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Ethical Issues Across the Fields of Practice

FOCUS Newsletter - July 1999

Social workers are more and more becoming concerned about ethical issues in their practice. The Chapter’s Ethics Commission’s April 23rd conference, Ethical Issues Across Fields of Practice, helped the social workers who attended examine ethical issues that cut across different practice settings, and discuss ethical dilemmas that are specific to client populations and settings. Although it is not possible to publish the content from all the excellent workshops, below is the informative keynote speech of Beth DuMez who is national NASW’s staff person in charge of ethics and professional review.

Is wisdom your ultimate life goal? Or bearing responsibility and weighing and choosing among all the inevitable choices? How about piety? Burton Visotzky in his book "The Genesis of Ethics" postulates that Biblical study leads to moral development and that sets one on a path to piety. And the steps along that path? Visotzky says the exposure to varying opinions, debates, and discussions are key to moral development. He admonishes his readers to "ask hard questions, listen to one another, listen to one another, listen to one another. In questions and in listening lie the keys to enduring community and to moral development." There is a parallel here to becoming an ethical practitioner! Can YOU in the midst of your frenetic workdays afford the "luxury" of (or exercise a personal commitment to) thoughtful discourse on difficult issues?

Every social work practitioner grapples with ethics dilemmas, consciously (which is when WE rejoice) or unconsciously. A means and methodology for working through those dilemmas can become a habit. Charles Levy - the grandfather of social work ethics - in a 1987 lecture reminded us that a social worker is in a strategic position to affect others and their interests... what are value-based aspirations affecting the conduct of people in general are, for social workers, enforceable imperatives, he says.

Philosopher Mortimer Adler instructs us that "moral virtues are like the arts or skills... they are habits formed by repeated acts." But - there is always the matter of choice. ". . . a moral philosophy or a code of ethics that relies solely on obedience to the rules it sets forth is totally unpragmatic." Being virtuous is wholly within our power, he challenges. It is a RESULT of exercising our freedom of choice.

The social worker's ethical dilemma derives from (1) the pressure to choose among various interests when all cannot be concurrently and consistently accommodated and (2) the pressure to accommodate the social worker's own personal needs, preferences, and obligations. With regard to the latter, Levy states that preventing personal interest from intruding on the primary duty to clients and others requires vigor and concentration.

This does NOT need to be a lonely journey, however. Listen to the wisdom of Noah BenShea in his slender volume of wisdom titled "Jacob the Baker:"

Two men approached Jacob and asked him to decide which of them was wise. "I know what is right," said the first man. "I know what is wrong," said the other. "Good," said Jacob. "Together you make one wise man."

The Code of Ethics, while it is not a perfect document, is our guide to practice wisdom. Testing ideas and incorporating others' wisdom leads to the amalgam that becomes the foundation of decision making.

Contemporary Practice and Hot Issues
What, you ask, are my colleagues in the profession struggling with? I thought it would be instructive to survey the issues of the last six months that have arisen in NASW's adjudication cases, many of which represent the quandaries of your fellow practitioners and some of which represent wanton disregard for ethical responsibility.

Think of the diverse settings that these cases represent:

  • A social worker referred herself for review based on her action to tell a close neighbor of witnessing the neighbor's husband (a new client of a colleague) acting erratically in the agency...a sort of forewarning for her neighbor/friend.

  • A complaint was filed against a clinical social worker regarding a sexual relationship during therapy and failure to terminate the professional relationship and to refer the client.

  • The client of a colleague of the respondent filed a complaint alleging that the respondent publicly recognized her at a gathering and identified her as a client thus breaching her confidentiality.

  • A complaint was brought because a social worker wrote a letter to the editor of a local newspaper supporting legislation limiting the rights of gays which is not in keeping with the Code of Ethics - even though the writer did not identify himself as a social worker.

  • A client who is a quadriplegic complains that a social worker has been discriminatory and is lacking in compassion; also states that social worker is billing Medicaid under a psychiatrist's name and that he misrepresented himself as a psychologist.

  • A client, also a professional, complains that the social worker has disclosed her client status in her new work setting, including providing copies of casefile information to a supervisor.

  • The brother-in-law of a social worker complains that the social worker has put family members in touch with his wife (social worker's sister) when they are the perpetrators of the wife's childhood sexual abuse.

  • The mother of a child client alleges that she had a sexual relationship with a social worker who treated her child and that the social worker offered phone therapy to her at no charge; further, he would not refer her to another therapist although she requested it.

  • A social worker self-discloses his precipitous termination of professional service to a client with whom he then initiated a sexual relationship.

  • A parent files a complaint alleging denial of access to clinical records and asserting that her child was interviewed without parental consent.

  • A supervisor of a social worker charges her with precipitous termination with a client, leading to "abandonment" because no transfer was arranged nor referral provided.

  • The father of a child complained that a social worker supplied the court with a custody/visitation evaluation that was unfair. In a similar complaint a client alleged preferential treatment of one parent in a joint custody situation, stating he had not given his consent for the treatment of his children and, moreover, the social worker had testified in court favorably for the other parent.

  • A complaint was made of social worker misrepresentation when the practitioner submitted bills for outpatient visits when, in fact, only telephone contacts had occurred.

  • A complaint was brought alleging boundary problems when a social worker hugged, tickled, and wrestled with a teen-aged client.

  • A social worker is charged with denying her client access to records, with failure to retain records, and with not having competent service because a student was assigned to work with the client.

  • A supervisee, who is an outreach worker, complains that the Director of her agency assigned her to intervene in the Director’s son's workplace difficulties.

  • A supervisor files a complaint against a former employee who was terminated following false accusations of sexual harassment.

  • A colleague files a complaint against another social worker in a different agency alleging that the referring worker had failed to warn of the referred client's dangerousness.

  • A complaint is made of a social worker sexually molesting a psychiatric patient after hypnotizing the client.

  • A complaint is made of sexual activity with a client as well as se


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