Frequently Asked Questions

This section provides an overview on questions that commonly come up concerning confidentiality releases, U.S. Federal Laws on confidentiality, record retention and deletion, mandatory reporting, the use of surveillance cameras, answering subpoenas and much more. For ease, this section is set up in an easy-to-read question and answer format.

Mandated Reporters and Confidentiality Questions

When a client enters our shelter, s/he completes an emergency contact sheet. If s/he does not return after curfew, we contact the emergency contact to find out if s/he is okay or in danger. Is this okay?

Is it explained to each person when filling out the emergency contact sheet that not returning by curfew is considered an emergency and the contact person will be contacted at that point, therefore informing them that s/he is or was in your shelter? What the emergency contact form is used for and what defines an emergency should be clear, as it may change the person listed on the form.

A best practice would be to have an informed, written, reasonably time-limited “Emergency Contact Release” that is the same as a release of information. The form should be along these lines: “In the event that I do not return by curfew, I will call the program. In certain circumstances, the program is allowed to contact the following person/s. This emergency contact will be valid for the next ___ days.  The circumstances are….” The advocate should have a conversation with the survivor about the risks and benefits of signing the release, its time limits, and how the advocate would know whether the survivor has purposely left shelter and is ok so that the advocate does not assume an emergency when there is no emergency. In addition, the advocate and survivor should discuss what the program should do if the victim’s identified emergency contact does not know where the victim is and what actions the program will take.

Are former clients still protected under confidentiality laws? What if we hear that a survivor could be in danger – is it a breach of confidentiality to call law enforcement if the person is no longer a client?

Yes, former clients are still protected by confidentiality laws. Yes, it would be considered a breach of confidentiality to contact law enforcement or anyone else without a release. Calling law enforcement would reveal that the person previously received services from your organization. Without consent from the former client, you would be violating his/her confidentiality. This also applies if law enforcement or another agency calls to confirm if someone used your services in the past.

In addition, we know that it is important to respect a survivor’s self-determination in deciding when it is safe and when it is not safe to reach out for assistance, contact a program, or call the police. Doing this without the person’s consent could undermine that self-determination and safety.

It is also important to recognize that even if you are a mandated reporter, that a report is only required when there is suspected abuse under the statute. A rumor that abuse is occurring is not a basis for a report.

Is a release required for ongoing communication with CPS for follow-up services during the investigation?

If you are a mandated reporter, you may make a report to CPS without a release. However, you may only disclose the minimum information necessary under state law.  Any information beyond what is required under state law will require a release.

A few state laws require follow-up with CPS and in these rare instances, you would not need a release for future conversations; although you would be obligated to notify the survivor of your mandate. If your state does not specifically mandate follow-up with CPS, you would need a release of information in order to provide any information beyond what is required by the report of suspected child abuse or neglect. It is important to know your state laws and whether your professional role has specific confidentiality requirements. Check with your U.S. state or territorial coalition if you are not sure.

Do I need to notify a survivor if I make a report to CPS and I am a mandated reporter?

Best practice is to notify the victim and the non-abusive parent/guardian of an unemancipated minor and to take steps to protect their privacy and safety as much as possible. VAWA requires that agencies make “reasonable attempts” to notify the survivor of the report. If it would be dangerous to do so, it could be reasonable to not specifically inform him/her. Best practice would also be to give the survivor an opportunity to self-report and use other services.  A few state laws require follow-up with CPS and in these rare instances, you would not need a release for future conversations; although you would be obligated to notify the survivor of your mandate and what steps you must take to fulfill your legal obligation.

We work in a state in which advocates are NOT mandated by law to report child abuse. If an advocate observes something they think should be reported and the parent refuses to provide a release, under VAWA, we can't do anything to protect the child?

If you are not a mandated reporter, you need a written informed time-limited release to call the Child Protective Services (CPS) hotline; you cannot call CPS or some other outside agency unless you get the consent of the child and the non-abusive parent/guardian of an unemancipated minor. Consent may not be given by an abuser. In terms of advocacy and services however, there are many other things that can be done to address what is happening and to protect the child.

If you are a mandated reporter under your state’s law, you may make a report to CPS without a release. Being compelled to share information according to state law is an exception to VAWA and mandatory reporting laws are an example. However, you may only disclose the minimum information required under state law.