HIPAA Did Not Preclude Psychotherapist from Reporting That 16-Year-Old Boy Saw Child Pornography on His Father's Home Computer

Developments in Mental Health Law, January 2006 | Go to article overview

HIPAA Did Not Preclude Psychotherapist from Reporting That 16-Year-Old Boy Saw Child Pornography on His Father's Home Computer


A sixteen-year-old boy disclosed to his psychotherapist that he saw (1) pornographic images of children on his father's computer at home and (2) his father sitting naked at his computer in front of a webcam. Although there was no indication the father had sexually abused his son, the psychotherapist reported the disclosure to law enforcement authorities, which ultimately led to the arrest of the father. The father asserted that this report violated the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and, thus, all evidence generated as a result of this report, including a search of the father's computer, should be suppressed.

A federal district court in Tennessee rejected the father's motion to suppress. First, the court ruled, the information disclosed by the psychotherapist did not fall within HIPAA's definition of protected "health information." The court noted that the privacy protections of HIPAA apply to "past, present or future physical or mental health or condition of an individual, the provision of health care to an individual, or the past, present, or future payment for the provision of health care to an individual." In contrast, the information conveyed by the psychotherapist pertained to the defendant's conduct in possessing and viewing child pornography and contained neither information about the physical or mental health treatment of her client nor medical or billing records.

Second, the court determined, even if the disclosure had contained protected health care information, HIPAA provides an exception that authorized this disclosure. The court cited a HIPAA provision that permits disclosure about an individual reasonably believed to be a victim of abuse, neglect, or domestic violence to a governmental authority to the extent the disclosure is expressly authorized by statute or regulation and the person providing the report believes, in the exercise of professional judgment, that the disclosure is necessary to prevent serious harm to the individual or other potential victims. …

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