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"I Don't Have to Report That, Do I?" — Mandatory Reporting  
By Brian Carnahan and Tracey Hosom
December 2016

It is the law in most states that social workers and other licensed professionals must report the violations of other professionals as well as self-report any of their own violations of the ethical practice laws and rules. Mandated reporting is a widely adopted requirement across the United States.

Mandatory reporting can be a source of stress and frustration. Often, licensees will inquire as to whether they have to report a suspected violation. The quick and easy answer: Yes, it is the law; however, there is more to the answer.

Reporting colleagues is difficult, especially when you know it may impact their livelihood. However, it is important to understand why reporting ethical violations is critical for maintaining practice standards, and even how it may impact your own license if you fail to make such a report.

If licensees fail to report a violation of the laws and rules—whether that violation is their own or another's—it is a violation of the laws and rules administered by the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker, & Marriage and Family Therapist Board, a licensee can be disciplined if a violation is reported by another person and it is determined that the licensee was aware of the violation but failed to report it. Many other states, either through that state's rules or through adoption of the NASW Code of Ethics, require social workers to notify the licensing board when a colleague commits an ethical violation.

Ignoring a violation is not helping your colleague(s), the profession, or the public. A properly conducted investigation can help to surface all of the issues and ensure they are sufficiently reviewed to determine whether there are ethical violations. While disciplinary action is a possibility, an investigation could also find there are no issues of concern.

Another reason to make a report is that you do not have knowledge of past behavior that may have led to prior investigations. The behavior or actions exhibited by a colleague could represent a pattern. Quite possibly he or she has engaged in similar actions with many clients—impacting client care for years—but no one has reported the unethical behaviors. A professional might also have been investigated for a boundary violation a decade ago, worked through any challenges regarding that behavior, but again violated a boundary.

In addition, there may have been other allegations that were dismissed for lack of evidence. In most jurisdictions only cases that result in discipline become public information; you have no way to know. Failing to report denies the licensing board an opportunity to assess the situation and ensure clients are getting the best treatment.

If you overlook a first ethical concern, it can become easier to overlook a second. If you know about a violation and do not report it, you become part of the issue. What if client care is greatly affected?

Mandatory reporting requires understanding the laws and rules in question. Another licensee using modalities that you dismiss is not evidence of a violation. Reporting also requires some discretion. Professionals reporting violations need to check their own biases and make sure they are acting in accordance with commonly accepted practice. While it is important to allow the appropriate licensing body to evaluate the concern, it is also critical that the reporting professional exhibit discretion. Those who have recently had training, or even served on a board or with an organization that developed ethical codes, can occasionally be sensitive to ethical lapses.

Another issue with mandatory reporting that can arise is confusing agency or practice policies with laws and rules. Certainly, a professional who reports another professional to the licensure board should make an internal report as well. Can an internal, employer-based report suffice in mandatory reporting situations? Generally, the answer is no. Simply reporting a violation to one's manager is insufficient if the person making the report is also a licensee.

What about violations of agency policies? Some violations, e.g., a policy concerning maintaining boundaries, could also be violations of a specific law or rule, while other policies, such as those involving work rules regarding lunch breaks and time off, are strictly related to the workplace. Violations of these types of rules would not represent a violation of law or rule that must be submitted to the licensure board.

As stated earlier, as a licensed professional you are required to self-report. It can be difficult to notify the board that you have possibly violated the law or rules. You should self-report not only because it is the law but also because it presents an opportunity for you to describe what occurred before an investigation begins. While self-reporting is not a guarantee of leniency, many boards take into account the fact the violation was self-reported when determining any necessary sanctions or discipline. In some instances best practice standards might not have been upheld, but concerns do not rise to the level of a violation requiring discipline against a license. You may find after going through this process that you have become a better practitioner and developed as a professional.

Case Study #1

You are a licensed employee at a local community mental health agency. Your colleague, also a licensed therapist at your agency, invites you to attend a weekend picnic at her home. You attend and notice a familiar face when you arrive.After some thought, you realize the familiar person is a client at your agency; it is someone you have recently seen coming out of a session with your colleague. You observe your colleague chatting with the client; the client and his partner seem to enjoy the party along with all of the other guests. What do you do?

Finding yourself in a social setting and recognizing a client can be uncomfortable. In this case you would have a clear responsibility to report this situation. Start by consulting with your peers, or supervisor, and then document and report your concerns using your licensing board's complaint process.

Case Study #2

A colleague, another licensed employee at your agency, has been arriving to work late. He has also cancelled appointments several times. Recently, when you were in the kitchenette getting coffee before a session, you thought you smelled alcohol on his breath. No clients have complained about him. What do you do?

This type of situation is distressing for coworkers, and while it is not the most frequent concern, boards regularly get impairment complaints. If you are aware that due to an impairment client care is impacted, then report it immediately to the employer and the board. But in this scenario a mandated reporter can take steps. If you are in an agency setting, speak with a supervisor or the human resources department about your concerns. Many employers have policies in place offering employees treatment options. If there has not been client harm, timely treatment may address the concerns. It is important to remember to consult with your peers and supervisors; contact the board with questions.

Mandatory reporting is one requirement that separates licensed professionals from others. As noted above, reporting is a challenging but necessary responsibility for those with a professional license. Knowing the law and acting responsibly will lessen the burden of mandatory reporting.

— Brian Carnahan is executive director of the State of Ohio Counselor, Social Worker, & Marriage and Family Therapist Board.

— Tracey Hosom is an investigator with the State of Ohio Counselor, Social Worker, & Marriage and Family Therapist Board.