Optometrists should be aware of legal and ethical reporting requirements

Keith R. Kerns, Esq.–OOA Executive Director

Optometrists are well respected professionals and are trusted members of any community.  As such, state law and the AOA’s Standards of Professional Conduct (Standards) place obligations upon optometrists to report abuse and neglect at certain times.  It is important for optometrists to be familiar with the legal and ethical requirements surrounding this important subject.

Section C of the Standards, entitled “beneficence” or “do good,” calls on optometrists to “have the responsibility to identify signs of abuse and neglect in children…and to report suspected cases to the appropriate agencies, consistent with state law.”

Ohio law confers a special obligation upon certain trusted members of society to take action in suspected cases of child abuse.  Ohio Revised Code section 2151.421 requires health care professionals acting in their professional capacity to immediately report that a child has suffered or faces a threat of suffering abuse or neglect.  For purposes of the requirement, a child is defined as any minor under the age of 18 and a developmentally disabled, mentally retarded or physically impaired child under the age of 21.

The directive in Ohio law is clear, but what constitutes “abuse” and “neglect” may not always be as clear.  Again, state law tries to provide some guidance on this issue.  The law defines an abused child as one who has been the victim of sexual activity or exhibits evidence of any physical or mental injury inflicted not by accident.

A neglected child is defined as a child who is abandoned, lacks adequate parental care or suffers physical or mental injury due to a parent or guardian’s omission.  Additionally, a child whose parent(s) or guardian(s) refuse “to provide proper or necessary subsistence, education, medical or surgical care or treatment, or other care necessary for the child’s health, morals, or well-being,” also meets the definition of a neglected child.

This guidance is helpful but even within these definitions, there is quite a bit of discretion placed upon the practitioner to determine whether a child is suffering from abuse or neglect.  An optometrist must evaluate the situation thoroughly and make a determination as to whether a reasonable person in his or her position believes that the situation constitutes abuse or neglect.  If it does, then the decision is clear.  An optometrist must report the issue to the proper authorities, in this case a local child services agency or law enforcement officer in the county in which the child resides.

An agency that receives the report may ask the optometrist to follow up with additional information in writing.  This written report should include the name and address of the child and parent(s)/guardian(s), the child’s age and nature of the injuries, abuse or neglect that was suffered, and any other information that may be helpful in establishing the cause of the injury, abuse or neglect.

In almost every instance, a report is considered confidential and the information contained within it and the name of the person who reported it is not to be released.  Additionally, the information in the report and name of the person filing the report cannot be used as evidence in any civil action brought against the person making the report.  Ohio law recognizes that these good faith reports are essential in order to protect the well-being of at-risk children and confers these necessary protections on those who report suspected abuse.

For more information on this important issue, please contact the OOA at (800) 874-9111.

*This information is intended to provide general guidance and should not be considered legal advice.  Optometrists and staff should rely on the advice of their own legal counsel on specific issues.

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