Sandra Kopels, a lawyer and social worker who is a professor of social work at Illinois and expert in legal and ethical issues affecting social work clients and practitioners, discusses the implications when conflicts of interests arise between school policy and the professional ethics of school social workers with News Bureau reporter Phil Ciciora.
What happens when social workers are put in the no-win position of either violating school policy or their professional ethics?
Regrettably, the practice of any therapeutic relationship is fraught with ethical dilemmas as social workers weigh their duties to their clients against their employers' expectations.
For example, social workers, psychologists and counselors have ethical codes that require them to maintain confidentiality unless there are compelling reasons to disclose the information, like when clients are dangerous to themselves or others. If professionals violate their codes of ethics, they can be subject to sanctions by their professional associations as well as referred to their licensing boards for disciplinary actions. They also can be sued for violating confidentiality.
Conversely, if they act contrary to their school district policies, the districts can take adverse employment action against them for not following the policies. The actions may include firing, suspending, demoting or finding them to be insubordinate. Because of situations where social workers had been threatened by their school districts for upholding their ethical responsibilities and their clients' confidentiality, legislation went into effect last January that prevents school districts from taking employment action against school employees who act to protect client communications that are privileged or confidential under Illinois or federal law or regulations.
A prime example of this conflict is in the case of parental notification of teen pregnancy. The parental notification of pregnancy policies may place certain school employees in the untenable position of choosing between complying with their ethical codes and complying with school district policies. Whichever course they choose, they may be subject to some sort of penalty.
What happens when the safe harbor created by talking to the school social worker is compromised?
Unfortunately, some kids do not have parents or family with whom they feel safe discussing personal matters. Social workers or other mental health professionals may be the only ones they can talk to. Part of the reason they feel safe talking to the school social worker is because they know that what they tell the social worker will remain confidential unless they report that they are being physically abused or are going to hurt themselves or someone else.
Often, when minors talk to school social workers, they seek and receive guidance that helps them make better and more responsible decisions.
For example, if a teen told her social worker that she were pregnant, typically, the social worker would encourage the teen to tell her parents about the pregnancy and would work with the teen towards that goal. If the teen were reluctant to involve her parents, the social worker would probe for the reasons underlying the hesitancy. The teen's unwillingness could range from concern that she will have disappointed her parents to outright fear for her physical safety.
No matter why the student does not want her parents to know, the social worker has an ethical obligation to uphold her confidentiality, unless doing so places the student at risk.
When social workers, counselors or psychologists are compelled by school policy to disclose something told to them in confidence, students may no longer trust them with their innermost thoughts or feelings and may be dissuaded from seeking out professional guidance.
For school social workers and other staff who provide counseling or mental health services to students, notification policies are at odds with their professional obligations to maintain confidentiality, absent compelling reasons which may warrant disclosure, such as duty to warn situations.
Notification policies may eliminate the safe haven that some minors have when talking with professionals, may impede the trust necessary for the development of the therapeutic relationship and may nullify professionals' effectiveness.