Earlier in June, Governor Larry Hogan allowed a bill to pass into law that reduces the minimum age at which a minor has the capacity to consent to mental health consultation, diagnosis, and certain treatments. The bill changes the age at which minors do not need guardian consent for these services from 16 to 12 years old.
While allowing minors 12 years and older to pursue mental health services, the law includes provisions for circumstances where a healthcare professional might opt to inform a parent or guardian about certain aspects of treatment, unless that disclosure might harm the minor or deter them from seeking care. The law does not allow the prescribing of psychiatiric drugs to minors under 16 without their parental permission.
Lawmakers advancing the bill highlighted that it helps make mental healthcare more accessible to minors in families and communities where such care is not normalized, or where the relationship to helping professionals is strained. But the changes introduced may also have immense benefit to children who have been sexually abused. While it is estimated 90% of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by an adult known to the child, recent research indicates that abuse occurring in the home by parental figures is a greater concern than has historically been acknowledged. An Australian study of child sexual abuse material found that 42% of adult survivors identified their father (biological, step, or adoptive) as the primary perpetrator.
While the above is only one recent finding, we know parental offenders exist and are often harder to detect than others. This new law expands the access to care and safety for kids trapped in harmful homes.
Originally introduced for the 2020 session, the legislation did not make it through the State Senate due to the impact of the pandemic. However, now more than ever a law like this can help youth in Maryland. As we have written prior, the pandemic caused a dramatic decrease in reports of child abuse due to the sudden decrease in interaction between kids and mandated reporters in their lives. Making matters worse, the severity of abuse increased during the pandemic, and many families experienced a rise in the circumstances that contribute to child maltreatment: stress, unemployment, isolation, and so on.
As youth activities resume, and children begin coming into contact with more caretakers, child welfare workers anticipate an uptick of overdue abuse reports, as well as the more general hurdles for children readjusting to a more normal social life. While the new legislation does not take effect until October 1st, it will add to the growing toolbox of child wellbeing across the State of Maryland.