Social work is one of the most critical disciplines in the applied social sciences because it deals with individuals, families, and different social groups’ social, physical, and emotional well-being. With the knowledge and skills gained during training, social workers are expected to exercise the highest level of professionalism when dealing with clients. Apart from relying on discretionary judgment to make sound decisions regarding their patients, practitioners must adhere to policies and standards developed by social work associations. Despite having a framework of reference, which includes codes of conduct, social workers may fall victim to ethical issues; hence, a comprehensive analysis of an ethical case in practice and an alternative solution to handling similar events can prevent conflicts of values in the future.
In one of his periodic conference issues, Frederic Reamer wrote about an ethical lawsuit that was filed against a clinical social worker in 2017. The case involved an adolescent boy and his parents, who were in the process of divorcing (Reamer, 2017). While offering his counseling services to the teenager, the social worker was faced with an ethical issue; he disclosed sensitive information regarding one of the clients. It was alleged that the defendant shared an email with an attorney containing his impression of the boy’s father, whom he regarded as emotionally unstable and abusive (Reamer, 2017). The plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the social worker after the messages were used during a child custody case. Hence, the defendant violated several National Association of Social Workers (NASW) codes of ethics.
NAWS Codes Violated
One of the codes that was violated in the above case scenario was a commitment to clients. The first section of NAWS ethical codes requires social workers to “promote the well-being of clients” (National Association of Social Workers [NASW], 2008, sec.1.01). The moral standard also makes provisions for professionals to guide their patients in scenarios when legal obligation supersedes primary care (NASW, 2008). Although the social worker bore responsibility to the larger society of providing information about the abusive nature of the boy’s father, he failed to inform his client about such disclosure. Therefore, he overlooked an essential code in practice.
The social worker also failed to adhere to the established standards on conflict of interest. Ethical principles require practitioners to “be alert to and avoid conflicts of interest that interfere with the exercise of professional discretion and impartial judgment” (NASW, 2008, sec.1.06). Under this code of conduct, social workers are obligated to inform their clients of situations when their concerns are incompatible with those of other parties. In the case scenario, the practitioner would be expected to notify the boy’s father of a potential conflict of interest arising from the request made by the mother’s attorney. However, the social worker infringed the measures and shared his opinion without his client’s consent.
Furthermore, the social worker failed to follow the standard procedures provided by NAWS for handling conflicts of interest. The code requires practitioners to clarify their roles with the parties involved in a dispute and to “take appropriate action to minimize any conflict of interest” (NASW, 2008, sec.1.06). Thus, based on the NAWS codes, the social worker would be expected to highlight his role as the teenager’s counselor before initiating the service. In addition, he would be obligated to discuss with both parents the extent to which he considered them as clients and the measures he would take to avoid potential conflicting concerns. The practitioner’s failure to observe this critical standard became a primary source of the ethical lawsuit filed against him.
Effects of the Ethical Issue
The selected case scenario adversely affected social work practice, clients, and services. For instance, it jeopardized the pillars of social work – the values and principles that facilitate the provision of social and mental health services. Among the core values of social work is competence, which enables practitioners to respect the rights and confidentiality of their clients. From the above example, it is clear that this essential value was not exercised, although the aspect did not directly impact the immediate client. The defendant’s act of disclosing sensitive information to third parties was a clear indication of incompetence in social work practice.
Furthermore, the practice affected the client’s confidence level in the system to the extent of filing a lawsuit against the practitioner. In my view, discretion is one of the qualities that facilitate a lasting relationship between consumers and providers of social work services. The social worker’s decision to share an impression of his client’s behavior to a third party may have damaged the professional bond between him and the teenager’s father. Therefore, from the bleach of codes of ethics, the plaintiff was entitled to press the legal charges.
My analysis revealed that the social worker in the case study may have faced an ethical dilemma of whether to serve the interests of his clients or to fulfill his social obligation of sharing information that would benefit the adolescent boy. In my opinion, it would have been ideal for him to disclose such knowledge with the full consent of other parties involved in the system, regardless of their position in the service as active or passive consumers. Hence, the solution is based on the NASW value of social justice, which guides practitioners into pursuing social change (NASW, 2008). In addition to ensuring that clients achieve an optimal level of social and mental health, social workers are also tasked with advocating for social justice in society and protecting vulnerable groups. The principle is based on a moral imperative in Christianity, which is described as “faith out of the suffering, struggle, and hope of the poor” (Hemphill, 2015, p. 2). Hence, considering the concepts behind both definitions, it would be valid to argue that the teenager was exposed to his father’s acts of violence and emotional instability. As an employee guided by Christian values and professional standards, the social worker should have disclosed his concerns about the child’s well-being after notifying all parties of the anticipated conflict of interest.
Professional Social Work Values, Personal, and Christian Values
Often, social workers may experience differences in their personal, religious, and professional standards. According to Valutis and Rubin (2016), such conflicts arise when practitioners encounter situations that bring them face-to-face with value incongruity. An example includes the above case study whereby a social worker may have experienced multiple challenges in choosing between Christian values of social justice and honesty and a professional code of conduct. Studies show that social workers opt to exercise discretionary judgment or follow established policies when faced with such conflicts (Valutis & Rubin, 2016). Given the complexity of these values conflicts, it is usually advisable for service providers to adhere to professional values regardless of whether they align with personal and Christian values.
As a social worker, I choose to overcome the conflict of values and allow professional standards to guide my practice by recognizing personal and Christian values that are incongruent with the existing code of conduct. In my experience, I have encountered several cases of clients wishing to discuss issues against my beliefs. Others sought help on controversial societal matters, such as abortion and homosexuality. In such instances, I may be compelled to be judgmental if I choose to put my values before the clients’ interests. By identifying such incompatibilities, I would have the opportunity to analyze their effects on patients’ treatment and avoid them during clinical sessions.
The ethical dilemma in the case study may be unavoidable in social work practice due to the existing inconsistency among professional, personal, and Christian values. When such issues occur, they often affect service provision and clients’ satisfaction. Thus, to avoid moral concerns, social workers should ensure that they adhere to the NASW code of ethics. Alternatively, they can integrate their discretionary judgment with formal policies to develop an effective treatment for their patients. In addition, practitioners who wish to operate firmly under the guidance of professional social work values should recognize and avoid personal and Christian values that may impede their clients’ state of well-being.
Hemphill, B. (2015). Social justice as a moral imperative. Open Journal of Occupational Therapy, 3(9), 1-9. doi:10.15453/2168-6408.1150
National Association of Social Workers. (2008). Preamble to the code of ethics. Retrieved from https://www.socialworkers.org
Reamer, F. (2017). Eye on ethics: Preventing conflict of interest. Social Work Today, 17(4). Retrieved from https://www.socialworktoday.com/archive/072417p8.shtml
Valutis, S., & Rubin, D. (2016). Value conflicts in social work: Categories and correlates. Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics, 13(1), 11-24.