March 6 2006
Social workers, by the very nature of their jobs, are privy to personal details about their clients - if they're HIV-positive, have a history of arson or are under 18 and want to terminate a pregnancy without parental consent.
Because of their access to privileged information, social workers must adhere to a national code of ethics, as well as state regulations. But when situations arise where disclosing confidential information can actually keep someone from harm, it may be hard to discern the proper course of action.
Reamer, who chaired the commission which wrote the code of ethics for the social work profession, spoke to a crowded room of Indiana State University social work students and area professionals at an all-day conference March 3 at ISU, saying, in these difficult ethical situations, there is not always a clear-cut answer.
"I often talk more about the process people ought to go through to make tough decisions, rather than what's the right answer, because sometimes there isn't a clear, right answer," Reamer said. "If it's a situation when they're not quite sure what they ought to do, they ought to be consulting with colleagues, consulting with supervisors. They ought to be checking Indiana statutes, laws, regulations, because in a lot of instances, a state will have laws that govern these situations... but practitioners may not be aware of them."
Dr. Cynthia Sartor, executive director for client support services at Hamilton Center, said that about 175 employees were present at the conference, ranging from social workers and case managers to psychologists. Reamer's message was important for them to hear, Sartor said, because ethics is an issue which provides protection for the client\'s rights.
"We've become a very litigious society," Sartor said, "and I think we need to know, as practitioners, how to protect the client, as well as to follow rules and guidelines of our own profession and professional ethics."
Reamer, who is a professor in the Rhode Island College graduate program of social work, also just happens to be the author of the textbook social work students are using at ISU.
"Our students study his textbooks so it's really exciting for them to see in live and color the person that they've been studying," said Robyn Lugar, assistant professor and chairperson of ISU's department of social work.
Lugar said the students will be able to directly apply what they learn into their 325 hours of field work and future careers.??
"Many times they are in agencies where they may be the leaders in helping the agency develop policies on how to handle ethical decision-making. They may sit on ethical decision-making committees. They are bound by the code of ethics which requires ethical behavior. For those students to meet those requirements, they really need to be educated in that area," Lugar said. "There's no room for error for our students, so it's very important that they go out prepared to handle those things."
Nicole Woodard, a junior social work major from Sullivan, said at the conference that she already has dealt with ethical issues in her field work, but she still thinks this will be the most challenging part of her career.
"Knowing the right thing to do in situations where the two values of social work conflict with each other - especially the duty to warn and confidentiality," Woodard said, "that's the biggest ethical challenge."
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Contact: Robyn Lugar, chairperson and assistant professor of social work, Indiana State University, (812) 237-3428 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Writer: Katie Spanuello, media relations assistant director, Indiana State University, (812) 237-3790 or email@example.com
ISU Communications and Marketing: (812) 237-3773 or http://www.indstate.edu/news
Social workers can end up in some difficult ethical situations, such as when a choice has to be made between disclosing confidential patient information and withholding it, when doing so may end up harming a third party.