Employees and Suspicions of Domestic Abuse: Your Obligations

Q. Unfortunately, many of our risk management calls lately involve individuals struggling with suspected mental health issues. These calls are not limited to the behaviors of patients, but extend to providers, support staff, and their families. Recently, we received a call from a family practice regarding an employee being stalked by a violent domestic partner. What can a practice do to protect the employee, practice, and staff?

A. When an employee approaches the practice about the above, it is important to assess the situation in its entirety. Obviously, if there is a belief that there is an imminent threat of violence, the practice should immediately contact law enforcement. However, as with many domestic violence situations, perpetrators can be manipulative, and they are constantly pushing boundaries. With the consent of the employee, it is important to educate staff regarding the ongoing situation and document any communications/observations that may occur at the workplace. Although a perpetrator may not always make direct threats, each interaction (including phone calls) observed by staff members should be dated and separately documented.

The practice should also try to get a detailed history of the perpetrator’s past behavior. If there are pending or prior criminal charges, then there may be an active order of protection (OP) in place. If so, someone at the practice should have a copy of it and understand the parameters of that order. Most OPs in New York State contain either a “stay away” or “refrain from” provision. The complete “stay away” OP generally forbids any communication and does not allow the abuser anywhere near a protected individual’s home, school, or place of employment. A “refrain from” OP is different, and it generally only prevents an abuser from harassing and/or stalking that protected person. It is important for the practice to have a physical copy of the OP because it allows them to act swiftly, should a situation present itself in the workplace. It also empowers the employer to directly report violations of an order of protection should the conduct occur at work.

It is also important to provide the employee with all the resources necessary to assist with the situation, and that would include employer-sponsored counseling and making the employee aware of other community resources available to victims of domestic violence. Information regarding community resources is readily available online and can also be obtained by contacting state/local law enforcement agencies. Resources today are much different from years past, and we strongly encourage all providers to preemptively research what is currently available within their local communities.