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ETHICS IN 

SOCIAL WORK PRACTICE

The NASW Code of Ethics guides the everyday professional conduct of social workers.

Professional ethics are central to social work practice and they serve the following purposes:  The NASW Code sets for the profession’s mission and identifies core values of conduct for social workers regarding behavior, conflicts of interest, confidentiality, informed consent, documentation, impairment, accountability to the general public, socializing new social workers to the field, etc., and sets forth standards for the social work profession on ethical conduct.

Dual Relationships and Boundary Crossings

Social workers often encounter circumstances that pose actual or potential boundary issues where they may face conflicts of interest in the form of dual relationships. Dual relationships occur when social workers engage with clients or colleagues in more than one relationship outside of their professional relationship such as participating in business, sexual, social or religious activities. Some dual relationships are unethical (for example, when social workers exploit clients), and some are not (unintended encounters outside therapy). Further, some dual relationships are avoidable, and some are not (for example, when social workers and clients live in small or rural communities) (Kagel & Giebelhausen, 1994; Reamer, 2021). 

Technology and Social Work Practice:

In August 2017, the NASW Delegate Assembly formally approved significant updates to the profession's venerable Code of Ethics. The revisions focus explicitly on ethical challenges pertaining to social workers' and clients' increased use of technology. They reflect a broader shift in social work practice related to technology that has led to very recent and noteworthy changes in regulatory (licensing board) standards, practice standards, and ethical standards. Recognizing the profound impact that technology is having on social work practice, in 2013 the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) board of directors appointed an international task force to develop model regulatory standards for technology and social work practice. These model standards, formally adopted in 2015, are now influencing the development of licensing and regulatory laws around the world. Since 1996, there has been significant growth in the use of computers, smartphones, tablets, e-mail, texting, online social networking, monitoring devices, video technology, and other electronic technology in various aspects of social work practice. In fact, many of the technologies currently used by social workers and clients did not exist in 1996. In August 2017, NASW adopted a revised code that now includes extensive technology-related additions pertaining to informed consent, competent practice, conflicts of interest, privacy and confidentiality, sexual relationships, sexual harassment, interruption of services, unethical conduct of colleagues, supervision and consultation, education and training, client records, and evaluation and research (Reamer, 2017).

Dr. Frederic Reamer Interview

Dr. Frederic Reamer is a Professor in the School of Social Work at Rhode Island College for over 30 years.  He received his PhD from the University of Chicago and has served as a social worker in correctional and mental health settings. Dr. Reamer chaired the national task force that wrote the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics adopted in 1996 and recently participated in drafting new technology standards added to the code in 2017.  Dr. Reamer lectures both nationally and internationally on the subjects of professional ethics and professional malpractice and liability. He has conducted extensive research on professional ethics and has been involved in several national research projects sponsored by The Hastings Center, Carnegie Corporation, Haas Foundation, and Center for Bioethics of the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Reamer is the author of many books, including: Boundary Issues and Dual Relationships in the Human ServicesRisk Management in Social Work: Preventing Professional Malpractice, Liability, and Disciplinary ActionThe Social Work Ethics Audit: A Risk Management Tool and On the Parole Board: Reflections on Crime, Punishment, Redemption, and Justice; Ethics and Risk Management in Online and Distance Social Work; and his latest, Moral Distress and Injury in Human Services, among others. Dr. Reamer’s journal article Ethical Standards for Social Workers' Use of Technology: Emerging Consensus is the most comprehensive discussion of recently adopted regulatory, ethics, and practice standards to date.

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