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?