By: Rana Duncan-Daston, MSW, LCSW, Ed.D.
Finding permanent families for adolescents aging out of care has now assumed the priority that it deserves in the field of child welfare. Research has shown that adolescents who age out of the system are much more likely to experience “homelessness, be involved in criminal activity, be uneducated, be unemployed, experience poverty, and lack proper healthcare” (Atkinson, 2008, p. 183). Child welfare professionals are redoubling their efforts to create permanent families for these vulnerable members of our society, and rightly so.
Amidst these much-heralded and long overdue changes, some professionals are advocating for the removal of the conflict of interest standard in the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics. For instance, the North American Council for Adoptable Children (NACAC) suggests a key policy barrier that prevents older children from being adopted is the restriction blocking child welfare professionals from adopting youth (It’s Time to Make Older Child Adoption a Reality, 2009). This recent publication states:
The National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics provides important guidelines about how social workers can avoid conflicts of interest and prevent dual or multiple relationships with clients. This conflict of interest provision is frequently relied on by child welfare organizations to restrict workers and other staff from adopting youth in their care.
Although these guidelines exist to protect both the social worker and children, they can also prevent adults who know a youth best from being able to consider adopting the youth (2009, p. 7).
This statement appears in a section in the publication about policy barriers that are described as the “unplanned consequence” of “well-intentioned policies and laws” (p. 5).
In another publication by the NACAC, for the Annie E. Casey Foundation Family to Family Initiative (A Family for Every Child, 2005), the point is made that some jurisdictions prohibit professionals who work with a child from adopting that child. This publication states, “Barriers such as these should be carefully eliminated” (p. 54).
These statements constitute an overt challenge to the NASW Code of Ethics and, as such, demand a response from social workers nationally who are not in agreement. Making a permanent commitment to a young adult who is aging out of care is noble and something to emulate; however, adopting from one’s own caseload is a completely separate issue. Since the conflict of interest standard exists only to protect clients, the purpose of this article is to call attention to this issue and to reassert the importance of the conflict of interest standards.
A review of the ethical standard is important. The first standard regarding conflicts of interest requires social workers to be aware of and “avoid conflicts of interest that interfere with the exercise of professional discretion and impartial judgment” (NASW, 2008, 1.06a). This is part of what it means to be a professional in the field. The next standard in the section says that “social workers should not take unfair advantage of any professional relationship or exploit others to further their personal...interests” (1.06b). Does this standard pass the relevancy test? YES!
A foster case worker has tremendous power in a child’s life. This worker makes plans for returning the child home, for adoption, or for continued foster care. If the worker experiences a “special connection” to this child and decides that he or she wants to adopt this older adolescent, how can the public be sure that this decision was not an unfair use of power? How can the worker prove that his or her decision-making was not influenced by the desire to adopt the child? Even the appearance of impropriety could erode the public trust in the child welfare profession. In many agencies, foster care workers work side-by-side with child protection workers, and the public trust is exceedingly important in the delicate work of assessing a child’s safety in the home.
In section 1.06c, the Code states “social workers should not engage in dual relationships...with clients or former clients in which there is a risk of exploitation or potential harm to the client.” Note that this standard does not prohibit dual relationships altogether; it prohibits exploitative or harmful dual relationships. Why would any responsible professional wish to remove that protection from our clients?
Let’s consider an example of a social worker who is going through the empty nest syndrome. If this social worker sees the teen who is aging out of care as the cure to her “empty nest,” this could lead to exploitation of a client—if the social worker’s needs are primary. Surely our field does not want decisions about clients to be made with the social worker’s life as the beginning reference point.
Another example of the blurring of professional boundaries can happen to young professionals. Some foster care workers are in their early twenties. VanderVen, in her writing about professional development, states that ”beginning microsystem workers may hold a strong rescue fantasy; their conviction that they...can make up to the children what their deprived pasts have failed to give” (2006, p. 248). VanderVen goes on to say that “these workers may consider policies equalizing treatment for all children or guidelines for professional relations...unreasonable, since they fly in the face of their wish to give” (2006, p. 248). Workers may be developmentally working on their own “issues with authority and individuality” (VanderVen, 2006, p. 247), so workers might entertain fantasies about siding with their clients against the child welfare system. Building on this thinking, it seems as if it would be very irresponsible for the field of social work to give these young workers permission to act on these fantasies without reference to the Code of Ethics—especially since the turn-over rate in child welfare is so high and the average duration of employment is less than two years (Salus, 2004). Without the caution about dual relationships, young workers could potentially begin adopting adolescents aging out of care—only a few years their junior.
These potential problems with impartial judgment also highlight the importance of supervision and consultation throughout our careers. Salus declares that “the supervisor is in a pivotal position in the agency” because the supervisor can best grasp the workers’ job responsibilities (2004, chapter 9, section 6). Part of any adequate supervision hour involves reviewing the decisions of the worker. This is an important protection for clients and for the workers.
Justice is another value that is cherished in the social work profession and referred to as one of the foundational ethical principles in the NASW Code of Ethics (2008). Justice can be thought of as fairness and equal opportunity. In a completely just world, no child would be without parents, so these foster children have suffered a terrible injustice. If a foster care worker attempts to personally address this injustice in an equal manner, he or she would need to adopt all the children on his or her caseload. This is simply not realistic. So, one can imagine that most social workers would only consider adopting one child, or perhaps two children. This takes us to the next issue about fairness. What will all the other children on this worker’s caseload think, if they are not the ones selected by the worker for adoption? Would this perceived rejection prevent them from seeing the worker as a resource and ally? What if these other children use this experience as an indication that they are somehow inherently unworthy? This does not seem just or professional.
Looking at this issue from another perspective, let’s assume that the other children on the worker’s caseload do not learn of the adoption, so their reaction is no longer an issue. Does that solve the fairness issue? One might imagine that any workers preparing to adopt one or two children from their own caseloads might tend to think of their interests more than the interests of the other children they are serving. If the worker is responding to their calls more quickly or spending more of the agency’s money on these children, how is that fair? In this example, the resources of the agency are much more available to these children. At the extreme, one can imagine that the social worker could become so focused on the children that he or she planned to adopt that the needs of his or her other clients were neglected. That would be unconscionable.
Ethical decision-making requires social workers to critically reflect on all the potential consequences of such a change, the risks and the benefits, as well as all the people that could potentially be affected by such a change (Reamer, 2006). It is clear that the overall consequences of removing this standard would be harmful to the profession.
If we may assume that social workers by nature are perhaps inclined to have compassion for adolescents aging out of care, how could the field responsibly give them opportunities to make a permanent commitment to these adolescents? Recent promising practice reveals that if kinship care is not available, the people who are most likely to complete foster parent training, get licensed, and actually adopt a child are people who knew the child prior to beginning the training (Avery, 2010). Foster care workers can creatively build on this research. After potential foster parents attend an orientation session, perhaps they could be invited to gatherings of foster children to allow for such acquaintances to emerge. One can imagine inter-generational talent shows involving older foster care children and potential foster care parents, board/video game nights, voluntary service projects...there might be multiple ways to bring these two groups together. In this way, a foster care worker can meet children from other agencies to adopt—children who are not affected by their professional decision-making.
Professional practice demands that we use the promising practices in the field to enhance our creative professional decision-making, not reduce protections to our most vulnerable clients. The conflict of interest standard protects foster care children; it does not get in the way of finding homes for them. This standard gives foster care workers support to stay in the professional role and get the important work done of finding permanent homes for children who are aging out of care.
A family for every child: Strategies for older foster children and youth. A project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2005). Retrieved 7-10-10 from
Atkinson, M. (2008). Aging out of foster care: Towards a universal safety net for former foster care youth. Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, 43, 183-213.
Avery, R. (2010). An examination of theory and promising practice for achieving permanency for teens before they age out of foster care. Children and Youth Services Review, 32. 399-408. doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2009.10.011.
Salus, M. K. (2004). Supervising child protective services caseworkers: Chapter Nine, Recruitment and Retention. (2004). Child Welfare Information Gateway. Retrieved 5-25-10 from http://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/usermanuals/supercps/supercpsi.cfm
It’s time to make older child adoption a reality. (2009). Retrieved 7-10-10 from http://www.nacac.org/adoptalk/MakeOlderChildAdoptionReality.pdf
National Association of Social Workers. (2008). Code of ethics. Retrieved 5-20-10 from http://www.socialworkers.org/pubs/code/code.asp
Reamer, F. (2006). (3rd). Social work values and ethics. NY: Columbia Press.
VanderVen, K. (2006). Patterns of career development in group care. In Fulcher & Ainsworth. (Eds.) Group Care Practice with Children and Young People Revisited. Haworth Press.
Rana Duncan-Daston, MSW, LCSW, Ed.D., is an associate professor at Radford University School of Social Work and site coordinator for the extended campus. She is a member of the Virginia Committee on Inquiry for the National Association of Social Workers, and she teaches an elective in ethics. The syllabus for her course recently appeared in Teaching Social Work Values and Ethics: A Curriculum Resource (2nd edition), published by the Council on Social Work Education.