Academic journal article Journal of Social Work Education

Disclosure of Student Status to Clients: Where Do MSW Programs Stand?

Academic journal article Journal of Social Work Education

Disclosure of Student Status to Clients: Where Do MSW Programs Stand?

Article excerpt

THIS ARTICLE ADDRESSES how master's level programs in social work manage the issue of disclosure of student status to clients in fieldwork. Directors of fieldwork were surveyed to determine their school's current policies and practices regarding this issue and the effects of disclosure on the school--agency relationship. The aim of the survey was to discover the role MSW programs play in their students' decision to identify themselves as "interns" to their clients. Directors were also asked how and where their school's policy on disclosure is communicated, and whether there are conflicts with agencies on this issue.

Using the entire 1999 membership list of the National Association of Deans and Directors of Schools of Social Work, questionnaires were sent to directors of fieldwork at 159 MSW programs in the United States and 4 in Canada. There were 108 replies resulting in a response rate of 66.3%. Fieldwork directors were encouraged to offer their opinions on disclosure notwithstanding their own school's policy. This report focuses on the results of this survey, the differences of opinion surrounding student disclosure of training status to clients, and suggestions for future action.

Background and Literature Review

The Profession's Stance on Disclosure

Social work educators and fieldwork directors have not fully discussed and resolved the question of whether students must tell their clients that they are in training. Currently there is no consensus among educators or the profession as a whole, and there are no profession-wide guidelines (Feiner & Couch, 1985; Miller & Rodwell, 1997). A handful of social work educators addressed the topic in the 1970s and 1980s and although they favored candidness, only Feiner and Couch (1985) took an aggressive stance. Investigators on this study were not able to find published articles taking the opposing position that students should not disclose their status.

Gould (1978) was an early proponent of agency requirements for students to disclose their status to clients. Gould's view was based on his qualitative research of 10 graduate social work students. After content analysis, he found that students who told their clients of their training status as part of contracting and engagement felt less guilty and experienced more trusting and effective alliances with their clients than those who withheld their status.

During the 1980s there was mild criticism of nondisclosure practices. Randolph (1982) called it a sin of omission rather than an attempt to deny clients their basic rights. He argued that social work values inherently protect clients' rights and that lack of disclosure, although not a preferred practice, ultimately brings about little harm. Bogo & Vayda (1987) wrote that the decision is usually made by the agency and that schools are best served by respecting the agency's policies.

It was not until Feiner and Couch (1985) made a strong argument in favor of disclosure that the subject received extensive analysis. It was their view that withholding student status to clients (nondisclosure) is inherently dishonest. In making their case, Feiner and Couch addressed a variety of issues related to nondisclosure that included professional responsibility, professional ethics, stipulations of the law, the therapeutic alliance, and termination practices. Reasons for promoting secrecy were evaluated and disputed.

In brief, Feiner and Couch (1985) suggest that agencies oppose disclosure because staff members fear that clients will resist being served by students. Because students have a limited tenure at their sites, the clients may resist being forced to terminate and begin again with another clinician. Additional reasons for agency staff to oppose disclosure include the following:

(1) impaired clients may find it burdensome to know that they are being treated by a student; and

(2) at intakes, clients in crisis have enough to manage without the added encumbrance of learning about a student's training status. …

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