California’s ludicrous new elder abuse reporting law

California law has changed dramatically for mandated reporters of suspected elder or dependent adult abuse. The good news: The changes only impact some instances of abuse. The bad news: The law is a needlessly complex mess.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

Elderly couple with ear muffsWhile the California legislative process often works quite well — witness the passage of SB1172 — a pair of other bills that got far less attention this year will also impact the practices of MFTs, LCSWs, and LPCCs (and all psychotherapists) in the state.

California’s requirements for mandated reporting of elder and dependent adult abuse have changed significantly. These changes have already taken effect, because one of the bills putting the changes into place was marked as emergency legislation. The new law replaces what had been a single standard for when and to whom reports are sent with five different standards based on the specifics of the situation — specifics that, under the law, mandated reporters are not required to investigate.

“Wait, what?” is a fully appropriate response here.

Assembly Bill 40 began in 2011 as a response to an information-sharing problem. When elder or dependent adult abuse takes place in a long-term care facility (such as a nursing home), mandated reporters could report to either law enforcement or the county ombudsperson (a sort of resident advocate for those in long-term care). However, there were problems with information-sharing between ombudspersons and law enforcement, so AB40 initially would have required mandated reporters to send their written reports of suspected abuse to both.

It was a dumb and expensive way to solve the information-sharing problem, forcing therapists to take the time to make duplicate reports rather than just fixing the information flow between ombudspersons and law enforcement. Some of California’s mental health professionals jumped in to oppose the measure.

But it moved forward anyway, with the support of ombudspersons and law enforcement organizations. AB40 was amended many times through its journey through the legislature, and many of the same changes were proposed in Senate Bill 1051. Where the process ended is this:

As of today (because SB1051 was marked emergency legislation, it took effect September 27, 2012, immediately upon the Governor’s signature), mandated telephone reports of suspected elder or dependent adult abuse in California must be made “immediately or as soon as practicably possible” in some cases, “immediately, and no later than within two hours” in others, and within 24 hours in others. Written reports must be sent to various combinations of law enforcement, adult protective services, county ombudspersons, and facilities’ licensing agencies — requiring triplicate reporting in some instances. Filing reports via Internet appears to be allowed in some instances and not others. And the acceptable time frames for written reports will now vary as well, from 2 hours to two working days. These combinations are based on:

  • Whether the abuse took place in a long-term care facility
  • Whether the abuse was physical abuse
  • Whether the abuse resulted in serious bodily injury
  • Whether the abuse was caused by a resident with a physician’s diagnosis of dementia

For the problems that existed with the old standard, at least mandated reporters could be reasonably expected to know who they needed to report to, and when. The new standards are simply too complex to be held in memory, and will likely result in many reports being sent to the wrong places at the wrong times.

It’s bad law.

But it is currently the law of California. So mandated reporters will need to be able to determine where their reports should go and when.

I’ve put together a flowchart of reporting timelines and report recipients; a thumbnail appears below, and the full-size, non-pixelated version is part of my ebook, Basics of California Law for LMFTs, LPCCs, and LCSWs (2013 edition). Use the link for more information or to order.

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Your feedback is welcome, through the comments here, by email to ben [at] bencaldwell [dot] com, or to my decidedly non-abusive Twitter feed.