Dating and Relationship Advice

If you're not a first responder like a police officer, paramedic, therapist, or social worker, you may never have heard of mandatory reporting laws. It might surprise you to learn that these laws, which are murky and differ from state to state, can have a massive impact on your dating life if you're disabled. In fact, these laws are likely shaping your dating life behind the scenes without your knowledge, so it's important to understand these seemingly unrelated laws.

What is Mandatory Reporting?

Mandated reporting refers to the body of laws regulating the legal obligation to report abuse, typically covering neglect, physical, sexual, emotional, and financial abuse or suspicion of such. These laws establish an enforceable duty for designated reporters who have regular contact with vulnerable populations. Legally, vulnerable populations include children, seniors (the federal government defines seniors as people aged 65 and older), and, the most relevant for us, disabled people. Another class of "vulnerable" people included in some states' mandatory reporting laws is intimate partners depending on the situation. Some healthcare workers are required to report certain infectious diseases. Before the advent of digital technology, film developers were also considered mandatory reporters, which shows how far-reaching this body of law can be.

While it does differ per state, mandatory reporters generally include childcare providers, clergy, coaches, counselors, healthcare providers, law enforcement, principals, and teachers. Mandatory reporting laws require people in these roles to report to Child Protective Services (CPS), Adult Protective Services (APS), and other similar government agencies. And this is where the concerns are: mandatory reports are not required to provide proof of their suspicions of abuse; they are, instead, encouraged to simply make a report at the slightest hint of abuse of a member of a vulnerable population. CPS, APS, and the other government agencies tasked with receiving reports are the ones to investigate.

What is the problem with mandatory reporting laws?

The intention behind these laws is probably good: we want to protect the vulnerable, the people who may not be able to protect or speak up for themselves. And certainly, it is a hallmark of a functional, healthy society to want to ensure the health and safety of its most vulnerable members as much as possible. The problem is that these laws are often so vague, and there is so little training on their content beyond "if you suspect something, report something ASAP" that it's hard to know if and when they might be doing more harm than good. Because there are strict timeframes for making reports—most laws say reporters need to submit reports "as soon as possible" after suspicious of abuse of a vulnerable person arises, there is often little time to consult with a supervisor or colleague.

The worst part is that the little training mandated reports receive only encourages them to report abuse or suspicion of such. Such training would rarely discuss the downsides of reporting or the negative effects of getting CPS or APS involved in the life of someone who is a) already vulnerable and b) potentially in an abusive situation. Let's say you have an intellectual or developmental disability and you're attending a peer support group run by a social worker. You want to talk about your struggles in your intimate relationship because you want help determining if it's healthy. This should be a good thing; disabled people often struggle to find authentic social support, so they would hope that the few options available would be safe.

What are the implications specifically for disabled people?

But mandatory reporting laws threaten that safety. The social worker facilitating the group is a mandated reporter. Disabled people are considered vulnerable by law. The laws don't require evidence or proof of abuse, and the dominant culture around mandatory reporting encourages people to report mere suspicion of abuse immediately. So if the person seeking support in discerning whether their relationship is healthy mentions something that could be construed as abuse or neglect, the social worker would be obligated by law, despite how much they might really not want to, to report anything that seemed suspicious of mistreatment.

The disabled person could bring up a tough fight to the group for processing, but if the social worker interprets the he-said-she-said as "verbal abuse," APS could be notified immediately, with or without the knowledge of the person seeking assistance. Since people are not informed about how mandatory reporting laws work, they cannot make informed decisions about what they share with others in the presence of a mandated reporter. It is often the case that at least some mandated reporters, such as social workers, will inform people when they need to make a mandatory report. Many will even stop the person from disclosing something that could technically trigger mandatory reporting laws. Still, the trouble is more than simply getting governmental agencies involved in your life, often harmfully and intrusively.

But they are not obligated to protect people's privacy; they are obligated to follow the law as best as they understand it (which is not very much given the absence of training on such a topic that could radically alter the course of someone's life. The cases where CPS and APS have worsened situations that were already precarious are growing, which is incredibly distressing when you think about all the mandatory reports made because the reporter wasn't entirely sure. Their suspicion turned out to be a misunderstanding or cultural incompetency or would have disappeared with more information. Once CPS or APS is involved, it is complicated to extract them without going through their entire invasive process that can tear families and relationships apart.

So, it's not simply the existence of mandatory reporting laws that can be problematic for the "vulnerable" people trying to date while disabled. Nor is it that most people, including those mandated reporters themselves, are simply unaware of the particulars of these laws. The far-reaching nature of these laws that they could apply to more areas than first seems logical. (At one point, film developers were considered mandated reporters. What other unsuspecting professions could be implicated in such vague yet stern laws?) It's also that the culture around these laws encourages snap judgments and quick action without much consultation or evidence gathering that could be conducted in far less intrusive manners than what CPS and APS typically do.

Whether or not mandatory reporting law reform should happen immediately is not the issue. The issue is the lack of knowledge around specifics, the encouragement and pressure to report mere suspicions, and the lack of education around the damage reporting can do to the very people mandatory reporting laws were intended to protect. If you're disabled, you're a vulnerable person, according to the government. And that means that it's unclear where safe environments to disclose if you don't want government agencies involved in your life to have some serious consequences.

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