Ethical Vulnerability in Social Work Education: An Analysis of Nasw Complaints

By Strom-Gottfried, Kimberly | Journal of Social Work Education, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Ethical Vulnerability in Social Work Education: An Analysis of Nasw Complaints


Strom-Gottfried, Kimberly, Journal of Social Work Education


SOCIAL WORK EDUCATION is rife with the potential for ethical conflicts. As faculty carry out their instructional, evaluative, and gatekeeping responsibilities, challenges can arise around fairness, clear expectations, confidentiality, faculty-student boundaries, and overlapping relationships. Field instructors may experience similar challenges, and they bear the additional responsibility for students' behavior as practitioners and for the array of difficulties that can arise in supervising and evaluating client-worker interactions. Further, as a work setting, schools of social work can be the site of ethics challenges regarding faculty competence, impairment, and fair supervisory and employment practices.

When ethical standards are breached, aggrieved parties have a variety of resources for redress, including institutional grievance processes, licensing or regulatory boards, litigation, and peer-reviewed adjudication through professional bodies such as the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). Previous research has addressed the prevalence of ethics violations (Berliner, 1989; McCann & Cutler, 1979; "Study cites," 1995) and malpractice violations (Reamer, 1995), but has not reviewed the data as they apply to social work education.

This article reviews the social work literature, illuminating the range of ethical dilemmas attendant to social work education, and describes avenues for resolving ethical complaints. Specifically, the article looks :at allegations brought to NASW against social work students, faculty, administrators, and field supervisors; offers insights into the frequency, nature, and outcomes of such proceedings; and discusses the implications of those findings for ensuring ethical educational practices.

Related Literature

While no research could be found which documents the prevalence of ethical dilemmas or violations in social work education, ample literature exists on the nature of liabilities and ethical challenges and the steps in minimizing risk. These works largely cluster in five areas: boundaries and dual roles, confidentiality, fair evaluative practices, professional competence, and supervision and vicarious liability.

Boundaries and Dual Roles

The issue of dual roles and relationships is perhaps the most examined of all areas of ethics in academia. The literature in this area addresses the development and maintenance of appropriate boundaries and the potentially contaminating effects of prior or concurrent relationships between students and their faculty or field instructors, beyond the learner-teacher role.

Congress (1996, 1997) has examined the ethical dilemmas that can arise from the overlapping roles and relationships that faculty may have with students. Some of these, such as sexual relationships, are clearly in contravention of the NASW Code of Ethics (1996) and of many university codes of faculty conduct because of the inherent power differential between students and instructors. Other dual relationships, such as social relationships, or serving as a student's therapist, supervisor, or employer may be less clear cut. At the heart of each is the consideration of how the "additional" relationship might affect the "primary" relationship of student and teacher. While offering solace to a student who has had a life crisis which is affecting classroom performance may be an appropriate and unavoidable part of the teacher role, longer-term or more in-depth involvement in resolving the issue (for example, by taking the student as a client in the instructor's private practice) puts objectivity and classroom responsibilities in jeopardy. Similarly, even nonsexual social relationships can affect faculty objectivity and perceptions of fairness by other students if professional boundaries are not carefully maintained.

Employing or supervising students, as research or teaching assistants or in field practice, is a relatively common and certainly accepted form of dual relationship. …

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