Should every case of domestic violence be reported?

I am on my last rotation for medical school. It is a “rural selective”, which is a required elective at a rural or underserved location. I am fulfilling it at a local community health center in the women’s health department. Fun!

I am taking part in a day long orientation today. In one of the presentations, the speaker had a point on one of the slides about mandatory reporting, and included all domestic violence as falling under that category. I rose my hand and suggested that we had been trained that elder abuse and child abuse fell under that category, but other domestic violence did not. I couched that statement by saying it was controversial and I didn’t say I necessarily agreed (although I do).

One of the other attendees got very perturbed by my correction, and said I was wrong. I said I disagreed, politely. The speaker and several other attendees said they thought I was correct, and one pointed out that other vulnerable adults, such as someone with a disability, also fell under the mandatory reporting group. At the end of the speaker’s presentation, the offended woman called me out specifically, and again told me I was incorrect, but again, had nothing to back herself up other than her strong emotional response. Since this was a training on legal requirements of the job and privacy, and this population definitely would include adult victims of domestic violence, I decided to look up the law.

When I located the appropriate information, I read it out loud to the group. This nursing CEU was the first good site I found, and it had very complete information. I read this part:

Intimate Partner Abuse

Florida statute 790.24 requires healthcare providers to report gunshot or life-threatening wounds or injuries. Obviously, this does not cover the majority of injuries sustained in IPV. However, reporting suspected domestic violence without the informed consent of the victim is unethical and may cause the abuser to retaliate.

She interrupted me and said “SEE? You have to report gunshot wounds!” and I continued to read the rest of the quote. Then she angrily said “Well of course you need their informed consent!”, and I countered “Well, then that’s not mandatory reporting, is it?” She got more agitated, and started pacing the room, telling me I am saying to send these women home to get killed. I said no, and tried to explain, again, the rationale of establishing trust with the patient, many of whom are not at a place where they are ready to leave or press charges. She said she would definitely report any case she saw of suspected intimate partner violence, and said she didn’t want these women killed. I said that they may not press charges, and then may not trust health care practitioners again, and still get killed.

I know that IPV is a sensitive, triggering topic for many, including me. I was in a relationship with verbal and emotional abuse, and trust me, if people came on too strong about me leaving him when I wasn’t ready to, I avoided them in the future. I would not come to them when there was an incident, because I didn’t want a lecture of how it was my fault for staying. When we went over this in medical school (and I was still in my abusive relationship), one member of my small group said she was a victim of physical violence in a past relationship, and she would absolutely never press charges, she would lie to any health care practitioner or official about it, and defend him under any circumstances, when she was still in the relationship.

These victims already feel an enormous lack of control. It is not our job to control them or act for them. It is our job to be there for them on their terms. Even if it gets us emotional.

“MomTFH” is a medical student who blogs at Mom’s Tinfoil Hat.

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