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Ethical Thinking

Author: Sophie Freud, LICSW, NASW Ethics Hotline Member

FOCUS Newsletter - November 2000

Conflicts of Interest
One of our highest social work values is to avoid any possible sexual, financial, or emotional exploitation of clients, a rule that is made very explicit in a number of provisions in the social work Code of Ethics. The following case illustrates a social worker’s sensitivity to that value, and her wish to avoid even any appearance of exploitation when a conflict of interest is at stake.

The social worker is a high-school counselor who also conducts a limited private practice on the side. A referral of a high school student from her school was made to her private practice, and after some reflection, she decided that this might be a conflict of interest and did not accept the referral. She called the NASW Ethics Hotline for further suggestions on this matter.

The Ethics committee members raised a number of questions, such as: Is there a school policy on this matter? Were the parents informed of the opportunities for counseling services at the school? Might there be a reason why the parents would prefer counseling not connected with the school for their daughter? What does the student prefer?

The Committee also thought there might be cases in which a child might need long-term counseling which might or might not be available at the school. Committee members thought these issues should be explored before the social worker made a decision on whether to accept a referral of a high school student from her own school.

Who owns the client?
A number of Hotline inquiries deal with the question of "Who owns the client?" Social workers leave an agency and wish to know whether clients can follow them into the private practice they are establishing or even to a new agency that they are joining. Circumstances may differ: departure from the agency may be on friendly professional terms, or it may have been precipitated by conflicts between the social worker and her supervisor or the administration, without even time for proper termination. Clients may ask whether they can continue working with the departing social worker in some other setting, or they may remain silent. In addition, social workers may have signed a contract with their agency regarding "ownership of clients" in case of their departure. Contracts do need to be honored, unless there have been unusual events, in which case legal counsel and colleagues should be consulted before a decision is made.

The social work Code of Ethics specifies that social workers are entitled to inform their clients that they are going into private practice or to some other agency. They must then explain the options open to the client. One option is continuation at the agency with a new worker, and another is following them into their new setting. There may be other options as well. Social workers have, moreover, an obligation to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the client’s options with as much objectivity as possible, and with the client’s best interests at the center of the decision.

Think you are in an ethical dilemma? Please feel free to consult your colleagues in the NASW Ethics Hotline, at (617) 227-9635. Leave your name and phone numbers where you can be reached with the operator. Your call will be returned within 24 hours by a member of the Committee.


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