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May 23, 2022

The Risks and Consequences of Failing to Report Child Abuse

Curt and Katie discuss the CA Board of Behavioral Sciences case against Barbara Dixon, LMFT who failed to report child abuse for Gabriel Fernandez and Anthony Avalos who both subsequently died from abuse by caregivers. We look at what this therapist missed as well as appropriate child abuse reporting, including the nuance of when to report. CW: details of child abuse discussed.

Transcripts for this episode will be available at!

In this podcast episode we talk about the importance of child abuse reporting

We talk about the failure to report abuse by Barbara Dixon, LMFT that has recently been in the news related to the deaths of Gabriel Fernandez and Anthony Avalos.

The case related to the child abuse death of Gabriel Fernandez

  • Content Warning: Details of the case, including the actions taken (and not taken) by Barbara Dixon, LMFT
  • The decision-making process with child abuse reporting

Who is responsible to decide to report child abuse – the clinician or the supervisor?

“I hear [prelicensees] wrongly state that ‘I'm working under somebody else's license; this falls on them’ … I cannot emphasize enough that decisions like this, in [Barbara Dixon’s] case, really do indicate that it is your responsibility, no matter what your agency says… People can and do get punished for not following through on their individual licensee or registration responsibilities as mandated reporters.” – Curt Widhalm

  • When supervisors or agencies tell clinicians under supervision not to report child abuse report
  • The individual responsibility that each clinician holds
  • The myth that you’re working “under” your supervisor’s license

How do you decide whether you should report child abuse?

“It's these gray areas where there's this nuance that I think feels really overwhelming. And for some folks, they'll lean towards reporting or consulting to identify if it's reportable. And for other folks, they use that as cover to not report when it feels too uncomfortable.” – Katie Vernoy

  • Clarity from child abuse reporting laws
  • Hesitation based on systemic response, the therapeutic relationship, and the paperwork hassle
  • Where there are gray areas and nuance

The consequences of failing to report child abuse or adequately document services or risks

  • Your agency or supervisor may not be held liable for your actions (especially if you don’t document what you did)
  • Incomplete documentation hurts – it doesn’t help you hide from liability

Appropriate Child Abuse Assessment and Reporting

  • Interviewing the child separately
  • Following up on what you’ve asked for
  • Understanding at what point it becomes our responsibility (i.e., having sufficient information)
  • Documenting each stage and make sure to appropriately close out treatment file when needed
  • Consultation and not making the decision on your own
  • Defining the injury and assess from there
  • Understanding normal childhood response to typical life events (and noting changes)

Navigating the gray areas in child abuse assessment

  • Looking at impact, intent, and injury
  • Using the context to help decide when there isn’t a definitive line
  • Adequately documenting, even when you aren’t sure you’re making the right decision, is important and necessary
  • Looking at what needs systemic intervention and what needs family therapy

Getting past the discomfort to report child abuse report

  • It is your responsibility
  • Taking a moment to understand the purpose of reporting
  • Reducing your own liability
  • Obtaining resources for families
  • Understanding the risk for families of systems getting involved

Our Generous Sponsors for this episode of the Modern Therapist’s Survival Guide:


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Resources for Modern Therapists mentioned in this Podcast Episode:

We’ve pulled together resources mentioned in this episode and put together some handy-dandy links. Please note that some of the links below may be affiliate links, so if you purchase after clicking below, we may get a little bit of cash in our pockets. We thank you in advance!

Los Angeles Times Article: Counselor who didn’t report abuse of Gabriel Fernandez, Anthony Avalos put on 4-year probation

Citation/Enforcement Decision on Barbara Dixon

LA Times Article: Charges dismissed against social workers linked to Gabriel Fernandez’s killing

Relevant Episodes of MTSG Podcast:

Now Modern Therapists Have to Document Every F*cking Thing in Our Progress Notes?

Do Therapists Curse in Session?

Toxic Work Environments

Giving and Getting Good Supervision

Make Your Paperwork Meaningful: An interview with Dr. Maelisa McCaffrey Hall

Noteworthy Documentation: An interview with Dr. Ben Caldwell, LMFT

CYA for Court: An interview with Nicol Stolar-Peterson, LCSW


Who we are:

Curt Widhalm, LMFT

Curt Widhalm is in private practice in the Los Angeles area. He is the cofounder of the Therapy Reimagined conference, an Adjunct Professor at Pepperdine University and CSUN, a former Subject Matter Expert for the California Board of Behavioral Sciences, former CFO of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, and a loving husband and father. He is 1/2 great person, 1/2 provocateur, and 1/2 geek, in that order. He dabbles in the dark art of making "dad jokes" and usually has a half-empty cup of coffee somewhere nearby. Learn more at:

Katie Vernoy, LMFT

Katie Vernoy is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, coach, and consultant supporting leaders, visionaries, executives, and helping professionals to create sustainable careers. Katie, with Curt, has developed workshops and a conference, Therapy Reimagined, to support therapists navigating through the modern challenges of this profession. Katie is also a former President of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. In her spare time, Katie is secretly siphoning off Curt's youthful energy, so that she can take over the world. Learn more at:

A Quick Note:

Our opinions are our own. We are only speaking for ourselves – except when we speak for each other, or over each other. We’re working on it.

Our guests are also only speaking for themselves and have their own opinions. We aren’t trying to take their voice, and no one speaks for us either. Mostly because they don’t want to, but hey.

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Modern Therapist’s Survival Guide Creative Credits:

Voice Over by DW McCann

Music by Crystal Grooms Mangano