On the surface, the issue of having researchers included as mandated reporters seems a simple one. If a psychologist is aware that a person is being harmed (or at risk of being harmed), a responsible person would attempt to intervene or notify an appropriate person to insure the safety and well-being of the person at risk. Perhaps this is why the preamble to APA's Ethics Code asserts as a primary goal, "the welfare and protection of the individuals and groups with whom psychologists work." However, when applying this concept to the domain of victimization, the issue is not simple, because that which protects the victim may not protect the victimizer. If only one group's interests can be served, which should it be? The easy answer is that in most cases it is against the law not to report possible abuse, and we, as psychologists, have an ethical responsibility (per APA's Ethics Code) to uphold the law.
The more complex answer examines the meaning behind the laws: Do we have a moral obligation to protect children and elderly victims, before the perpetrators? The principle underlying our legal and moral obligations to protect children and the elderly from harm is our need to protect those who cannot insure their own safety. It is important to understand that maltreated children and elderly people are often too weak, too vulnerable and too fearful to protect themselves or to seek protection from their perpetrators. Furthermore, most instances of interpersonal violence come from perpetrators who are regular acquaintances or family members--making protection-seeking an especially difficult task for them.
Our understanding of the unique vulnerabilities of victims of interpersonal violence supported the development of mandated child-abuse reporting laws in the 1960s, and more recently, mandated requirements to report abuse of the elderly. As a result, mandated reporting plays a successful and central role in a protection system that leads to social services, medical and mental health care and education. Should research psychologists be excluded from being mandated reporters? My answer is an unqualified "No." Without consistent efforts to identify potential victims of maltreatment, we fail to support our code of ethics and our own moral obligations.
Despite the weight of these ethical and moral responsibilities, some researchers continue to stand by the belief that they should not have to report abuse. Some argue that including reporting requirements in informed consent documents may confuse and intimidate prospective subjects. I argue that this is why the process of verbally reviewing informed consent documents is important--especially with children. Some argue that the mandate to report may interfere with the acquisition of accurate data because perpetrators of interpersonal violence would be reluctant to disclose incriminating information or refuse to participate. I argue that innovative research designs and procedures can minimize this risk to data. Also, if mandated reporting procedures are explained to prospective research participants in a supportive manner as part of establishing a trusted relationship, they will have a minimal impact on researchers' ability to do quality research.
Some complain that reporting laws are overly vague--sometimes making it difficult to understand what a reporter is supposed to do. I argue that we should clarify definitions, our roles, mandated occupations and our responsibilities. Typically, the better procedures are understood, the greater the likelihood that desired behavior will follow. When faced with balancing rights to confidentiality, child protection and legal obligations, a researcher may be easily confused. To address some of these ambiguities, education and training regarding our responsibilities as mandated reporters should be and is a requirement in many states.
In short, our moral and ethical obligations to report maltreatment are clear, and should outweigh any doubts about research quality, or fears of driving away potential research subjects. I believe it is my professional and personal duty to notify the appropriate authority should anyone harm my clients or subjects. As a clinician and as a researcher, it is my job to help others--even if this help involves disclosing difficult, but truthful, information. Maybe this issue is not really all that complicated after all. Sometimes the most honest and truthful communication is the most simple.Anthony Urquiza, PhD, is a child psychologist at the University of California, Davis, Medical Center.