February 6, 2020 By Wallin & Klarich

A California Supreme Court decision could have major implications for a law requiring psychotherapists to crireport patients who, in the course of therapy, admit to having viewed or downloaded child pornography. Since 2014, the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act (CANRA) requires therapistds to contact law enforcement anytime a patient admits to these acts–due to the expansion of the definition of “sexual exploitation” with Assembly Bill 1775. 

A group of therapists is challenging the law on the grounds that it violates the sanctity of the therapist-patient relationship by requiring therapists to violate the trust of their patients to keep confidential the topics discussed in therapy1. In a narrow ruling, the Court sent the case back to a lower court to gather more evidence on whether the law is constitutional. The burden is now on the state to show that it has a compelling reason to invade the privacy of patients, many of whom seek the help of therapists to control sexual urges leading to the viewing of child pornography. 

Is California Undermining Its Own Interests?

The state’s argument in favor of the reporting requirement is that no person has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the disclosing of an admission to having viewed or received images of child pornography.

However, the goal of the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act (CANRA) [PC 11164] is ultimately to protect minors from sexual exploitation, but the therapists have a strong argument that requiring them to report admissions of patients to law enforcement undermines this goal. Patients who might otherwise seek professional help in controlling the impulse to view child pornography are more likely to avoid speaking to a therapist if they know that they could be reported to the police. Without this help, many of those patients will continue to create a marketplace for the creation of images that sexually exploit children.

Additionally, the reporting requirement is broadly written to include reporting the admission of minors who view nude photos of their girlfriend or boyfriend sent to them via text message (“sexting”), which is a much more common occurrence now as more and more teenagers get access to smartphones. A teen in therapy might therefore admit to, and be subject to prosecution for a crime that they were not aware they could commit. 

Share Your Opinion With Us! Wallin & Klarich Would Like To Hear From You!

We want to hear from you on this topic: If a person is seeking professional help to control urges to view child pornography, should those therapy sessions remain confidential, or does the state have the right to intrude upon private therapy sessions when the patient admits to this crime? Please share your opinion in the comments below.

1Mathews v. Becerra, S240156, California Supreme Court (San Francisco)

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