Boundary Issues in Social Work: Managing Dual Relationships

Article excerpt

Particularly since the early 1980s, social workers have developed an increasingly mature grasp of ethical issues. During the past two decades, social work's literature has expanded markedly with respect to identifying ethical conflicts and dilemmas in practice; developing conceptual frameworks and protocols for ethical decision making when professional duties conflict; and formulating risk management strategies to prevent ethics-related negligence and ethical misconduct (Berliner, 1989; Besharov, 1985; Levy, 1993; Linzer, 1999; Loewenberg & Dolgoff, 1996; Reamer, 1982, 1990, 1994, 1995a, 1998b, 1999; Rhodes, 1986).

As the social work literature clearly demonstrates, ethical issues related to professional boundaries are among the most problematic and challenging (Congress, 1996; Jayaratne, Croxton, & Mattison, 1997; Kagle & Giebelhausen, 1994; Strom-Gottfried, 1999). Briefly, boundary issues involve circumstances in which social workers encounter actual or potential conflicts between their professional duties and their social, sexual, religious, or business relationships. As explored more fully later, not all boundary issues are necessarily problematic or unethical, but many are. The primary purpose of this discussion is to identify--in the form of a typology--the range of boundary issues in social work, develop criteria to help social workers distinguish between problematic and nonproblematic boundary issues, and present guidelines to help practitioners manage boundary issues and risks that arise in practice.

Boundary Issues in Social Work

Social workers--be they clinicians, community organizers, policymakers, supervisors, researchers, administrators, or educators--often encounter circumstances that pose actual or potential boundary issues. Boundary issues occur when social workers face possible conflicts of interest in the form of what have become known as dual or multiple relationships. Dual or multiple relationships occur when professionals engage with clients or colleagues in more than one relationship, whether social, sexual, religious, or business (St. Germaine, 1993, 1996). According to Kagle and Giebelhausen (1994),

a professional enters into a dual relationship whenever he or she assumes a second role with a client, becoming social worker and friend, employer, teacher, business associate, family member, or sex partner. A practitioner can engage in a dual relationship whether the second relationship begins before, during, or after the social worker relationship. (p. 213)

Dual relationships occur primarily between social workers and their current or former clients and between social workers and their colleagues (including supervisees and students).

The social work literature contains few indepth discussions of boundary issues (Jayaratne et al., 1997; Kagle & Giebeihausen, 1994; StromGottfried, 1999). Most discussions have focused on dual relationships that are exploitive in nature, such as social workers' sexual involvement with clients. Certainly these are important and compelling issues. However, many boundary and dual relationship issues in social work are subtler than these egregious forms of ethical misconduct. A recent empirical survey of a statewide sample of clinical social workers uncovered substantial disagreement concerning the appropriateness of behaviors such as developing friendships with clients, participating in social activities with clients, serving on community boards with clients, providing clients with one's home telephone number, accepting goods and services from clients instead of money, and discussing one's religious beliefs with clients (Jayaratne et al, 1997; see also Borys & Pope, 1989; Brownlee, 1996; Gutheil & Gabbard, 1993; Pope, Tabachnick, & Keith-Spiegel, 1988; Smith, 1999; Smith & Fitzpatrick, 1995; StromGottfried, 1999). As Corey and Herlihy (1997) noted:

The pendulum of controversy over dual relationships, which has produced extreme reactions on both sides, has slowed and now swings in a narrower arc. …