Over four decades, “California has expanded the scenarios under which therapists are legally required to break their clients' confidentiality and report to authorities a patient's criminal confessions or threats to hurt someone else,” the L.A. Times reports. “Requirements include disclosing confidential information if patients are an imminent danger to themselves or others; if a patient is a child who is the victim of a crime and reporting is in the best interests of the patient; and if the therapist learns that a child is the victim of neglect or abuse or is in imminent danger.”
Under the old standards, therapists also had to report patients who “knowingly developed, duplicated, printed or exchanged child pornography,” the article notes. “But the statute did not mention viewing or downloading material from the Internet.”
Sean Hoffman, who works for a group that represents Golden State district attorneys, told the newspaper that the law can help police to identify people who view child pornography and create a massive market for material produced through the abuse and exploitation. “If we don't know about it,” he said, “we can't prosecute it." The effect would ostensibly be fewer victims of an abhorrent industry.
But it seems to me that this new standard is likelier to make California more dangerous for children, an unintended consequence some therapists are warning against in a lawsuit they’ve filed in hopes of forcing a return to the previous standard.
My thinking is as follows:
- Sexting among teens should not be criminalized as child pornography at all, and prosecuting teens for sending or receiving explicit images, then forcing them to register as sex offenders, does far more to damage them than does sexting itself.
- Everyone else affected by this law belongs to a small subset of people: those who’ve viewed child pornography and are actively seeking help from a therapist. It seems to me that society has a strong interest in these people seeking and getting treatment, and that this new requirement acts as a powerful disincentive that will lead to a world in which comparatively more child porn is consumed and fewer people attracted to kids are successfully treated.
That high cost of disincentivizing treatment might be worthwhile if there were a large countervailing benefit. But is there? Knowledge of the new law is bound to spread quickly. Once that happens, vanishingly few patients will admit to viewing child porn. That logic alone is perhaps not enough to discredit a reporting requirement. Vanishingly few people are going to tell their therapist that they have a kidnapped child locked in the basement. The therapist could hardly keep quiet about that.
“Petitioners do not dispute that the state's compelling interest in preventing child abuse or neglect can outweigh a patient's constitutional privacy right in the non-disclosure of communications ... regarding ‘hands-on’ or ‘contact’ sexual abuse,” a filing in the lawsuit against the new requirement states. But it adds that “reporting of patients who have viewed Internet child pornography creates no reasonable likelihood that the depicted child victim is in California and can be identified and protected … from further ‘hands on’ sexual abuse by the pornography producers.”