What We Do
If you would like more information on any of these topics, please do not hesitate to contact the Ethics Consultation Service on 03 9642 2307 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Mandatory Reporting ( pdf version)
- Writing Court Reports
- Consent and Working With Children
- Case Note Recording ( pdf version)
- 'You've Been Served' - Responding to a Subpoena * Recently updated
- International ethics - Australian Social Workers overseas (pdf version)
- Supporting ethical practice in the workplace ( pdf version)
Legal obligations to report child abuse vary according to the State or Territory and the relevant requirements of Federal and State law. The Australian Institute of Family Studies has prepared a detailed resource sheet, available here, which outlines:
State and Territory-based professional and individual responsibilities
The definition of a notifiable concern as outlined in relevant legislation in each State or Territory. This generally refers, for example, to “a belief formed on ‘reasonable grounds’”
The types of abuse that must be reported. For example, in the ACT it is mandatory to report physical and sexual abuse, while in NSW you may also be mandated to report neglect and exposure to family violence.
The applicable sections of legislation and / or regulation
The following provides a summary of current information on the mandatory reporting requirements in each State and Territory.
Doctors, dentists, nurses and midwives, teachers, police officers, school counsellors, child-care providers, public servants providing services relating to the health or well being of children, young people or families, the public advocate, an official visitor; a person who, in the course of employment, has contact with or provides services to children, young people and their families and is prescribed by regulation. Note: Social work is not currently regulated in Australia
Persons who deliver health care, welfare, education, children's services, residential services or law enforcement wholly or partly to children. A person who holds a management position in an organisation, the duties of which include direct responsibility for, or direct supervision of, the provision of health care, welfare, education, children’s services, residential services or law enforcement, wholly or partly to children
Any person with reasonable grounds and registered health professionals. Reasonable grounds is the belief that a child has been or is likely to be a victim of a sexual offence; or otherwise has suffered or is likely to suffer harm or exploitation
An authorised officer, employee of the Department of Communities (Child Safety Services), person employed in a departmental care service or licensed care service under section 148 of the Child Protection Act 1999; a doctor or nurse; the Commissioner for Children and Young People
Doctors, pharmacists, nurses, dentists, psychologists, police officers, community corrections officers, social workers, teachers, family day care providers, employees/volunteers in a government department, agency or instrumentality, or a local government or non-government agency that provides health, welfare, education, child care or residential services wholly or partly for children; ministers of religion (with the exception of disclosures made in the confessional); employees or volunteers in a religious or spiritual organisation
Doctors, nurses, dentists, dental therapists or dental hygienists; registered psychologists; police officers; probation officers; principals and teachers in any educational institution; persons who provide child care or a child care service for fee or reward; persons concerned in the management of a child care service licensed under the Child Care Act 2001; any other person who is an employee of, for or in, or who is a volunteer in, a government agency that provides health, welfare, education, child care or residential services wholly or partly to children, and an organisation that receives any funding from the Crown for the provision of such services; and any other person of a class determined by the Minister by notice in the Gazette to be prescribed persons
Police, doctors, nurses and teachers and principals of government and non-government schools
Court personnel, family counsellors, family dispute resolution practitioners, arbitrators or legal practitioners representing the child’s interest
Licensed providers of child care or outside school hours care services. Doctors, nurses and midwives, teachers and police officers
Regardless of mandatory reporting requirements, Social Workers have ethical responsibilities to the children and families with whom they work.
It is the view of the AASW, according to the values and guidelines of the Code of Ethics (2010) that Social Workers have an ethical obligation to:
- protect and promote the rights and wellbeing of children who are experiencing abuse and / or neglect
- to support vulnerable families
There are many possibilities for responding to the needs of vulnerable children and families, and clearly any action taken will be dependent on specific circumstances.
As a general rule Social Workers should make a report to child protection whereby doing so will or could prevent an actual, identifiable risk of harm to a child or children and where appropriate steps have been taken to meet ethical obligations to the client(s) e.g. child, parent or guardian, family.
Further guidance on making a determination regarding ‘actual harm’ as well as Social Workers general ethical responsibilities are outlined below in relation to practice competence.
Social Workers can also access the Ethics Consultation Service on 03 9642 2307 or at email@example.com for further information or for support in addressing specific ethical issues in practice.
Q: What are the general ethical guidelines when responding to the needs of vulnerable children and / or families?
Many aspects of the Code of Ethics (2010) are relevant and should be considered in any decision-making process and in practice with vulnerable children and families.
- Professional Boundaries and Dual Relationships (Code of Ethics Section 5.1.6)
- Conflicts of Interest (5.1.7)
- Informed Consent (5.2.3)
- Information management (incorporates issues of confidentiality 5.2.4 and record-keeping 5.2.5)
- Case Note Recording (5.2.4 and 5.2.5)
- Working in Private Practice (5.5.3 and 5.5.4)
- Responding to a Subpoena
- Of additional and particular relevance to assessing and responding to the needs of children and families are issues related to practice competence (5.1.5)
Social Workers should ensure they have the practice competence or access appropriate support in making a determination regarding the needs of children and families. Critical issues include:
Current knowledge and understanding of relevant theoretical and practice issues (5.1.5 a, b) such as:
- child development and attachment
- different types of abuse and neglect and their impacts on children including trauma theory
- relevant risk and protective factors
- diversity of family structures, dynamics and systems with consideration given to cultural variation
- the relevance and ongoing impact of past child welfare practices on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders
- human and child rights
The Australian Human Rights Commission is a useful starting point for finding out more current children’s rights and human rights issues, literature and developments in Australia.
- reflective and reflexive practice principles including access to supervision and / or specialist consultation (such as with child protection intake teams) where appropriate (5.1.5 c) and awareness of any issues likely to impact or impair professional judgement (5.1.5 d, e, f)
- organisational policy and procedure with regard to the assessment, provision of support and referral of vulnerable children and families
- applicable legislative requirements
- awareness of local child and family welfare services and the supports they may be able to provide
- consideration of other services that may be more appropriate in responding to the identified needs of a child and / or family.
Q. What are the legal requirements for reporting domestic or family violence in the Northern Territory?
In February 2009, the Domestic and Family Violence Amendment Bill was passed by the Northern Territory Parliament and commenced on the 12th March 2009. This amendement means that adults (anyone 18 years or older) are required by law to report domestic and family violence to police if they think someone has, or is likely to suffer serious physical harm from family violence. Please click here for a link to the Northern Territory Government's fact sheet on this legislation or visit http://www.stopfamilyviolence.nt.gov.au for more information.
Q: As part of my work, I am required to write a Court Report. Are there any guidelines on how to write a Court Report?
A: Although there is no standard Australia wide document available to provide detailed information on how to write a report for Court, there are several options to assist social workers with Court Report writing. If your place of work regularly submits Court Reports, many of your colleagues may have expertise in how to correctly approach the task. Additionally, many Government and Non-Government Agency websites have tips on how to write Court Reports. Below is a list of websites, which include resources that may be of assistance:
- Federal Magistrates Court of Australia Family Reports Fact Sheet
- South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault (SECASA) Australia
- Shopfront Youth Legal Centre: Preparing a Court Report
For an informative article that examines the content and structuring of Court Reports by Social Workers in Australia, read Phillip Swain's article 'No Expert Should Cavil At Any Questioning: Reports and Assessment for Courts and Tribunals', in Australian Social Work, Volume 58 (1), 2005, pages 44-57 (This online link to Australian Social Work is currently for members only).
Additionally, Healy and Mulholland's (2007) book Writing Skills for Social Workers, contains information on writing reports for the Court.
From time to time, private providers run training courses on how to write Court Reports. To learn about training opportunities in your area, please visit our events page.
The AASW Code of Ethics (2010) (section 5.2.5 Records) provides guidance on how to impartially and accurately record client information. This section may also be of use in assisting with writing Court Reports.
Q: Up to what age do I need to attain parental consent when working with young clients?
A: There is no Federal, State or Territory law that establishes a uniform age whereby Social Workers must obtain parental consent to work with children. In the absence of such Legislation, Social Workers are required to make a professional judgment on the level of understanding and maturity of the child involved.
The AASW Code of Ethics (2010) Section 5.2.3 Informed Consent discusses the need for Social Workers to assess the 'maturity and level of understanding' of child clients in relation to gaining informed consent. Accordingly, Social Workers have a responsibility to:
- Identify relevant legislative requirements in relation to informed consent (see 5.2.3 d)
- Assess the ability of a child or young person to give informed consent to enter into a therapeutic relationship (see 5.2.3 e)
- Provide social work services to a child or young person able to give informed consent without informing their parents or guardians. However, where appropriate, the issue of the child or young person informing their parent or guardian should be discussed (5.2.3 f)
- Children and young people who are able to provide informed consent have the same rights with respect to confidentiality as adult clients including the right to refuse social work services (5.2.3 g)
- Social Workers will obtain consent from the child or young persons parent or guardian if they are deemed unable to give informed consent (5.2.3 h)
Additionally, section 5.2.2 Client self-determination establishes that Social Workers 'will promote the self-determination and autonomy of clients, actively seeking to enable them to make informed decisions on their own behalf'.
Many Agencies will have their own clear requirements and guidelines when establishing whether or not parental consent is required. If you are unclear on whether you need to establish parental consent to work with a young person, use of an Ethical Decision Making tool or collaboration with your colleagues and supervisors may be able to assist you to work through the process of determining whether the child in question has the required maturity and level of understanding to give informed consent without the need to obtain parental consent.
Case notes are an integral and important part of practice for many Social Workers. Research has shown that record-keeping practices have an impact on client outcomes such that poor case notes can result in poor decision-making and adverse client outcomes (see Preston-Shoot 2003, Cumming et al 2007).
A ‘case note’ is the term applied to a chronological record of interactions, observations and actions relating to a particular client.
The guiding principle for deciding what information should be included in a case note is whether it is relevant to the service or support being provided.
The type of information that is considered relevant will clearly depend on the context of practice, however the AASW Practice Standards 2003 provide some broad guidance. This may include:
- a range of biopsychosocial, environmental and systemic factors impacting on the client. This includes consideration of an individuals culture, religion and spirituality
- risk and resilience factors
- facts, theory or research underpinning an assessment
- a record of all discussions and interactions with the client and persons / services involved in the provision of support including referral information, telephone and email correspondence
- a record of non-attendance, either by the Social Worker or client, at scheduled and agreed meetings or activities
- evidence that the Social Worker and client have discussed their respective legal and ethical responsibilities. This may include:
- client rights, responsibilities and complaints processes
- the parameters of the service and support being offered and agreed to
- issues relating to informed consent, information sharing, confidentiality and privacy
- efforts to promote and support client self-determination and autonomy
- specific responsibilities to clients in particular settings such as private practice or rural settings as per the Code of Ethics 2010
- professional boundaries and how dual relationships may be managed
- record keeping and freedom of information
- discharge planning
- relevant legislative requirements and their possible implications for practice
- details of reasons and any related actions or outcomes leading up to or following the termination or interruption of a service or support.
There are a number of case-writing models available to Social Workers. Some of them provide general guidance for writing case notes, such as the ‘Summary Style’, while others are specific to a service type or context, such as the STIPS model.
In addition, many organisations have policies and procedures around case recording.
The AASW does not recommend the use of one model or policy over any other, however the Code of Ethics 2010 points to some general principles for good record keeping.
Information recorded about a client should be impartial, accurate and complete with care taken to ensure that:
- only details relevant to the provision of a support or service to which the client has consented are recorded (see sections 5.2.5 (a) and 5.2.4 (b)).
- when working with involuntary clients this means recording information relevant to statutory practice (see also 5.2.2).
- notes are free from derogatory or emotive language (5.2.4 (a))
- subjective opinions are qualified with relevant background information, theory or research (5.2.5 (a))
- relevant information is not omitted (5.2.5 (c))
When recording information about third-parties, such as information about a clients’ relationship with significant others, it is equally important to separate fact from opinion.
Case notes can be recorded manually or electronically and should:
- include on each page the name and DOB or other identifying information of the client. This can be handwritten, typed or constitute an electronic tag where an electronic case recording program is utilised.
- be dated
- be recorded as soon as possible after an interaction or event
- be typed or clearly readable if handwritten
- include the name, signature and profession / role of the author
- the time of contact, particularly where there are a high volume of interactions in a day
Care should be taken to avoid errors or omissions. In some instances it is illegal to change, white-out or amend case notes after the fact.
If a change must be made to correct an error or omission, the change can be recorded as a new and separate case note. In addition to outlining the error or omission as part of this new case note, it is advisable to provide an explanation for it earlier absence or inaccuracy. You may also add, if possible, a note in the margin of the original case note referring the reader to the additional or amended detail.
A case note should never be amended or changed in light of additional information obtained at a later date. This should always constitute a new case note.
Case notes may be subject to a range of legislative processes and requirements during and following the conclusion of the professional relationship.
The nature of these requirements may differ greatly according to the State and nature or context of practice. Statutory bodies, for example, are subject to Freedom of Information legislation, which may differ slightly from State to State.
In any context, notes can be subpoenaed for any number of reasons. Processes for responding to a subpoena may differ depending on the Court and similarly organisations may vary in their policy and procedure for doing so.
Finally, organisations may have policies and procedures for ensuring these and other legislative obligations are met, in addition to general guidelines for case note recording and management.
For these reasons it is important for Social Workers to:
- be familiar with the specific legal requirements and processes impacting on practice
- consider the implications of Federal and State legislation to the recording of case notes, and
- understand how these requirements are implemented within their organisation (where relevant)
- understand what policies and procedures may need to be implemented when working in private practice.
As noted earlier, Social Workers should include details relating to the termination or interruption of services or supports in case note entries leading up to or following the end of the professional relationship.
However, it is also possible that the termination of service is unanticipated. This might include instances where the Social Worker is incapacitated or unable to continue employment or practice. These are particularly salient issues for Social Workers who are not part of team, work in private practice or are geographically isolated.
It is particularly important therefore to ensure that case notes are maintained and updated as soon after an interaction or event as practicable.
This possibility raises a number of issues in relation to security, confidentiality, storage and sharing of client information in the event of an unanticipated termination of service. These issues will be addressed in detail in the ethical guidelines on:
- Information management
- Working in Private Practice
- Remote Service Delivery
Please check back to our webpage at a later date for more information on these upcoming ethical guidelines.
Requirements and processes relating to subpoena’s vary greatly according to the jurisdiction and type of Court e.g. Civil, Criminal, Children’s or Family Courts.
The information provided here may not apply to your specific situation! Therefore, it is critical that in every instance, you seek independent and specialist legal advice. If applicable, follow your organisation's policy and procedure around responding to a subpoena.
It is always advisable to consult the issuing Court to clarify your obligations when responding to a subpoena.
Links to further information on the structure, function and proceedings of all Federal or State Courts can be found here http://www.nla.gov.au/oz/law.html under the heading “Law by jurisdiction”. This provides general background guidance and does not act as a substitute for specific legal advice with regard to your circumstances.
A subpoena is a legal document. It is a court order issued at the request of a party to a case who believes that a person, who is not otherwise involved in the legal issue, possesses relevant documents or information. A subpoena issued by a lower court, such as the Magistrates court may be called a ‘summons’ but in all other respects it will conform to the requirements of a subpoena. A subpoena compels a person to produce documents or give evidence in court proceedings.
There are three types of subpoena:
- a subpoena for production of documents (a written order requiring the person names to attend as directed by the order and produce a document or thing. Sometimes a, a court may excuse actual physical attendance at Court if all documents are lodged by a stipulated time set out in the subpoena.
- a subpoena to give evidence (a written order requiring the person named to attend as directed by the order as a witness to give evidence about what they saw or heard in a particular matter)
- a subpoena for production and evidence (written order requiring the person named to attend as directed by the order as a witness to give evidence and to produce a document or thing. Once documents/things have been produced to Court, parties need to seek permission from the Court to inspect the documents or things subpoenaed.
Failure to comply/respond to a subpoena can lead to arrest and charge of contempt of court; however in specific circumstances there may be grounds to object. In deciding how to respond to the subpoena, where applicable, you should refer to organisational policy and procedure.
- If a party to a case objects to certain information being produced, the party will "raise objection" to subpoenaed information, usually by seeking a specific court hearing to determine the legitimacy and scope of a subpoena. The process to make an objection is usually set out in information provided with the subpoena. The process varies depending on which Court has issued the subpoena.
- The person served with a subpoena may also object to disclosing documents required by the subpoena. It is important to ensure there are legitimate grounds to resist producing documents required under a subpoena. A court can order the party or person who has brought an unsuccessful objection to a subpoena to pay the legal costs of the party, who requested the Court to issue the subpoena, and has successfully resisted the objection to the subpoena.
You might consider objecting to a subpoena where:
- you do not have the documents requested in your possession
- records are under a different name
- If the subpoena does not comply with the relevant time limits (for example, subpoenas must be served at least 7 days before Court proceedings are due to occur).
- If the subpoena could be considered an abuse of process (for example to obtain documents not related to the legal issue in the Court proceeding).
- If it could be seen as oppressive (seeking numerous irrelevant documents in a short time frame).
- disclosure has the potential to cause harm or even danger to the client or to others
- Where the information being requested is very broad and non-specific
- Any other grounds of objection as allowed by the issuing court, or as advised by a legal representative or in keeping with organisational policy
- If records requested are confidential or highly sensitive or if the client has advised that they do not want the documents disclosed
The grounds for objecting and the process for lodging an objection will vary according to the Court and / or jurisdiction. A complete list of Federal and State Courts and links to their sites can be found here and a follow up call to the relevant court registry may assist to clarify enquiries.
Once you have submitted the objection, the Court may choose to examine the relevant documentation before a decision can be reached. The Court may:
- support the objection and prevent disclosure of documents
- partially support some of the objection but allow a partial disclosure of documents
- place limitations on the use and distribution of the information such that clients or others are protected
- make other arrangements as per the processes of the relevant jurisdiction
- find a subpoena invalid and set it aside
It may be illegal to remove or alter the contents of a file in any way even if you think the material is not relevant to the Court. You should comply with the subpoena, but object to irrelevant parts being disclosed rather than relying on your own judgement about what information is relevant and what isn't. Doing so may constitute a criminal offence. It is always advisable to check directly with the Court and clarify organisational policy and procedure, where applicable.
The Court may require original documentation, in which case it is advisable to make a complete copy of the file prior to submitting to the Registry. Generally, photocopied documents will suffice unless specifically requested. Check directly with the Registry prior to the submission of any documentation.
It is important to know exactly which records/documents you are being asked to provide as this:
- may have serious implications for the client
- may require disclosure of highly sensitive information about the client or others
- will ensure you have all the information necessary to meet your ethical obligations to your client/others
- will inform any grounds of objection you may have to the subpoena
If you are unsure of what evidence is required, you may be able to contact the legal representative of teh issuing party as listed on the subpoena to request clarification in writing
Social workers should be aware that in responding to subpoenas addressed to an organisation or service, rather than them as an individual, the most appropriate person to respond to the subpoena should be identified. In health settings, for example, this may mean forwarding the subpoena to a Medical Records Officer for follow up. An organisation should designate a senior employee to deal with any subpoenas to ensure a timely and consistent response.
If you do contact the relevant legal representative, it is critical that you do not disclose any client information in the course of your discussion. Your aim is simply to clarify the specific nature of the evidence sought by the Court.
Sections 5.2.3 Informed Consent and 5.2.4 Information Confidentiality / Privacy of the AASW Code of Ethics (2010) outline Social Worker responsibilities regarding the sharing of client information.
Accordingly, and if safe to do so, social workers should always aim to get written informed consent from a client or authorised representative before sharing any information. However, if a court compels you to produce information and you do not have any grounds of objection, or if a court overrules your objection, it is not a breach of confidentiality to then produce the documents required under a subpoena.
If the information relates to a child or young person you should be guided by relevant legislative requirements in your State (5.2.3 d).
If the information relates to a person who cannot grant informed consent, Social Workers will, with the client’s permission where possible, obtain informed consent from a party empowered by the relevant State legislation (5.2.3 c).
Social workers should be cautious not to pressure clients into waiving confidentiality or that you do not incorrectly comment on relevance of information or how information will be used.
If written consent is not given or it is not safe to obtain consent, and if there are no grounds to object to the subpoena, the Social Worker may be legally required to provide the Court with the requested evidence. However, this must be verified with the specific Court and according to the relevant legislation.
You should aim to inform the client when information must be shared without consent, unless by informing the client harm may be caused to the client or another party (5.2.4 f). Your client can seek their own advice as to whether they wish to challenge the terms of the subpoena.
Where information is being shared without client consent, it may be advisable to make the Court aware that you have taken steps to fulfill your ethical obligations and that the information is being provided without client consent.
In addition, it is important that limits to confidentiality are always discussed with clients at the outset of the professional relationship, as per sections 5.2.4 (d) and (e) of the Code of Ethics (2010).
If you do not have grounds for objection, but think that certain information contained in documents is sensitive, you can mark the specific information as sensitive and request that the Judge or Magistrate decide on limitations of disclosure of this information. A Court may rule that only the lawyers for a party can view the documents in question to determine relevance, before the actual party making the request can have access.
Q: Requested documentation includes information about third parties. Is it acceptable to provide this to the Court?
A Social Worker has the same obligations to protect the confidentiality of third parties mentioned in relevant documentation (see 5.2.4 (a)). It is important to deal sensitively with information pertaining to third parties. Third parties may be able to object to some levels of production.
Unless directly relevant to the matter before the Court, you may consider pursuing avenues available to you to protect the confidentiality of such information. This may include, for example, lodging an objection.
Some jurisdictions protect client records from production in court proceedings and the extent to which you can give evidence about them.
For example, all states and territories, except Queensland, have enacted legislation that provides some level of legal protection for counselling notes in criminal trials relating to sexual offences. For more infprmation on this, please see the following resource sheet by the Australian Institute of Family Studies:
For more detailed information on the protections relating to counselling notes for sexual assault criminal cases in each state and territory please see the following information from the Australian Law Reform Commission: http://www.alrc.gov.au/publications/27.%20Evidence%20in%20Sexual%20Assault%20Proceedings/sexual-assault-communications-privilege
The above information should be treated as a guide, and not a definitive statement of the law applicable to every situation.
In any case, it is always advisable if unclear about the protection of records, to seek legal advice through appropriate organisational and/or legal channels.
If social workers/counsellors surrender notes when they should not, or surrender notes they have not been asked to surrender, they might be in breach of privacy law. Releasing confidential records without proper written authority to do so, may lead to a complaint or legal proceedings.
If you have any further questions, or would like to discuss an ethical considerations in more detail, please contact the Ethics Consultation Service on 03 9642 2307 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Topic: International ethics - Australian Social Workers overseas (pdf version)
Q: I am a member of the AASW and am planning to spend some time working or studying as a Social Worker overseas. Which Code of Ethics will apply to my practice when I am not in Australia?
In short, the Australian Code of Ethics (2010) is the primary code that applies to Australian Social Workers whether they live, work and study in Australia or elsewhere. This is the Code with which Social Workers should be most familiar and should primarily consider when approaching issues in professional practice.
However, the AASW recognises that Social Workers practising overseas may be required or expected to practice according to a second or even third Code of Ethics. This will depend on the specific country in question. It is possible, for example, that the country will have no formal professional association or that the local regulatory body requires the visiting social worker to formally register and in the process agree to abide by the provisions of that jurisdictions Code of Ethics. It is also possible that the host organisation or employer will have a Code of Conduct or Ethics.
It is common therefore that Social Workers practising overseas have dual responsibilities to the social work profession in Australia and the host country, as well as responsibilities to the host organisation or employer. Further Social Workers practising overseas have a responsibility to engage in reflective professional practice that attends to their ethical responsibilities and accountabilities.
Therefore, prior to working or studying overseas, Australian Social Workers are advised to:
- ensure familiarity with any professional Code(s) of Ethics applicable in the host country and / or organisation / employer
- consider, as far as practicable, how and when the Code(s) of the host country may conflict with the provisions of the Australian Code
- identify and discuss potential conflicts with the relevant party or parties. This may include the placement supervisor and / or convener; employer or host organisation; regulatory body professional association or organisation in the host country; or the Ethics Consultation Service
- ensure both you and they are clear about your respective ethical responsibilities and how identified conflicts will be resolved
- seek additional advice or guidance regarding potential conflicts from the Ethics Consultation Service if required
- be familiar with any regulatory or accountability systems in the host country or organisation such as complaints processes
- be aware of any formal position held by the host organisation / regulatory body and or professional association with regard to the responsibilities and accountability of overseas staff or students
Q: I am working / studying overseas, and a complaint has been submitted regarding practice that I believe falls within the guidelines of the Australian Code of Ethics. What should I do?
This will largely depend on the circumstances of your work or study experience as outlined above. However it is important to be aware that the AASW can only be involved in complaints made against members of the Association.
If a complaint has been made against you and you are a member of the AASW, you should contact Ethics Complaints Management staff to discuss the specific nature and context of the complaint made against you.
If you are not a member, the complaint made against you should be handled by the most appropriate body or employer in the country of practise. It is possible however that no such appropriate body exists, or that the employer does not have a formal complaints process. In either case, you are still able to access advice from the Ethics Consultation Service. The ECS may, for example, be able to clarify whether or not your actions constitute a breach of the Code of Ethics (2010) though the AASW could not formally be involved in any proceedings against you.
For more information on the Ethics Services available at the AASW and contact information, please click here.
Q: How should I respond to an unanticipated conflict between the Australian and host country / organisation Code of Ethics while I am overseas?
In the first instance, and where possible, it is preferable to discuss the nature of the conflict with your Supervisor or relevant professional body and to discuss your concerns in relation to the provisions of the Code of Ethics (2010).
The options available to you will depend upon the nature and context of practice.
If the conflict cannot be resolved to the satisfaction of you, your Supervisor and / or client, or of the regulatory body or professional association in the host country is unable to provide guidance in reaching a resolution, you can contact the Ethics Consultation Service for further guidance and support.
Q: What should I do if I have concerns about the practice of an Australian Social Worker while they are working or studying overseas?
In the first instance, individuals with concerns regarding a Social Worker’s practice should pursue the most appropriate avenues available to them. This may include:
- direct discussion of your concerns with the Social Worker / student where appropriate
- discussion with the Social Worker’s Supervisor or placement convener and agreement on how the issues, if any, will be addressed
- accessing advice or guidance from the regulatory body or professional association of the host country, if applicable.
If however your concerns reflect a conflict of ethical codes or practice standards, and these are not adequately addressed through local channels, you can access the Ethics Consultation Service for advice and guidance in relation to the Australian Code of Ethics (2010) and practice standards. The service may also be able to advise you of any additional pathways for resolving your concerns.
For more information and contact details for Ethics Services at the AASW, please click here.
Q: When do the ethical principles and guidelines of the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) apply and International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) apply?
The guidelines of the IFSW/ IASSW reflect ethical principles that have international agreement among social workers, professional associations and educational institutions. It is expected that in developing their respective codes of ethics, member associations will take IFSW principles into account. In this way, IFSW ethical principles and guidelines indirectly apply to all Social Workers but they are best understood as reflected in the Code of Ethics and practice standards of the host country.
While it is possible for an individual social worker to be held in breach of the IFSW principles, the IFSW itself (whose members are national associations) does not have a disciplinary role in relation to individual social workers.
Ethical social work practice is dependent not only on the knowledge and skill of social work professionals but on the capacity of the work environment to support and facilitate such practice.
Accordingly, the Code of Ethics (2010) outlines a number of ethical responsibilities relating to the workplace and the types of resources a Social Worker may need to meet their ethical obligations to clients.
This document outlines those aspects of the Code that relate to the provisions of the workplace environment. It is designed to inform and support Social Workers, their employers, clients and representatives in challenging and improving service provision in accordance with Section 5.4.1 of the Code of Ethics (2010).
A workplace resource, for the purposes of this paper, refers to any resource a Social Worker may need to practice according to ethical and practice standards of the profession in Australia.
This may include:
- Physical resources such as access to a private space in which to conduct counseling (Code of Ethics section 5.4.2 g) or
- Human resources such as access to clinical supervision and debriefing (5.4.2 f)
- Education and training resources to ensure the currency of professional knowledge and skill (5.1.5)
- Operational resources such as policies, procedures and guidelines that reflect the ethical standards of the profession (5.4.1 d, f)
Given the focus on ethical practice this guideline does not reflect, nor is it intended to address, issues relating to the workplace environment that may be dealt with elsewhere. This includes for example:
- occupational health and safety legislation and international standards with regard to specific pieces of office equipment or appropriate lighting and ventilation
- the provisions of legislation, policy and practice frameworks specific to a particular context, such as health services or child protection
- the exact type or quantity of equipment, such a computers, phones or vehicles, required to undertake a particular work function
It should be noted however that all of the ethical issues identified in this paper are potentially issues that will require specific consideration with regard to Social Worker, client and others safety and wellbeing in the workplace. As such, though not specified below, consideration of relevant WorkSafe, occupational health and safety and related practice implications of the issues raised below should ideally be considered and addressed in tandem and at an organisational level (or equivalent).
While this guideline may not define the exact nature of workplace resources required it should serve to draw attention to those areas which are, at the very least, ethically relevant.
Social Workers are responsible for ensuring that they practice according to the Code of Ethics (2010). However, when a Social Workers ability to practice according to ethical standards is put at risk by workplace action / inaction, policy, procedure or practice, the Social Worker has a further duty to:
- Report and/or challenge and/or work to improve workplace practices (see Code of Ethics section 5.4.1 c)
- Access available channels to promote or facilitate required change (5.4.1). This might include available organisational channels, accessing the support of a Union and / or exploring whistleblower protection options.
- As Managers, advocate for resources to meet the needs of clients and staff (5.4.2 b, h)
The context and capacity in which a social worker might practice can vary substantially.
Consider, for example, social workers who practice in different:
- service settings; such as a mental health social worker who works remotely and a social worker who drafts policy in a large government department
- roles, including those within the same workplace; such as the needs of the social worker who provides face-to-face counseling versus their Team Leader or Manager.
Consequently, it is not possible to state categorically which resources are essential to ethical practice in every setting. Rather the Code of Ethics (2010) can act as a guide in determining whether the lack or absence of a particular resource is an ethical issue.
The remainder of this section looks at four kinds of resources and links each to a specific provision of the Code of Ethics (2010). These are:
The AASW regularly receives enquiries from social workers who are concerned that the physical arrangements of their workspace compromise their capacity to deliver a service according to ethical standards.
The Code of Ethics (5.4.2 g) states that social workers will provide and / or advocate for staff to have a physical work environment which supports effective practice, including appropriate arrangements for confidential interviewing and storage of confidential records.
Common ethical issues related to the physical environment include:
- The absence, lack or inadequacy of space required to deliver a service or support
- Open plan and / or shared work spaces
- The absence, lack or inadequacy of equipment needed to perform a role
Social workers are committed to ensuring the best interests of the client are maintained as a priority, with due regard to the respective interests of others (5.2.1).
It may be that an organisation, employer or social worker identifies the need for a service or support, however if the space in which to deliver the service is inadequate, this can compromise both the interests of the client and the capacity of staff to deliver an ethical service.
Critical issues may include:
- Provision of a private space in which to conduct confidential activities, such as counseling (5.4.2 g) (see also issues related to open-plan and shared workspaces below)
- Space to accommodate and maintain adequate levels of staff (5.4.2 e)
- Access to spaces at a time that allows for the safe and timely completion of tasks. For example, it is best practice for case notes to be contemporaneous. Space should ideally be available for social workers to complete critical work-related tasks in a manner consistent with minimum Practice Standards (2003)
Open-plan or shared work environments can present particular challenges to ethical practice.
Critical issues include:
- Maintaining privacy and confidentiality of information as it is collected, recorded, shared and transmitted whether verbally, in writing or electronically (5.2.4 & 5.2.5)
- Ensuring clients can physically present at a service or support without compromising their privacy, or if not possible, ensuring that policy, procedure and practice measures are in place to protect confidentiality
- Ensuring clients are provided with clear, honest and accurate information about the service setting (5.2.2 b) and what measures are in place to:
- protect their privacy and confidentiality (5.2.4 & 5.2.5) prior to their engaging in a service or support (5.2.2 & 5.2.3)
- manage any conflicts of interests or professional boundaries where they may be known to or wish to access co-located services or staff (5.1.6 & 5.1.7)
- Having a private space in which to conduct sensitive and confidential conversations and activities such as case conferences, counseling and supervision
In general, the adequacy of equipment is an issue that will be addressed and guided by occupational health and safety provisions, WorkSafe policies and practice guidelines. However it is possible that inadequacy of equipment can represent an ethical issue. Examples might include:
- A lack of secure physical and / or electronic storage to ensure the confidentiality of client information
- Lack of access to a mobile phone for staff who conduct home visits or outreach
In summary, and as highlighted earlier, issues relating to the physical environment may constitute not only ethical issues, but critical issues in terms of Social Worker, client and others safety and wellbeing. It is therefore important that Social Workers and employers also refer to the provisions of relevant WorkSafe / OH&S legislation, policies and procedures in addressing the kinds of issues outlined above.
The AASW regularly receives enquiries from social workers who are concerned that human resource arrangements compromise their capacity to deliver a service according to ethical standards.
In order to practice according to the Code of Ethics (2010) social workers require:
- adequate staff levels and acceptable working conditions (5.4.2 e)
- provision of professional supervision, including cultural supervision where appropriate (5.4.2 f)
- provision or arrangement of debriefing, crisis and/or ongoing support, especially when they experience difficult or traumatic circumstances (5.4.2 j)
- fair and responsible performance evaluation, including the provision of timely feedback and the inclusion of those evaluated in the process (5.4.2 k)
Adequate staff levels and acceptable working conditions for staff
What constitutes adequate staffing levels and acceptable work conditions will obviously vary greatly depending on the nature and context of practice. For this reason, the AASW does not specify exactly what constitutes adequate staff levels and conditions.
However as a general rule and in order to support ethical practice case/work loads should be such that adequate time is available for social workers to complete the range of tasks associated with delivery of a service or support, including:
- completion of case notes and other administrative duties (5.4.2 d)
- participation in regular supervision and staff meetings (5.1.5 & 5.4.2 d, f)
- participation in continuing professional development activities (5.1.5 &5.4.2 h, i)
- debriefing and / or ongoing support following difficult or traumatic circumstances (5.4.2 j)
Acceptable work conditions (5.4.1) are those that are:
- Safe and equitable
- not in any way oppressive, disempowering or culturally inappropriate and,
- support social workers to practice according to the Code of Ethics (2010)
As with any kind of workplace resource, these ethical considerations should be taken into account in a broader workplace health and safety context. For example, consideration should be given to how these issues might be monitored, reported and addressed in relation to all relevant occupational health and safety / risk management considerations.
Professional integrity is a fundamental social work value and includes a social workers commitment to lifelong professional development and maintenance of practice competence (Code of Ethics section 3.3). Consequently, the maintenance of current practice knowledge, theory and skill is critical to a social workers capacity to practice ethically (5.1.5)
Social Workers are responsible for ensuring their levels of knowledge, theory and skill are appropriate to the service or support they are providing (5.1.5 a).
If however, in the course of employment, an employer requires a Social Worker to operate beyond their current levels of competence, knowledge or skill, it is reasonable to expect that appropriate supervision and training is made available or accessible (5.1.5 b).
Social workers in particular settings, such as private practice, who may not have immediate access to a supervisor, should ensure that external supervision, debriefing and arrangements to ensure practice competence is maintained are in place (5.1.5 b).
If an employer does not provide relevant training and / or supervision, Social Workers are committed to taking steps to ensuring the required support is actively sought (5.1.5 c).
This might include, for example notifying management that ethical and practice standards are compromised and, if necessary, redirecting clients to other appropriate supports (5.4.1 j)
Social workers in management roles should ensure that staff under their direction receive ongoing professional education and advocate for adequate resources to meet staff development needs (5.4.2 h).
An operational resource is anything that communicates to staff, clients or relevant others what, when, where, who and why a particular activity / service / action will / must or should take place.
The most critical operational resources are:
- policies and procedures
- practice guidelines
- communication materials that outline important information about the service or support to others
- quality improvement processes
Operational resources that support ethical practices standards are those that attend to the provisions of the Code of Ethics (2010). In the development or review of procedural or practice guidelines, particular attention should be given to section 5.1 to 5.6 of the Code, which outlines in detail social workers ethical responsibilities.
For example, operational resources that reflect the provisions of section 5.1.5 Practice Competence of the Code of Ethics might include:
- A recruitment policy that outlines minimum levels of knowledge, skill and competence relevant to undertaking a particular role
- A professional development procedure which outlines how staff will be assessed and supported to access ongoing education and training opportunities
- A practice guideline that outlines how and when supervision and debriefing will take place and / or be facilitated
- Information for potential clients, allied service providers or others that outlines the level of knowledge, skill and expertise that can be expected from a particular service or support
- A quality improvement process that outlines when, by whom and in what circumstances policy, procedure and practice will be reviewed
Social workers who are required to practice in the absence of or under policies and procedures that contravene the Code of Ethics (2010) are committed to appropriately challenge, and/or report, and/or work to improve such documents and practices (5.4.1)
Q: Where can I find more information?
Social workers who require more detailed information or would like to discuss a particular workplace resource and its implications for ethical practice can access the Ethics Consultation Service on 03 9642 2307 or at email@example.com
The views expressed in this information do not constitute legal advice. It is guidance only, provided as a service to our members, as to relevant ethical considerations that might arise under the AASW Code of Ethics which should be considered. These views should not be regarded as conclusive, nor are they determinative in any way of your legal, professional and/or employment obligations (where relevant), which you should seek independent advice on. The AASW is not bound by the views expressed in this information and does not accept any liability for any injury, harm or damage incurred by the use of or reliance upon these views. While we have made every effort to ensure the information is accurate, complete and current, the AASW does not guarantee and assumes no legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, currency or completeness of the information. External resources referred to in this information should not be taken to be an endorsement or recommendation and the views or recommendations provided by these external resources do not necessarily reflect those of the AASW. Please contact the National Ethics Officer at firstname.lastname@example.org if you believe any information to be inaccurate.
Q: A former client and I recently bumped into each other and have commenced a friendship. We would both like the relationship to become more intimate. He says he is not worried about the fact he used to be my client. Is it okay to pursue an intimate relationship?
Q: I am a social worker in a rural community health centre and have recently received a referral for a woman in the community for issues with depression and suicidal ideation. The woman is the mother of a child who attends school with my daughter and we are both on the parents’ committee at the local school. I am the only counsellor in the region. What should I do?
Q: I have been working with a particular client for a long time and we have never had any physical contact. Today our professional relationship ended and he asked if he could give me a hug to say thank-you. Is this okay?
Many different types of conduct can be considered sexualised conduct. The AASW Code of Ethics’ (2010, p.45) definition for sexualised conduct is as follows:
“All conduct of a sexual nature including: physical contact and verbal, non-verbal, written and electronic (i.e. via sms, email, social networking sites etc.) expressions. It also includes the creation of a sexualised atmosphere (e.g. “discussion of what a sexual or romantic relationship might be like between the professional and the client, a voyeuristic interest by the professional in the client’s sex life”, sexual suggestion or innuendo) (Disch 2001, p. 206).
Q: Do the ethical guidelines of the Code of Ethics apply only to professional boundaries and dual relationships with clients, or does this include others?
The ethical guidelines with respect to professional boundaries and dual relationships apply to clients as well as to other professional relationships the social worker might be engaged in. These other relationships may include:
• clients’ relatives or significant others
• research participants
This list is not exhaustive and should also include:
“Others directly involved in a professional relationship which invites trust and confidence in the practitioner’s role and/or involves an unequal distribution of power or authority in the social worker’s favour.” (5.1.6 a)
Social workers, over their careers, will find themselves working very closely with people in a range of different contexts and settings. When working in such a way, it would not be uncommon for clients to develop feelings for a worker – whether this be a feeling of trust towards the worker, a feeling of respect, of personally liking the worker, of even loving the worker, or perhaps disliking their worker. As the Code of Ethics states,
“Social workers, not their clients are responsible for setting and maintaining clear and appropriate professional boundaries in all forms of communication…” (5.1.6 c).
Therefore it is the social worker’s responsibility to ensure that professional boundaries are made clear to the client prior to the professional relationship beginning.
If a client states, demonstrates or alludes to the fact that they have developed feelings for a social worker, it would be the social worker’s task and responsibility to determine at what point these feelings may become problematic for the professional relationship or may become harmful to the client.
In the case that a client develops romantic feelings for a social worker in a therapeutic/counselling context, it may be part of the therapeutic process that this is discussed and acknowledged, yet contained by the social worker and managed through supervision. If the social worker is providing therapeutic/counselling services, it is the social worker’s responsibility to ensure they seek regular clinical supervision and can demonstrate the necessary professional skills required to contain and safely manage a client’s romantic or sexual feelings. In instances where a client develops feelings for a social worker, the social worker may need to do one or some of the following:
• Discuss with a supervisor/consultant to help determine whether the feelings are/have the potential to be problematic, and if so, how to proceed safely and professionally from that point
• Seek supervision around managing and maintaining professional boundaries within the professional relationship
• Have a discussion with the client reminding them about the professional boundaries that were outlined at the beginning of the relationship
• End the professional relationship if it is determined that it cannot continue safely and ensure the client is re-referred to another worker/service
As for the previous question, social workers will often find themselves working very closely with clients in n diverse contexts and settings. Social workers may find themselves in situations where they develop feelings for their clients. This could mean having “a soft spot” for a client, “liking the work” with a client, having romantic or intimate feelings for a client, or disliking a client.
As in the previous question, it would be the social worker’s “responsibility to set and maintain clear and appropriate professional boundaries in all forms of communication” (5.1.6 c) therefore if feelings arise for the social worker towards the client, the social worker must determine - perhaps with the help of supervision/consultation – whether these feelings are problematic for the professional relationship, if they are able to manage and contain these feelings, and if they are able to ensure that they are not prioritizing their own interests over those of their clients (5.2.1 a).
Some steps to take might be:
• Think through and try and name the feeling/s
• Determine whether you think the feeling/s will be problematic to the professional relationship
• If so, think about/consult someone as to how you might manage/contain these feelings within the professional relationship
• If you feel that the feelings cannot be managed – seek supervision/consultation as to how you might act bearing in mind it could be about ending the professional relationship
• Be aware that it may be difficult for you to assess whether any feelings for a client are problematic. Your capacity to ‘reality test’ what is problematic may become distorted by the strength of the feelings, or by any stress associated with your own life circumstances. Ensure that at times of any personal vulnerability (e.g. loss or crisis, relationship separation, ill-health) you seek close supervision and support.
Q: A former client and I recently bumped into each other and have commenced a friendship. We would both like the relationship to become more intimate. He says he is not worried about the fact he used to be my client. Is it okay to pursue an intimate relationship?
The Code clearly states that social workers should not engage in any sexualised conduct, or enter into an intimate or sexual relationship with anyone with whom they were formerly directly in a professional relationship, including former clients, clients’ relatives or significant others. (5.1.6 b). However, it states that if such a relationship is to be considered, that the social worker engages in professional consultation and supervision, to explore numerous issues that could result if such a relationship were to become intimate.
Some issues that could arise would be:
• Unequal distribution of power if a social worker were to enter into a relationship with a person that they previously provided social work services to
• Issues of confidentiality if a social worker were to begin a relationship with a former client’s relative
• Issues of harm to the former client if the social worker were to begin a relationship with a relative or significant other of a former client
• The relationship ending negatively and the client making a complaint or malicious allegation about the social worker
• Re-traumatising the client if the social worker had worked with the client in a therapeutic context, around traumatic events/incidents
• Client might be unable to differentiate between feelings associated with a professional relationship and feelings associated with a romantic relationship
Q: A former client has invited me to be friends on a social networking site. Is it breaching professional boundaries if I accept?
The Code’s expectations of social workers is that it is their responsibility, not the responsibility of the client or former client to set and maintain clear and appropriate professional boundaries with respect to communication (5.1.6c).
If faced with such a situation as above, the social worker must weigh up the ethical considerations for both options and decide to accept the friend request or not. The social worker should also consider the context of the friend request as there may be some circumstances where connecting with clients via social media might be deemed acceptable especially as communication via social media is becoming increasingly common. Some examples may be:
• If as social worker you have a ‘work’ profile page which does not disclose any information about your personal life.
• If you are a social worker who provides counselling/social work services via the internet and social media and you have a professional profile in order to provide these services.
• If you work in youth services and have a ‘social work’ profile for the purposes with connecting and communicating with younger clients.
If the social networking site is the social worker’s personal non work related site, there are further things the social worker should consider. If the social worker does not accept the friend request the issue of the client experiencing rejection from their former social worker could be of concern. However, in accepting a friend request the social worker must consider the implications this could also have for the client. For example, if some aspect of the social worker’s personal life or some information contained on the social worker’s social networking site conflicts with how the client perceived the social worker for the period of time that they were in a professional relationship. The social worker also must consider what benefit accepting the friendship request would have for the client. “Why are they requesting my friendship?” “Were they dependent on the previous therapeutic relationship and are they looking for a means to continue such a relationship?”
Of further consideration is the possibility that the former client could return to the service that the social worker works in.
If faced with such a scenario, consulting or seeking supervision with a senior member of staff would be the first advised step.
Q: I am a social worker in a rural community health centre and have recently received a referral for a woman in the community for issues with depression and suicidal ideation. The woman is the mother of a child who attends school with my daughter and we are both on the parents’ committee at the local school. I am the only counsellor in the region. What should I do?
As social workers, we are sometimes faced with situations where we may find ourselves involved in dual or multiple relationships with clients. This is particularly common in rural or remote settings or in small communities. The Code outlines guidelines for social workers who are faced with a situation where a dual or a multiple relationship is present:
‘Where dual or multiple relationships exist or are unavoidable, social workers will set and enforce explicit, appropriate professional boundaries to minimize the risk of conflict of interest, exploitation or harm’ (5.1.6 j)
The social worker must decide whether the dual/multiple relationship is unavoidable. If it is decided that it is unavoidable, the social worker must ensure that a very clear discussion occurs with the client outlining clear and explicit boundaries to protect the client and the social worker (including confidentiality, privacy, conflict of interest and conduct etc.)
When working in an unavoidable dual/multiple relationship, it would be strongly advisable to seek supervision/consultation while working with the client to ensure you are reflecting on your practice with this client and ensure you are ethically managing the dual relationship.
Q: I have been working with a particular client for a long time and we have never had any physical contact. Today our professional relationship ended and he asked if he could give me a hug to say thank-you. Is this okay?
The ethics of engaging in physical contact with clients relies on context, extent and nature of the professional relationship and professional boundaries that were established between client and social worker.
The Code of Ethics advises that social workers will avoid any form of physical contact that may violate professional boundaries (5.1.6 e). Hence, it would be necessary for the social worker to question whether engaging in physical contact will violate professional boundaries in any way.
It would also be important for the social worker to ensure that a conversation regarding professional boundaries occurred before the professional relationship began so the client was sure of the responsibilities of the social worker and the expectations of them as the client. Explaining and setting boundaries on physical contact requires skills that are sensitive to the unique contexts of your work. Be proactive in thinking through ways of setting boundaries sensitively yet clearly.
There may be times when it is appropriate to hug a client or engage in other types of physical contact (such as a pat on the back or a handshake). It is important to be aware that a client may perceive any form of physical contact in a way that was not intended by you. It would be advisable to seek consultation/supervision to discuss when it might be ok and when it might not.
In declining a hug requested by a client, a handshake may be offered which provides a physical cue that the hug has been declined in favour of the handshake. It may also be necessary to state that although it was ok for the client to ask for a hug, your role (or employing organisation) does not allow you to hug clients.
In some circumstances it can be ok to share a limited amount of specific kinds of personal information with clients. Due to the complexities of interpersonal communication, it can be difficult to assess whether the intended or planned impact of self-disclosure will result. Furthermore it is often not possible to predict what is in the best interests of the client. And yet, in a professional role the social worker must decide whether their self disclosure or offering of information will be likely to benefit, rather than harm the client and the professional relationship.
If unsure, the social worker should always discuss with a senior consultant/supervisor whether their proposed use of self disclosure is likely to be in the best interests of the client.
In deciding whether or not to use self disclosure, the social worker could consider the following:
• What is the context, extent and duration of the professional relationship I am likely to have with the client? Am I placing my level of disclosure carefully in light of the context?
• What is the purpose of the self-disclosure and can I achieve this through a means other than disclosure of my own personal information? For example, could I describe the experience of ‘someone I know’ rather than identifying my own experience, as a means of ‘normalising’ an experience for a client?
• Do I ensure that any disclosure I make about my own personal life is sensitive to the privacy of my own family members, friends, colleagues etc.?
• Can I de-identify my disclosures sufficiently so as to reduce breaching privacy of others, and yet still achieve the therapeutic purpose of the self-disclosure?
• How can I assess whether my disclosure is safely building rapport with the client for the benefit of the professional relationship?
The social worker must also be mindful of the risks associated with self disclosure/sharing of personal information some of which could be:
• Counter-transference (“Any projections by a therapist that can potentially get in the way of helping a client” from Corey et al, 1998, p 48).
• Permeating the professional boundary between you as the social worker and the client.
• Causing the client to feel inadequate, threatened or vulnerable
Section 5.1.6 (f) of the Code discusses self disclosure and states:
"Social workers will use self disclosure with circumspection, and only when it is reasonable believed that it will benefit the client. If unsure, social workers will seek professional consultation or supervision to review their intention to use self-disclosure".
Similarly, Section 5.1.6 (g) states:
"Social worker’s private conduct will not compromise the fulfillment of professional responsibilities."
Corey, G, Corey, M. & Callanan, P. 1998, Issue and Ethics in the Helping Professions, 5th edn, Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, Pacific Grove, USA.
Q: I have been working for an organisation for several years and am planning to move into private practice. Can I let my current clients know about my private practice?
Deciding whether or not to inform current clients about your move to a private practice could be dependent on a range of different contextual and circumstantial factors.
Firstly, it is essential to consider any organisational policies or legal provisions that you have agreed to as part of your employment contract regarding whether it is permitted to refer existing clients to your own private business.
It is also important to remember that when each of your clients sought services from the organisation you worked for, they did this on the basis of their circumstances at that time, and the nature of the services offered by the organisation. The circumstances of decision making regarding which service to seek changes significantly after a client has formed an attachment or therapeutic relationship with a worker and this can be highly influential.
There are a range of potential impacts on clients when a therapeutic service ends or changes and these should be managed carefully. The client may prefer not to have to re-disclose their circumstances to a new worker, nor get to know or trust a new worker. This may influence them to change to the worker’s new private practice, even if this is not in their interests for other reasons. Furthermore, a client’s decision making may also be particularly complex if they are at a significant or vulnerable stage in their lives, or in the therapeutic process. Circumstances may mean that the worker has the capacity to be especially influential over the client and this can pose risks.
The risks and impacts for clients when changing from an existing service to become a client of a new private practice may include:
• A greater cost per session or different cost structure
• A different location, different transport arrangements
• A change in access to ancillary or multidisciplinary services offered through the original organisation
• Fewer other practitioners to see in the absence of the social worker
• Different practice standards, methods, supervisory or accountability arrangements
• If the private practice is a new business, there may be increased unpredictability about whether the business/service to client will be sustainable long term
• Increased sense of dependency on needing that particular worker in order to achieve their therapeutic goals
It would be advisable to discuss with your current organisation and supervisor any proposal to inform current clients of your private practice and your rationale for doing so. The supervision process should assist in weighing up any potential risks and impacts for each client. It may be that special transition arrangements can be negotiated for clients where you continue to see them at organization from which they originally sought services, without informing them of your private practice at all.
If you and your supervisor consider it appropriate to let a client know you are entering into private practice, examples of questions to consider might be:
• Am I acting in the best interests of clients? (5.2.1 a)
• Am I actively seeking to enable clients to make informed decisions on their own behalf? (5.2.2 a)
• Am I ensuring that a professional relationship is not exploited to gain personal, material or financial advantage? (5.1.6 i)
• Am I mindful of any implications if only some clients are told of the private practice?
If you are working in a completely different context from the one you will be working in privately (e.g. child protection) it may not be appropriate to inform current clients of your private practice (with the intention that they may become clients of your practice) as it may set up a dual relationship (5.1.6 j) or a conflict of interest (5.1.7 a).
If you decide not to inform clients that you are leaving your current organisation to enter private practice, you will need to plan what you would do if they find out about your private practice through other means in the future, and under what circumstances you could work with them as a client.
The term ‘Information management’ encompasses both the methodological and technological processes for the collection, storage, processing, retrieval, sharing and management of information.
The type of information managed by Social Workers will vary greatly according to the area and context of practice but its often confidential nature places particular ethical and legal obligations on those responsible for its practical and physical use and storage.
Confidential client information is information provided by, or on behalf of a client, where the law imposes an obligation on the social worker to keep that information in confidence. Confidential information can include the following:
- contact details (e.g. telephone numbers, email address, home address);
- personal information (date of birth, marital status, citizenship or visa status, criminal records);
- family information (marital status, gender status, identity of children, current or former spouse, adoption matters);
- employment status (current or past employers, reasons for ceasing employment);
- medical information (medical reports, disability);
- financial status (indebted, bankruptcy)
- court cases including those relating to any of the above matters.
At the commencement of a professional relationship, social workers should consider and ensure that the client or their authorised representative is informed of and understands:
- What information will be collected
- The purpose for which the information is obtained (5.2.4 b)
- How the information may be used by a social worker
- How the information will be recorded and stored
- From whom information about a client may be requested (5.2.4 a)
- How and when information may be shared with others, in what detail and in what circumstances
- The methods used for sharing information including verbal, electronic and paper communications and documents
- Where and in what circumstances limits to confidentiality apply
- Rights regarding reasonable access to their information and the limits to this (legal, ethical and professioanl reasons - 5.2.5 d).
- The period of time the social worker is authorised to use client information and the legislative or recommended periods for keeping records at the completion of a professional relationship
- Relevant organisational policy and procedure regarding case note recording and storing if applicable.
Q. What do I need to consider in maintaining client confidentiality during the delivery of a support of service?
- How confidentiality will be managed when support or service is provided to multiple individuals such as in the provision of group activities or family therapy; or if providing services to two or more people who have a relationship with one another (5.2.4 h, 5.1.7 h)
- How confidentiality will be managed when there are dual relationships or conflicts of interest (5.1.6 j, 5.1.7)
- The impact of the working environment including open plan and shared work spaces
- Procedures to ensure the physical security of electronic, printed or handwritten client information (e.g. ensuring a secure, password protected computer server and ensuring a secure office space and locked filing cabinet for physical documentation or information)
- Social workers should only collect information that is directly related to the service or support being provided and consented to (5.2.5am 5.2.3, 5.2.4)
- Social workers should consider the nature and context of the service provided in determining what constitutes relevant information
- Social workers should consider the duration of the service being offered in determining what constitutes relevant information
- Social workers should consider the nature of their professional relationship with the client/s in determining what constitutes relevant information
The ethical guideline on case notes provides a detailed and general overview of the types of information that may be relevant to a range of practice settings and contexts.
- Electronic data, including email and paper files should be stored securely and should be accessible only to the professionals responsible for the provision of a service or support
- Electronic and material data should be stored according to applicable organisational and /or statutory requirements (5.2.5 g) as well as special provisions relating to organisational risk management, research and/or relevant legislation
- Social workers should be aware of the methods used to dispose of electronic and paper data, and that the security of data is maintained throughout this process. This may mean, for example, that paper files are shredded or burnt and electronic data permanently deleted (5.2.5 h)
Q. Can I use client information for purposes other than those for which written informed consent has been provided?
- It is possible that in the course of delivering a service, a social worker will identify additional or unanticipated client needs, or that a client will request services beyond the bounds of pre-existing written consent
- In these instances, it may be in the client's best interest to share the information with an additional third party. However, social workers should not assume they have informed consent and should revisit their ethical obligations and ensure that appropriately revised written informed consent is obtained (5.2.5 b)
Social workers should consider any applicable legislative or mandatory reporting requirements and their impact on confidentiality (e.g. responding to a subpoena, working with involuntary clients or in the event of future legal proceedings). Some considerations are:
- Information held about a client may be subject to a range of legal processes both during and following the conclusion of the professional relationship. This may include freedom of information applications, mandatory reporting requirements, responding to a subpoena in relation to matters before civil, criminal family or children's courts.
- It is critical that social workers are familiar with relevant Federal and State legislation and how these may relate to the future use of client information and records
It may be useful to refer to the following ethical guidelines for additional information and guidance regarding client information and legal processes:
Q. What should I do if I am concerned about the security or use of information held about a client(s)?
Issues relating to organisational practice, policy or procedure:
- Social workers should ensure that their ethical obligations are not placed at risk by organisational policies or practices (5.4.1, 5.4.2)
- Social workers may consider using appropriate organisational channels to highlight the ways in which agency policies, procedures or practice contravene professional standards (see 5.4.1, 5.4.2)
Issues relating to the practice of a social worker:
- Social workers concerned about the misappropriation of information by social work colleagues may consider addressing concerns with the individual social worker and where appropriate provide professional support or guidance
- Social workers may also pursue the concerns with a supervisor or through relevant organisational channels. If these avenues are unsuccessful, or where the misappropriation of information represents a clear breach of the Code of Ethics, social workers are advised to contact the Ethics Consultation Service, and where appropriate, to consider their options through the Ethics Complaints Management Process.
It is reasonable to expect from time to time, that social workers will unexpectedly need to terminate or interrupt the provision of a service due to personal illness, incapacitation or death (5.2.6).
For this reason, it is advisable to consider how client information will be managed in a temporary or permanent absence. A social worker must therefore:
- Document information management policies and procedures. This step is particularly important in the absence of any written organisational guidelines, for example, where a social worker works in private practice as a sole practitioner or works in an isolated setting
- Identify an 'appropriate person' to manage client information in the absence of the social worker. A social worker may wish to enter into a reciprocal arrangement with another social worker to cover absences. This arrangement should be disclosed in advance to the client and their understanding and informed consent sought;
- Ensure the identified 'appropriate person' is aware of information management policies and procedures and agrees to be bound by the same process regarding the protection of confidential client information.
- Discuss this possibility and related information management processes with the client. The social worker should make provision to include terms regarding confidential client information to be expressed in the terms of engagement or contract with the client
- Plan for the caretaking of client records following retirement or death, especially if there are no processes in place
- Ensure that the storage, use and disclosure comply with all legal obligations (for example provacy, health records, document destruction) and professional obligations under the Code (5.1.5 d, 5.2.5).
These guidelines are based on the law as it currently stands. The content of a social worker's terms and conditions must always take into account the current state of the law, and be tailored to meet the particular needs of the social worker's practice.
- The question as to the ownership of documents is not the same as the duties arising from the confidential nature of information to which a social worker has access to.
- For example, an independent medical report will belong to the doctor who prepared it, but notes or reports made by the social worker will continue to belong to the social worker. Both, howver, would be considered as confidential client information which the social worker is responsible for.
- In the event of death or incapacity of a social worker (or for that matter, a social worker retiring and closing their practice), the ownership of file notes or reports prepared by the social worker will pass to whoever is nominated and entitled to inherit the social worker's professional property.
- To avoid unintended consequences, a social worker must consider these issues in advance to have an arrangement as to who should be entrusted to take over their practice in the event of death or serious incapacity and have clear instructions as to how to deal with the client information held.
- Documents that clearly belong to others must be returned to the original owner/author (such as the doctor's medical report mentioned earlier).
- The AASW member insurance policy covers member estates if they are sued, but only while the person has active membership wiht the AASW. I.e. there is no 'run-off' cover. The cover is for professional indemnity and public liability only. Members are encouraged to contact the insurers directly.
- Social workers must consider the scope and adequacy of cover in the event that they unexpectedly pass away or become seriously incapacitated. The member's estate would be covered until the date that their membership expires. If the membership lapses the social worker is uninsured for this event unless the estate has already arranged ongoing insurance coverage.
If you would like to discuss this matter further, please do not hesitate to call the National Ethics and Practice Standards Officer on 03 9642 2307 or email@example.com.
A conflict of interest occurs when a social worker’s services to or relationship with a client is compromised, or might be compromised, because of decisions or actions in relation to another client, colleague, him or her self, or some other third party (Reamer, 1998). Gifis (1991) describes a conflict of interest as a situation where regard for one duty leads to disregard of another (Gifis 1991, in Reamer, 1998, p45).
Potential or actual conflicts of interest are very complex situations for social workers, or for any professional for that matter. Conflicts of interest can occur in many different contexts. They may occur in the context of a social worker’s relationships with a client/multiple clients in direct practice or could be in the context of a social worker working in management, supervision, policy, research or community development - to name a few.
When faced with a potential or actual conflict of interest, it is important that social workers consider, even if they feel that they can manage the potential conflict or feel that there are no significant issues, the perception that others (clients, colleagues, the community, employers etc) may have when/if a conflict of interest comes to light. It is important; therefore, that social workers are proactive in discussing any potential/actual conflicts of interests with supervisors or employers so that all possible outcomes and interpretations of actions and situations can be explored. There have been instances where complaints have been made against social workers when they have failed to consider all possible outcomes and failed to consider how a seemingly innocent action could be perceived in quite the opposite way by another person.
Below are some examples of potential and actual conflicts of interest social workers may encounter in different contexts:
Q: I am a social worker in a government health organization. The agency I work for provides time-limited episodes of therapy/counselling for people recovering from drug and alcohol addictions. It is typical at the end of an episode of therapy, for counsellors to refer clients for ongoing therapy if we assess that there is a need. My husband has a private practice and is currently looking for new clients. Can I refer clients to his practice once they have completed their episode of counselling with my agency?
The AASW Code of Ethics 2010 (Code) states:
Social workers will remain aware of the potential for conflicts of interests which may affect their ability to exercise professional discretion and unbiased judgment (5.1.7 a).
It then states that the interests could be derived from any number of things. Three areas it does list which would be relevant to the above situation are interests derived from financial, business and familial factors. If this social worker was continually referring clients to her husband for ongoing therapy, it could be argued that her judgement and assessment of their needs is biased as her husband is looking for new clients for his business, from which she in turn could also be perceived to gain financially. For example, would she form the same assessment if she was referring clients to a private practitioner she had no personal connection to?
The social worker should consider issues around confidentiality, informed consent and client self-determination:
• Will she be tempted to ask her husband how a particular client is going?
• Will her husband voluntarily divulge information to her about her previous clients?
• What if one of her previous clients raises an issue with her husband about her previous involvement regardless of the nature of the issue?
• Will the client be informed that the private practitioner they have been referred to is the husband of their previous worker?
• Have they been given a choice about who they might like to see for ongoing therapy?
This situation is fraught with issues and is an example of a social worker actively engaging in a conflict of interest. One option would be to discuss with her organisation and negotiate that while she does not refer clients to her husband, other practitioners within her organisation may, but that she must refer onto other private practitioners offering drug and alcohol counselling and therapy. It would also be important that all practitioners at the agency provide clients with a selection of several names of suitably qualified private practitioners for clients to choose from.
Q: I am a social worker currently employed in a small community based family support service. I have been asked by my manager to complete a research an evaluation project on family support services in the local area as a means of advocating for more the continuation of funding to maintain programs and employment of staff that run them. There is a chance I could lose my job if this funding is not granted continued. Should I agree to complete the evaluation project?
As above, the Code states that Social workers will remain aware of the potential for conflicts of interest which may affect their ability to exercise professional discretion and unbiased judgement (Section 5.1.7 a).
It states that the interests could derive from ‘professional or organisational factors’. The social worker would need to take into account the possibility that the evaluation results and recommendations could be biased due to the fact that the social worker has a professional, personal and perhaps financial interest in the outcome being one which supports the need for continued/ongoing funding.
The Code states that:
Where such a situation (conflict of interest) is foreseeable or occurs, social workers will declare their interest to the relevant parties and seek to negotiate a solution (Section 5.1.7 c).
The Code of Ethics (2010) states further, in Section 184.108.40.206 (Publication and distribution of research findings):
Social workers will accurately and fully disseminate research findings(220.127.116.11 a).
Social workers will disclose any financial or other support for the research accurately and acknowledge potential conflicts of interest (18.104.22.168 f).
It would therefore be important that the social worker raises this with their organisation highlighting their concerns that this situation could sway their professional judgement in analysing evaluation results. It may be that an independent person such as a ‘monitor’ is engaged in the evaluation project also, to monitor the evaluation activities and ensure that the project complies with international standards. Another option may be that the evaluation has inter-rater reliability as part of the design to ensure as much reliability and objectivity in the interpretation of results. It might also be that consideration is given to employing an external, objective person to conduct this research independently.
Q: I am a social worker and I have recently been referred a woman and her ex-partner, who are in the middle of a custody battle for their daughter through the family courts. I am to complete a court ordered family assessment of both parties. Allegations of domestic violence have been made by the woman against her ex-partner, but her ex-partner denies there was violence in the relationship. I am worried that this will affect my judgement in my assessments. What should I do?
The Code states that:
Social workers who provide service to two or more people who have a relationship with each other will clarify with all parties the nature of professional obligations to those who are receiving services (5.1.7 h).
The Code also states that:
Social workers will refuse to accept, or will refer, cases where it is not possible to manage conflicts of interest (5.1.7 f).
It would be important for the social worker to discuss with both parties that the assessment will be conducted by the same person. It would also be important for the social worker to be mindful of, once both parties are aware that the same person will be conducting the assessment of both of them, the potential for either party to attempt to influence the social worker to be dishonest, or less thorough in reporting the assessment of one party over the other in the assessment process. If the social worker is not mindful of this, he/she could unwittingly be led to form perceptions of either party that may be biased or inaccurate. Discussing this potential in supervision would be essential with the aim of developing strategies to address it.
It would also be advisable that the social worker engages in supervision around the issue of the domestic violence allegations to ensure that any subjective judgement or bias the social worker may have, both towards the man and the woman, are discussed, and strategies for dealing with this are explored.
It would also be advisable for the social worker to explore any pre-conceived notions/assumptions he/she might have about domestic violence within supervision or consultation. It would be important for the social worker to be aware that prior experiences with other clients and personal beliefs may interfere with the assessment remaining entirely objective.
Q: The new partner of a former partner of mine has come to see me for counseling. The client is not aware of my former relationship with their partner, which ended in a hostile manner. Do I need to disclose my former relatioship with my client’s current partner?
The Code clearly states that ‘social workers must be aware of the potential for conflicts of interest to affect their professional and unbiased judgment’, (Section 5.1.7 a) and that ‘clients’ interests must remain a priority at all times’ (Section 5.1.7 b). The Code goes on to say that ’social workers will declare their interest to the relevant parties and seek to negotiate a solution’ (Section 5.1.7 b).
Such a scenario is problematic for many reasons. Some examples could be:
• The client could be seeking relationship counseling regarding their current partner or disclose details about their current partner
• If the social worker does not tell the client, the client could discover details of the previous relationship with the social worker, which could lead to negative implications for the therapeutic/counseling relationship and could deem the social worker vulnerable to a complaint being made against them.
• The social worker may still be in contact with the ex-partner
• The social worker may not be able to separate historical personal feelings from the maintenance of an unbiased, objective therapeutic relationship with the client.
The Code states that social workers will declare conflicts of interest to relevant parties. It is essential that the social worker consults with a supervisor first in order to discuss the conflict of interest and how the need for professional boundaries can be conveyed sensitively to the client. A conflict of interest such as this would require the social worker to re-refer the client to another social worker or counseling professional.
Q: I am a sole school counsellor and am currently working with a female student at a high school. This student has disclosed that she is very unhappy at home due to tension with other family members. This student’s older brother has also been referred for counseling. Should I accept this referral?
The Code of Ethics (2010) States:
Social workers will be mindful that conflicts of interest can also arise in relation to involuntary clients, multiple clients and confidentiality issues. At all times, clients’ interests remain a priority, with due consideration for the respective interests of others. (5.1.7 b).
Social workers who provide services to two or more people who have a relationship with each other (e.g. couples or family members), will clarify with all parties the nature of professional obligations to those who are receiving services. Social workers who anticipate a conflict of interest among the clients receiving services, or who anticipate having to perform in potentially conflicting roles (e.g. testifying in court proceedings), will clarify their role with the parties involved and take appropriate action to minimise any conflict of interest (5.1.7 h).
Many different issues could arise if the social worker were to accept the referral and provide counselling to the two related students, potentially unbeknown to each other. The social worker might consider the following as examples of issues that may arise:
• What would happen if I became confused and raised a personal subject that was discussed with one student thinking I had originally discussed it with the other student?
• What would happen if it came up in conversation informally with the brother and sister and they discovered that you were providing counselling to both of them and had issue with this?
• If you informed one or both of the clients of the conflict of interest, you would be essentially breaching the confidentiality of one/both of the clients.
• What if you were subpoenaed to court for one/both of the students and the relationships were thus discovered by the students and their family? Or, if you decided you needed to make a notification to the statutory child protection agency in relation to a disclosure from one of the students?
• Would you be able to remain objective if any tension arose within the family and one or both of the clients discussed this with you, thinking that they were speaking with an objective party?
• How would you deal with potential biases or judgements if one of the students disclosed negative information or behaviour about his/her brother/sister?
It would be advisable that the social worker, as the Code states, declare their interest to the relevant parties and seek to negotiate a solution. If already involved in a professional relationship when the conflict or interest arises (as this social worker is) the social worker will declare it and take appropriate action, such as consulting with a senior person such as the school principal or their supervisor and, where relevant, the students. (5.1.7 c). In this instance, it may not be appropriate to discuss this with the students due to confidentiality issues.
Discussing this issue in depth in supervision and with the principal of the school would be strongly advisable. It might be that the school negotiates for another counselor to accept a referral for the second client, (even if it might fall outside of school policy). Section 5.1.7 f states that social workers will refuse to accept or will refer cases where it is not possible to manage conflicts of interest, which could be the case in this instance.
The Code of Ethics (2010) does acknowledge that in some instances, it may be necessary for the social worker and the client/s to acknowledge and work with such conflicts within the situation. It would be imperative that a social worker engages in close supervision if this is the decided course of action and discusses issues such as confidentiality, privacy and biases and how these will be managed.
In a sole practitioner situation within a school setting, it would be important to clearly contract with all clients about the potential that you may provide services to other students including their siblings and friends, and that due to confidentiality, this may occur without clients knowing if that has occurred, and who other clients are. This should be made explicit and contracted at the beginning of all new therapeutic relationships, including an explanation and reassurance of the boundaries of privacy and confidentiality for each client.
Q: I am a social worker and am the director of a child welfare fostering agency. The agency I direct received a report that a child placed with one of our foster families had allegedly been sexually abused by the foster father. This foster father was once a very close friend of mine. I would usually supervise investigations of this nature.
The first issue to consider is that irrespective of the child’s disclosure about alleged sexual abuse perpetrated by the social worker’s friend, a conflict of interest already exists in that the director of the agency is close friends with one of the agency’s foster carers. It would be expected that the social worker had already declared this conflict of interest with the agency and that steps had been taken to manage this by the social worker and the agency.
Following the disclosure from the child about the alleged sexual abuse, the already existing conflict of interest becomes more complex. It would be difficult for the social worker to be entirely objective in this situation if he or she were to supervise this investigation.. It would be unethical that the alleged perpetrator is investigated by a, once, close friend of his, rather than a completely objective outsider.
The social worker, according to the Code, should declare this to his or her organisation (5.1.7 c) and perhaps look to a colleague (perhaps an assistant director) to step in and supervise/conduct the investigation. If this is not possible or there is no one internally that can do this, the agency may need to look externally and employ a consultant to supervise this investigation.
Q: I am currently providing counseling to a client. In the course of one of our discussions, I mentioned that I was looking to buy a new car and specified what type. The client has responded by saying that he and his wife are currently looking to sell one of their family cars which is the same type I mentioned, and stated they could give me a good price on it. Should I consider their offer?
The section of the Code which is most relevant to this example is section 5.1.7 d and 5.1.7 e which refers to the giving and receiving of gifts. While this example does not specify an actual, tangible “gift”, like a bunch of flowers, some chocolates or a book, for example, the “gift” could be the discount or the “good price” that the client has offered because he already had a relationship with the social worker.
The Code of Ethics (2010) states that:
Social workers will consider ethical issues surrounding the giving and accepting of gifts in a professional context. When deciding whether or not to give, accept and declare gifts, social workers will consider the professional relationship, any relevant organisational policies, the value of the gift, any cultural issues and the motivation for giving, receiving or declining the gift (5.1.7 d).
Social workers will not give or accept gifts which may impair professional judgement, effect the integrity or efficacy of the professional relationship or which are of substantial value (5.1.7 e).
The social worker, in this instance should consider the professional relationship that he/she has with the client, and in accepting this “gift” of a “good deal”, what does that mean for the professional relationship, and is this action blurring the boundaries between a strict social worker-client relationship, and a relationship not unlike that of a friendship.
The social worker should also consider the impact on the therapeutic relationship if the car was damaged or certain aspects of the car’s history were not disclosed to the social worker buying the vehicle.
The social worker should also consider whether the client’s wife is aware of his offer to sell the car for a ‘discounted price’ or to even sell it at all.
Q: I have been promoted to team leader within an organisation where my sister also works. There has recently been a team re-structure and my sister is now in the team that I am to supervise. Is this ok?
The Code of Ethics (2010) states that:
Social workers will remain aware of the potential for conflicts of interest which may affect their ability to exercise profession discretion or unbiased judgement. These interests may derive from personal, emotional, conscientious, sexual, familial, social , cultural, religious, spiritual, financial, business, political, professional or organisational factors (5.1.7 a).
Based on this ethical principle, it may be difficult for the team leader to exercise unbiased judgement or exercise professional discretion in relation to her sister. The team leader would need to consider how conflicts between she and her sister would be handled as well as potential conflicts between her sister and other team members. The team leader would need to consider how she would manage a situation if a complaint was made about her sister’s practice.
Other issues to consider would be the perception that other staff members would have of this relationship. Even if it was not the case, would other staff members view the sister as receiving preferential treatment if she were, for example, to be promoted, to be allocated certain clients or to be granted funding to attend a professional development workshop? Conversely, the sister may perceive that she is receiving unfair treatment and that the team leader is overcompensating for the conflict of interest that exists.
Confidentiality may also be an issue to consider. Presumably, the team leader and sister would interact socially or with family members, and therefore both parties would need to be very aware about what was discussed with other family members. Other members of the team may also be less willing to discuss confidential matters with the team leader, through fear of this being shared with their colleague and sister of their supervisor.
It would be advisable that the team leader raise this conflict of interest with her organisation and the potential ethical issues that could arise for her, her sister and other employees. It might be that the team leader is moved to supervise another team or that the sister is moved to a different team.
Even without the direct supervisor/supervisee relationship, it is worth noting that other conflicts of interest could arise in the course of both of the sister’s employment within the same organisation.
It may also be useful to refer to the ethical guideline on Professional Boundaries and Dual Relationships which can be found here.
Reamer, F. (1998). Ethical Standards in Social Work: A Critical Review of the NASW Code of Ethics, Washington: NASW Press.
This Ethical Guideline should be considered in addition to the information contained in the Ethical Guideline on ‘Information Management’.
Social workers will promote the ethical values and standards of the profession when undertaking broader types of service such as administration, policy development, education and research (Section 5.1.4c Code of Ethics 2010).
I am considering or engaged in research that utilises client information. What additional ethical and legal issues are relevant to research data collection, storage and use?
In addition to giving due consideration to the issues outlined in the ‘Information Management’ FAQ, Social workers engaged in research that utilises client information should:
- Ensure the interests of research participants are placed above the Social Worker’s personal or professional interests (22.214.171.124 a). What this means is that a social worker should place the wellbeing of the people they are going to be interviewing above their own needs to obtain research outcomes, complete a piece of research by a deadline, or interview vulnerable people regardless of possible risks.
- Carefully consider possible consequences of proposed research or evaluation on participants (126.96.36.199 b). The social worker should question what the consequences could be, for example in relation to provision of ongoing services.
- Give due regard to maintaining the confidentiality, privacy and dignity of participants (188.8.131.52 c, h). The social worker should take care when working with small populations or ‘elite’ groups where assurances of anonymity may be more difficult.
- Ensure that prospective participants understand the nature of the research, their role and any associated risks (184.108.40.206 d). Informed consent processes that go beyond a signature on a form may be warranted in cases where literacy, competency or language arise as issues.
- only collect and utilise data from clients who are voluntary participants and who have given their written informed consent (220.127.116.11 d)
- carefully consider the process of voluntary consent in situations where the participant is:
a child or young person
a person with a mental or intellectual impairment
a person who is highly dependent on medical care
a person in a dependent or unequal relationship with the Social Work researcher (18.104.22.168 e)
- Ensure that consent is given without coercion or inferred advantage or disadvantage resulting from participation (22.214.171.124 f). Social workers need to make sure that any incentives offered to people to participate in research are not coercive, for example, offering money to homeless people; hinting that access to a service might be curtailed if a person does not participate.
Participants are aware of their rights regarding withdrawal from the research (126.96.36.199 f). Social workers should also take care to specify that if an interview has already taken place, an anonymous survey has been completed, or a person has been involved in a focus group, that their contributions may not be able to be withdrawn from the data if that data has already been de-identified.
reasons for withdrawal are noted and given general consideration in relation to research design or methodology (188.8.131.52 f)
Where appropriate, research proposals are submitted to an ethics committee (184.108.40.206 i). In many cases, established research ethics committees are in place within larger organizations. Social workers should be familiar with any ethics requirements and ensure that they follow these processes.
results aimed at quality improvement are restricted to the organisation or agency for which the research was undertaken (220.127.116.11 i)
Records are retained, stored and managed according to professional, organisational and legal requirements (18.104.22.168 j). These requirements will generally form part of ethics approval. It is important that secure storage for computer systems holding research data is observed.
I am a university lecturer and considering using case examples from my previous work in direct practice as part of my lecture material. What do I need to consider?
It is very important for social workers engaged in education or training to consider issues of confidentiality, privacy and informed consent when using client information for educative purposes. Social work educators should protect client confidentiality and privacy in the same way that a social worker working in direct practice would.
The Code of Ethics states in section 5.2.4e that if social workers reveal confidential information about clients in a supervisory or training capacity then:
…in all cases the social worker must maintain the client’s confidentiality and privacy and obtain prior written informed consent from the client to release the information; in which case all third parties must agree to protect the client’s confidentiality and privacy.
The Code further states that:
Social workers will ensure clients’ anonymity and remove identifying details when permitted to use confidential information for purposes such as case presentation, consultation, teaching, research or education.
If educators use information about clients that is identifying in any way, it is essential that the social worker gains full written informed consent from the client before doing so. Social workers, in this instance, need to make a careful assessment of the capacity and competence of the client to make a sound decision regarding their information being shared for educative purposes. It would also be important that clients understand who will be privy to their information. Social workers may need to seek agreement from students that they will protect the confidences of the client discussed in the educational forum as section 5.2.4e states.
If a social worker wishes to present case information in a teaching capacity, and does not obtain informed consent from the client, it is imperative that they disguise or alter case-related details to ensure that the audience cannot identify the clients or other individuals involved. Simply changing names is not sufficient de-identification. A more effective strategy might be to alter personal and demographic details such as age, gender, ethnicity, details of clinical history, family relationships and systems and geographical location. However, if a case needs to be altered to a significant extent, then it should be made clear to the audience that the case being presented has been modified for the purpose of providing an example to illustrate a particular issue. There is the risk that by re-creating the case in an effort to de-identify real clients, it may then describe the situation of someone else, which the presenter actually has no knowledge of.
If a social worker distributes written material containing information about clients, the information should be de-identified and disguised in the same manner as above.
Do the same ethical principles apply if I am using information about previous/current workplaces and colleagues in a teaching capacity?
It may be useful for social work educators to provide students/recipients of training with real life examples of different organisational structures or cultures that the social worker has experienced to highlight any challenges social workers may come across in different workplace environments.
It is equally as important, that the confidences of previous work environments, situations, organisations and colleagues are protected if using such information in an educative capacity, the same as when using client information in this context.
If highlighting a particularly unhealthy, poorly structured or unsupportive organisation or a healthy, well structured, supportive organisation in a teaching capacity, it would be vital that social workers ensure the anonymity of organisations, the same way as they would if presenting information on clients. It would be important to remember that it would not be sufficient, in ensuring the organisation is fully de-identified, to simply change the name or omit the name of the organisation from the presentation. It may still be possible for the audience to recognise the organisation based on other descriptors.
The social worker would need to be clear about the educative/training purpose of using such information, and separate this from any personal cathartic/reflective process that should be conducted in a forum such as professional supervision or consultation.
Social workers seek to ensure that their professional relationships in these areas (Education, training, supervision and evaluation) are constructive and non-exploitative (section 5.5.1 b).
Likewise, if a social work educator/trainer was to present information on another professional’s conduct as a means of demonstrating poor/unethical practice, the social worker must ensure that any information that could be identifying in any way is either changed or omitted to ensure that the professional’s confidences are fully protected. Again, the social worker would need to be clear that the use of such information has a clear educative purpose and rationale and that the social worker is not misusing such a forum for their own personal benefit. The Code of Ethics (2010) states:
Any criticism of colleagues’ practice or behaviour must be defensible and should be dealt with in a professional manner (section 5.3g).
Social workers should be careful, when discussing conduct/viewpoints/practice techniques of other professions in an educative forum, that they do not unjustly criticise or make disparaging remarks about other professions. This may indicate to the audience that all professionals from the particular discipline are incompetent or unethical, for example, which may negatively impact on their future professional relationships with colleagues. If a social work educator has a personal view/experience about another discipline’s practice principles or an individual’s conduct from another discipline, this should be kept separate to any educative forum. For example, if a social work educator came into conflict with a Psychologist in a previous role around a practice method, it would not be appropriate to portray to the audience that all psychologists are difficult to work with nor to highlight any personal experiences with particular professionals from other disciplines. Rather, the social worker might highlight that it can be difficult when working in multidisciplinary teams when there are differences of opinion between disciplines.
Social workers will relate to both social work colleagues and colleagues from other disciplines with respect, integrity and courtesy, seeking to understand the differences in viewpoints and practice. (Section 5.3b)
The social worker should then offer their audience different strategies and mechanisms for dealing with potential conflict with other disciplines.
I am presenting at a conference and want to bring together a panel of people with lived experience of mental illness to tell their stories and respond to questions. Is this ethical and what do I need to consider?
It is often very useful to bring the voices of clients and those with personal experiences of social issues to the fore in an educational way through workshops, conferences or lectures at universities where the clients are physically present.
The social worker would need to provide a clear rationale for the inclusion and participation of people with lived experiences to participate in the educative forum and ensure that these potential participants are not exploited in the interest of the educational forum or in the personal or business interests of the presenter.
Social workers will ensure that professional relationships are not exploited to gain personal, material or financial advantage (Section 5.1.6i).
The social worker would need to keep the best interests of the invited presenters to the fore, which may include provision of support and debriefing later in the event of challenging questions or comments that may lead to later distress.
Social workers should always maintain the best interests of clients as a priority, with due regard to the respective interests of others (Section 5.2.1a Code of Ethics 2010).
The social worker would need to make a careful assessment, in consultation with others; of the risks and potential harmful consequences to each individual they are asking to attend the educational forum as well as carefully assess each individual’s capacity to comprehend and fully understand any potential risks or impacts. In some instances it may be unsafe, unethical and potentially damaging to some individuals to participate in such forums, even if they agree to do so.
The social worker would need to provide a brief to each potential participant about the purpose of their participation, what is being asked of them, who will be in the audience and whether or not the audience will have the opportunity to ask questions. The social worker should also discuss with the client if the presentation will be recorded and if so, where this will be disseminated. This should all be provided to potential invitees in written form if possible, and written informed consent obtained - providing this is possible.
Social workers will ensure as far as possible, that clients understand the principle of informed consent and the circumstances in which it may be required (Section 5.2.3 a).
If there are literacy, competency or language issues or the client has a physical impairment (such as blindness) impacting on their ability to provide written informed consent, the social worker would need to consider alternative means of ensuring informed consent has been provided.
The social worker would also need to brief the audience around the participation of people with lived experience in the forum. The boundaries around audience interaction (asking questions and initiating discussion) with invited guests should be clearly outlined. The social worker may have to consider obtaining formal acknowledgment from the audience that they understand and agree to these boundaries.
Another scenario to consider would be an instance where someone in the audience knows of or has some kind of current/prior relationship with an individual who has been asked to the forum. This should be discussed with the invited participants with the opportunity for them to withdraw consent at any time if there are any factors which will impact on them as a result of being present at this forum.
Social workers should confront the inclusion of people with lived experience into educative forums with caution. While it may assist in adding richness and ‘real life’ flavour to educative forums, social workers must surrender this if any risks and potential harm to participants are identified.
- codeofethics2010.pdf (509Kb)