the length and depth of your relationship with your client prior to making the report, you may know much about your client that he/she has never shared with anyone else. When you work with CPS, it is important to remember that not all client information is appropriate to share. Generally, you should limit the information you share with CPS to that which informed your decision to make the report, and information you have received since making the report that is relevant to the concerns you expressed in your report (Lau, Krase, & Morse, 2009).
CPS can (and will often) ask for more information, including client records. Client records are protected by client confidentiality, and the decision to share them with CPS should be made with care. In states like New York, the law says that when requested by CPS, mandated reporters must provide records “that are essential for a full investigation” (New York State Social Services Law, Section 415). New York law specifies that these records could relate to “diagnosis, prognosis or treatment, and clinical records.” What the law does not specify is WHO gets to determine if the requested records are “essential for a full investigation” (emphasis added).
As a professional, charged with the ethical and legal responsibility to keep your client’s information and communications confidential, you are entitled to exercise your discretion in determining what information YOU deem appropriate to share with CPS. If CPS wants more information than what you are providing, then they can ask for more.
The legal way CPS can ask for more is by serving a subpoena. A subpoena is a legal tool that seeks to force a person (or business) to provide information (written or oral) for the purposes of furthering a legal action. CPS has the authority to issue a subpoena or ask the court to issue a subpoena. You have the right to challenge the breadth of the subpoena issued by CPS. You can ask a judge to conduct an “in camera” review of your records or your testimony. This means that you tell/show the judge what evidence you have, and it is up to the judge to determine what it “essential” for CPS to know and what is not. This may sound scary, but remember, you’re responsible for protecting your client’s confidentiality!
Working with your Client After Making a Report
Negotiating your relationship with CPS after making a report may seem easy compared to figuring out how to work with your client. Should you tell the client you made the report, or not? That decision is up to you. The law does NOT require you to inform your client when you make a report about her/him or his/her family.
When making the decision whether or not to tell your client that you made a report to CPS, safety should be your biggest consideration. Consider any concerns you have regarding your safety, and that of your client and other people. If you feel that anyone’s safety would be in question were you to share this information with your client, then, by all means, do not tell the client that you made a report.
If you determine that no one’s safety is at risk, then you can tell your client, but you still are not required to. Consider the impact that such a disclosure would have on your relationship with your client, and your client’s participation in whatever service he or she is receiving from you. A client may decide that he/she no longer wants to receive services from a social worker who made a report to CPS. Although this decision may seem unfortunate, you also need to remember that the client has the right to self-determination (see NASW Code, Section 1.02). In the case in which a client refuses to continue services with a social worker because he/she made a report to CPS, the social worker should provide the client the opportunity to work with someone else within the agency, or provide a referral to a social worker in another setting.
If you decide NOT to inform your client that you made a report to CPS, consider the impact that this omission might have on your relationship with your client. Consider a client who knows a report was made to CPS, but does not know who made the report. The client may process her or his feelings with the social worker, without knowing that it was that social worker who made the report.
Whatever you tell the client or not, use your education, experience, expertise, and critical thinking skills to make this decision, too. They’ve worked well for you so far, and the more you exercise them, the better they will serve you in the rest of your professional career!
Lau, K., Krase, K., & Morse, R. H. (2009). Mandated reporting of child abuse and neglect: A practical guide for social workers. New York: Springer.
National Association of Social Workers (2008). Code of ethics. Retrieved from: http://www.socialworkers.org/pubs/code/code.asp
New York State Social Services Law, Section 415. Retrieved from: http://codes.lp.findlaw.com/nycode/SOS/6/6/415
Kathryn S. Krase, Ph.D., J.D., MSW, is an assistant professor of social work at Long Island University in Brooklyn, NY. She earned her Ph.D. in social work, her Juris Doctor, and her Master of Social Work from Fordham University. She has written and presented extensively on mandated reporting of suspected child abuse and neglect. She previously served as Associate Director of Fordham University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Family and Child, as well as Clinical Social Work Supervisor for the Family Defense Clinic at New York University Law School.