Hot ethical topics in social work practice today, and how the code can help you to deal with them.
A framework for assessing and resolving ethical dilemmas
Whether there is a growing gap between social work ethics and social work practice.
Introduction A strong adherence to ethical principles has always been the bedrock of social work practice. In the climate within which social workers are now practicing, it is even more crucial that we become intimately familiar with the new NASW Code of Ethics. Knowing your Code can prevent you from wandering into some ethical dilemmas, or a malpractice suit, or guide you when you are caught in an ethical dilemma.
In social work school we learned that philosophers, theorists, and even pragmatists hold the view that one of the hallmarks of a profession is that it has a code of ethics. Why is a code of ethics so important? Because a code of ethics pulls together the values, principles and standards of practice of a profession. All professions have a set of values that are the cornerstone of their belief system and the foundation of their practice. These values are translated into principles, which embody the ideals of a profession, and then into ethical standards, which are the operationalization of these ideals into practice.
A profession must have values, principles, and a set of ethical standards that is recognized as the basis of ethical practice. Codes of ethics have a crucial codifying purpose. Codes also serve the equally important function of enabling practitioners to be held accountable to the public and to their own profession. To carry out these functions effectively, it is crucial that a code of ethics be updated periodically to keep up with the context of and changes in professional practice.
I have always thought that social work was a profession to be proud of. We should be equally proud of our new Code of Ethics. Codes of ethics are windows into the essence of a profession and our code embodies the best of our profession. The National NASW committee that redrafted the NASW Code of Ethics reviewed the codes of all other human services professions. As a member of that committee I can tell you that our Code stands out in its articulation of our profession's mission, values, principles, the extensiveness of its standards of practice, and in the unique integration of social justice standards.
The new NASW Code of Ethics is not only important for the profession, but most of all this new Code is important for individual social workers--for you. In these complex and difficult times for social work practitioners, no matter what your work setting, or field of practice, ethical dilemmas will inevitably emerge for you. You need and deserve help to identify and solve these dilemmas. You need a code of ethics for the '90's--a code to be our "bridge to the 21st century." Both the profession as a whole and individual social workers gain from having this new cutting edge Code.
Before we begin our journey with the new Code, let us first look at the history of the NASW Code of Ethics.
History Of The NASW Code Of Ethics In the 1920's Mary Richmond developed a very simple, brief code for the American Association of Social Work. Since NASW was formed in 1955 we have only adopted three Codes:
The first Code, adopted in 1960, was only one page long.
The second Code, adopted in 1979, had only minor revisions made to it thereafter. In 1990 NASW added a statement on solicitation of referrals and on fees for referral (NASW Code of Ethics Revision, 1990); in 1993 a standard on impaired social workers and dual relationships was added (NASW Code of Ethics Revision, 1993).
The third Code was adopted in 1996.
Process Of Adopting The New Code For some time it was becoming increasingly clear that a new code was needed to keep up with the changing context within which social workers are practicing, the changes in social work practice, and the demands on the profession. Social workers have been impacted by factors such as new technologies, cut-backs in human service funding, managed care, the increasing litigious nature of our society with a concomitant increase in malpractice cases, and demands for accountability. So in 1994 NASW established the Code of Ethics Revision Committee, charged with developing the new Code.
The process of adopting the Code was highly democratic. Input was actively solicited from relevant national NASW units, NASW Chapters, and NASW members, through the national newspaper. Malpractice cases, and NASW Committee On Inquiry cases were examined. Then, several drafts of the new code were developed and feedback was solicited each time.
Comparison Of The New Code And The Old: What does the new Code have that the old does not?
A mission statement
A section on the uses of codes
A complete statement of social work values
A list of the principles drawn from these values
156 standards of practice, significantly more than the old Code
The new Code also differentiates itself by the fact that it:
Acknowledges that ethical principles can conflict (which leads to ethical dilemmas)
Reflects changes in practice methods and settings
Details behavioral expectations in a greater level of specificity, covering more fields of practice as well as emerging issues for practitioners
Lays out the limits to confidentiality
Acknowledges the use and implications of technology in practice
Emphasizes the importance of avoiding conflict of interest, including dual relationships
Extends time boundaries of professional relationships, tackling the issue of the ex-client
Deals with our private lives as they may affect our professional selves
Addresses issues around research, supervisory relationships, and faculty/ student relationships
Examines relationships and expected behavior with colleagues in greater detail
Re-asserts the focus of the profession on vulnerable and oppressed people
Emphasizes cultural and ethnic diversity throughout
Emphasizes social justice and social change
This is a lot of material to absorb. But rather than feeling overwhelmed by the extensiveness of the new Code you will welcome its guidance when you get comfortable using it.
A Walk Through The New Code Let us now look more closely at the new NASW Code of Ethics.
The Purpose of the Code: One of the new sections of the code is a discussion of its purpose (p.2-3). This section of the new Code tells you why codes are such crucial documents. It lists six purposes (p.2):
1. "The code identifies the core values of the profession."
2. The code identifies "broad ethical principles that reflect the profession's core values," and then establishes specific standards of practice that flow from these principles and that are meant to be utilized to "guide social work practice." (p.2).
3. "The code is designed to help social workers identify relevant considerations when professional obligations conflic
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