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By: Rose M. Handon, BSW, MSA, LSW
Many professionals enter into the field of social work to help others grow and improve their life circumstances. Yet, when working with clients, social workers must maintain clear boundaries to assure professional integrity and responsibility. On any given social work credentialing board Web site, one will see frequent cases in which there have been complaints filed against social workers resulting in imposed fines, penalties, licensure sanction, suspension, or revocation. In some instances, workers have been imprisoned for misconduct for violation of confidentiality, falsification in record-keeping, malfeasance, and so forth. However, this article will explore the issue of client relationships and ethical boundaries for those working in social work, with a particular focus for those in child welfare.
Dietz & Thompson (2004) offered, “The concern about appropriate boundaries is, at least in part, a concern about the effects of the power differential between client and professional. It is primarily a concern about boundary violations” (p. 2). Boundaries are “the limits that allow for a safe connection based on the client’s needs” (Peterson, 1992, p. 74). Yet, in retrospect, Reamer (2003) suggested that boundary violations and boundary crossings have to be examined in the context of the behavioral effects the behavior has caused for either the social worker or client. He posited a typology of five central themes in which boundary issues may arise: 1) intimate relationships, 2) pursuit of personal benefit, 3) emotional and dependency needs, 4) altruistic gestures, and 5) responses to unanticipated circumstances.
In addition, the clinical issues of managing dual relationships and management of transference and countertransference are factors that cannot be ignored in this discussion. Workers in child welfare are often found in dual client relationships. According to the NASW Code of Ethics (1999), dual relationships occur “when social workers relate to clients in more than one relationship, whether professional, social, or business” (p. 9). Social workers must be knowledgeable and mindful of the NASW Code of Ethics (http://www.socialworkers.org/pubs/Code/code.asp), which provides a comprehensive and strategic outline of one’s professional standards and conduct in meeting the needs of those we serve.
Throughout one’s career, the question is often asked, “Why did you go into social work?” The answer invariably centers on an interest in wanting to help or improve the lives of others. In child welfare, we are often described as helpers, resource/change agents, do-gooders, motivators of change, child-snatchers, and other stereotypes. Inside our respective roles and responsibilities, to move a client forward, we must engage a client in the process of change.
When working with clients, a major skill that social workers must utilize in facilitating the client’s growth or change process is to earn their trust, confidence, and respect. This is an integral part of the client engagement strategy, which must be established in the early phase of the relationship. For those in child welfare, this poses a great challenge, since there is an inherent right and governmental authority to remove children from their own homes, while continuing to work with families toward improved functioning, stabilization, and/or family reunification. Unfortunately, many professionals in our field have difficulties in the area of client rapport building. In an effort to meet the clients’ needs, workers may find themselves “befriending the client,” under the guise of helping.
Throughout our profession, thousands of men and women work with vulnerable families and children. In the scope of delivering social services, we often hear stories that can “break one’s heart,” or cause one to be inadvertently “sympathetic vs. empathetic” to the clients’ experiences and/or pain. Many of our clients have been subjected to abuse, neglect, or other forms of violence or maltreatment. Some report stories of abandonment, domestic violence, emotional abuse, or other wrenching experiences. Some even report having difficulty with intimacy as a result of their reported pain. When social workers have not clearly identified and/or managed their emotional issues and baggage that they brought into the profession, the scope and nature of client/worker relationships can become quite blurry. Subsequently, instead of helping, the social worker may start the path of hurting the client while disclosing or sharing his or her own personal experiences.
In child welfare, immediate supervisors must play a vital role in modeling, coaching, and engaging in frequent discussions with workers on topical issues of client engagement, rapport-building, and assurance of proper boundaries in the worker and client relationship. Social work schools, child welfare training, and other continuing education programs also have a responsibility in providing education and information on the management of client relationships and examination of ongoing ethical issues.