Information about unprofessional conduct of social workers--including ethics complaints, malpractice claims, and regulatory board sanctions--is useful to state regulators, policymakers, educators, managers, and members of the profession. Published studies about the unprofessional conduct of social workers come primarily from two sources--ethics complaints (for example, Berlinger, 1989; Strom-Gottfried, 1999, 2000) made through NASW, and malpractice claims made through the NASW Insurance Trust (Reamer, 1995). Many state regulatory boards publish fists of sanctioned social workers, and a few occasionally publish reports of trends in their cases. Although the federal government tracks sanctioned health professionals from various disciplines, including social workers, descriptive statistics about disciplined social workers across the nation are limited. This article synthesizes the actions of state regulatory boards against social workers for unprofessional conduct. It adds to the published literature by providing information about sanctioned certified and licensed social workers and their unprofessional behavior and provides information about the policies and practices of state regulatory boards.
This section reviews the available social work literature on complaints and sanctions against social workers. The literature has been divided into ethics complaints, malpractice claims, a study of social workers sanctioned by one state regulatory board, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) National Practitioner Data Bank reports on sanctioned social workers.
Five studies have been published about ethics sanctions against NASW members and reviewed by the association's Ethics Committee. The published studies report cases covering the time frame 1956 to 1997. The variety of ethics issues and their categorical labels reflect the different ethics codes in effect over time, evolving policies related to the types of ethics complaints accepted for review, and the development of social work practice standards, most notably as they relate to professional boundaries. McCann and Cutler (1979) reviewed NASW ethics cases (N = 154) sanctioned from 1956 to 1977. The cases were described as related to personnel issues, including firing and breach of contract (48.7 percent), unethical policies (7.2 percent), client dissatisfaction (7.2 percent), confidentiality (6.5 percent), and sexual practices (5.2 percent). Only 13 percent of these complaints were actually filed by consumers. Berlinger (1989) reviewed NASW ethics cases (N = 292) for the period 1979 to 1985. The author noted that half of the cases were filed in jurisdictions that did not have regulatory boards for social workers. The sanctions after hearings were primarily related to ethical responsibilities to organizations, the profession or society (28 percent), or colleagues (27 percent). Sexual misconduct was the third category, with 8 percent of the cases. These results are similar to adjudicated complaints in the previous decades.
NASW (1995) issued a report of a randomized sample (N = 300) of complaints adjudicated from 1982 to 1992. The types of complaints reviewed during this period were significantly different from the previous decades, with more cases related to practice with clients. Sexual activities with clients was the largest category (29.2 percent), followed by conflict of interest with clients (16.9 percent); termination of services (16.4 percent); exploitation of professional relationships (16.4 percent); and dishonesty, fraud, or misrepresentation (14.3 percent).
Strom-Gottfried (1999, 2000) reviewed ethics complaints (N = 894) that both overlapped the time frame of the previous study and extended the study by five years from 1986 to 1997. The majority of cases were categorized as boundary violations (56.1 percent). The largest type of boundary violations were sexual relationships with clients, former clients, or their significant other and sexual relationships during supervision. …