Case study: community services workers’ ethics

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Values and ethics form an integral part of the practice and education of every profession. Every profession will, at least once in their professional life, face an ethical dilemma that will require the application of models of ethical decision making. Consequently, an understanding of the relevant laws and agency polices that affect ethical decision making in the relevant field is of paramount importance. Community services workers also known as social workers are expected to demonstrate values in their practice, uphold their ethical responsibilities, and act appropriately when faced with ethical dilemmas and issues. This calls for critical reflection of the ethical dilemma against their personal and professional ethics. This paper responds to an ethical dilemma faced by a social worker by identifying the ethical issues, providing the sources of ethical work practices, factors to be considered when undertaking a certain action towards an ethical issue, and outlining a proposed course of action for the identified issues. On the organizational level, the paper will also discuss why it may be appropriate to refer certain ethical issues to external agencies as well as the measures that an organization can undertake to eliminate the reoccurrence of the ethical issue.

Professional ethics generally mean a system or code of morals for a certain profession. In social work, it is the ethical reasoning applied in making a distinction between right and wrong in how a profession conducts the practice of social work. Values and ethics for social workers are contained in the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) code of ethics whose recent revision was in 2010 (AASW, 2010). The purpose of the Code of Ethics (2010) as elaborated in 2.1 and 2.2 is to identify the values and ethics underpinning ethical social work practice and providing a guide and standard for ethical social work. The code is the primary source of the ethical behaviors and practices expected of social workers and provides the foundation for ethical reflection and decision making. When faced with ethical dilemmas, the Code of Ethics (2010) is ideal for clarification and settling of disputes.

Different ethical issues arise from the case study. The first one is respect for the privacy and confidentiality of the service users. The Code of Ethics 2010 provides general principles that should guide ethical decision making and which include accountability, transparency, and inclusivity all the while observing appropriate confidentiality and duty of care requirements. The Code further provides that a social worker must respect private and personal information, unless there are overriding ethical reasons for not doing. Such instances are provided under section 5.2.4 of the Code and include when statutorily required or when revealing a client’s information will prevent an actual and identifiable risk from happening. Further, AASW standards of practice provide that part of being a professional involves being able to maintain confidentiality and understanding the legal limits to confidentiality (AASW, 2013). In the event that a complaint is lodged, the complainants and respondents are encouraged to sign a confidentiality agreement at the commencement of the Ethics Complaints Management Process in which they agree to keep confidential the information of all the involved persons (AASW, 2016). In this case, the social worker, have knowledge of the mental health status of Mary is mandated not to break confidentiality. The code also provides under section 5.2 that social workers will prioritize the best interests of the clients with due regard to the respective interests of other people. Only in exceptional circumstances, for example, statutory requirements will the interest of the client be waived. The social worker in this case has a responsibility of safeguarding the interests of future clients who may be affected by the mental incompetency of Mary should he fail to mention the probable mental incompetency of Mary.

Primarily, when a community services worker considering a certain course of action in relation to a particular ethical dilemma, various factors have to be considered. Care must be taken to minimize possible adverse effects. The first one is the values, principles, and standards set for the profession. Values espoused in the Code of Conduct 2010 include respect for persons, professional integrity, and social justice. They also have to consider the impact of their decision on different stakeholders. Decisions have to take into account the responsibilities owed to clients, colleagues, profession, in the workplace, and the wider community. Regard to the relevant laws and organizational policies is also significant. Breeches of legislation and company policies may be followed by grave repercussions if the individual community services worker is found culpable.

The most appropriate course of action in this case would be for the social worker to approach Mary and request her to inform the board of her mental wellbeing. This way, the social worker will have upheld his responsibility of maintaining patient confidentiality as the personal information will not have been disclosed to any third party and at the same time prioritizing the best interests of the clients. The law is particularly clear on the interests of children, who are regarded as part of the vulnerable members of society, which should be of paramount consideration in decision making (Children and Community Services Act, 2004, Part 2). Alternatively, the Code of Conduct requires that where a client’s personal information is to be revealed to a third party, prior written informed consent must be obtained where also the third parties agree to protect the privacy and confidentiality of the client. The social worker thus can seek a written informed consent from Mary and proceed to inform the Director of Social Services who was responsible for the recruitment and hiring of new employees.

In some instances, it may be appropriate for a professional to seek assistance from an external agency in relation to dealing with an ethical issue. Collaboration of all professionals in the entire health system is important for the provision of optimal services to clients. Seeking external assistance enhances the levels of integrity, accountability, impartiality, leadership, and individual responsibility. This must however, be done in good faith and in the overall interest of the public and organization. By seeking assistance from an external agency in this case, the social worker would, in addition to improving the aforementioned values, also decrease the likelihood of breeches of statutory and policy requirements. Organizations also have a responsibility of minimizing the occurrence of ethical dilemmas for their workers. The most effective way in doing so is developing and implementing a comprehensive company policy, which may include a Code of Conduct addressing such an issue. A code of ethics is basically written to guide behavior for the people who want to act ethically (Gilman, 2005). With a laid out procedure on how to address such an issue, the worker will be in less of a dilemma as there will be specific steps to be followed.

Social work practice present a varying range of ethical dilemmas. Ethical dilemmas are complex in nature and there always seems to be no clear solution to the problem. However, community services workers in Australia have access to a wide range of information that help them in resolving ethical dilemmas. The primary source is the AASW code of conduct (2010) and the AASW practice standards, which provide basically all the values, ethical considerations, and standards for social work practice. The worker must also have regard to other factors, such as the organizational policy and statutory legislation while making an ethical decision.

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  1. AASW. (2016). AASW By-Laws on Ethics, AASW. Retrieved from https://www.aasw.asn.au/document/item/91.
  2. AASW. (2013). AASW Practice Standards. AASW. Retrieved from https://www.aasw.asn.au/document/item/4551.
  3. Gilman, S.C., (2005). Ethics Codes and Codes of Conduct as Tools for promoting an Ethical and Professional Public Service: Comparative Successes and Lessons. OECD. Retrieved from https://www.oecd.org/mena/governance/35521418.pdf.
  4. AASW. (2010). The Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) code of ethics. AASW. Retrieved from https://www.aasw.asn.au/document/item/1201.
  5. The Children and Community Services Act, 2004.
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