It has always been acknowledged that social work practice raises ethical dilemmas on a regular basis. These dilemmas occur due to a conflict of professional and personal values. Social work is involved with the support of people who have a variety of needs, with relationships within the family, with needs ascending from structural influences; such as poverty and conflicts with society. These are individually moral concerns which are integrated into the tradition of society, and are therefore laden with social values. This is where the problem lies, because the views in which are regarded as being acceptable in society, are then accepted by the mass population. They say “what ought to be the case” (Shardlow, 2003, p.3), consequently initiating the potential for conflict between individuals on bases of belief and conceptualisation. Therefore, social work will always reflect values and will often be disputed because society may not necessarily agree with the aim of social work. The following assignment will look at values at a professional and personal level, while considering the possible conflicts which could arise within practice, why this can happen and what needs to change.
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The word ‘value’ means the “Principles or standards of behaviour; one’s judgement of what is important in life” (Oxford Dictionaries, 2014). Every individual has a set of beliefs which influence their actions, some are personal to us, while others are shared beliefs. Our own moral code defines what is of value to us in life and therefore, identifies part of who we are. As a social work student, we are taught to be aware of our own personal values and how they might be different to people of a different culture. Professional values are based on a code of ethics presented by the British Association of Social Workers (BASW). These are split into: human rights, social justice and professional integrity (BASW, 2012). Therefore, social workers are expected to respect all individuals and protect vulnerable people. Likewise, the Northern Ireland Social Care Council (NISCC) issued a code of practice for social care workers to abide by. These highlight standards such as; protecting the rights of service users and carers, maintain trust, promote independence, respect and accountability and responsibility (NISCC, 2002). There are also agency policies, procedures and legislation which governs the way in which a social worker must practice.
One dilemma which could prove to be conflicting for a social worker is balancing confidentiality with the duty to protect versus the right to self-determination. A central question with relation to ethics in social work is how a social worker should behave towards a client. What are the boundaries of a client-worker relationship? Let’s say for example, you are a social worker working with a female client, Miss Smyth, within a mental health facility. You have been working with Miss Smyth for three months and she has a son, aged six, who has some behaviour problems. Over the past few months, your relationship with Miss Smyth has strengthened and she now feels she can confide in you and trust you, talking to you about some of her personal problems such as; financial issues and her battle with depression. Working together, you have taught Miss Smyth different ways with which to deal with her son’s behaviour problems and from this, there have been a great deal of improvements. However, one day during your visit with her, Miss Smyth confides in you about an incident she had with her son, when he was acting out and she pushed him because she was frustrated, but this caused him to bang his head as he fell over; leaving him with a bruise. Miss Smyth pleads with you not to tell anyone, but the problem here is that the law requires you to report what has happened. You understand that Miss Smyth and her son have improved greatly and continue to make progress, however, if you report this incident, then your progress with both Miss Smyth and her son will likely be permanently affected. What do you do?
The above case highlights some of the difficulties social workers face: a dilemma of social work values. Values such as respecting the client’s right to self-determination and confidentiality, can be a complex process, since there are particular circumstances where breaching confidentiality is sanctioned by the law and professional values. For example, “…confidentiality may be breached with or without the client’s consent in order to report instances of neglect and abuse” (Saxon et al. 2006). This is a conflict of personal and professional values, referred to as an ethical dilemma. An ethical dilemma is “..a situation in which professional duties and obligations, rooted in core values, clash” (Reamer, 2006, p.4). ‘Confidentiality’ in terms of social work means “…a system of rules and norms applied to information given by clients to social workers…social workers will not divulge this information to others except in certain circumstances” (Hugman and Smith, 1995, p.67). As established, it is clear that the majority of professionals agree that it is acceptable in particular situations to break confidentiality, yet, the principles surrounding the importance of maintaining confidentiality are considered as significant in gaining the clients trust.
Jonathan Coe, chief executive of Witness, states “I don’t think anyone has got the boundaries right in all circumstances. Things will always come up and people need to be able to articulate these challenges and discuss them with supervisors and managers..”(Sale, 2007). He added “You cannot have an absolute list of do’s and don’ts when it comes to professional boundaries…you would end up with a situation where workers become so remote and distant from clients they would be unable to engage with them…” (Sale, 2007). As a result, there is no perfect solution. However, it could be highlighted that the BASW code of ethics fails to provide sufficient guidance for social workers in the day to day conflicts of values and their responsibilities.
Additionally, another conflict which could be highlighted is social work valued based practice versus core value, such as; working with sex offenders. A characteristic of social workers is personal resilience, and this is particularly fundamental for those working with sex offenders. This profession requires a practitioner to help empower people, to see an individual’s strengths and build on them. There have been many conflicting debates on the view of sex offenders, especially paedophiles. Naturally, societies view has been that paedophiles are ‘monsters’ while fuelling fear into parents over the safety of their children, with the media hyping up public speculation by releasing stories such as; “Warning over paedophiles ‘grooming’ primary school children..” (Harris, 2012). Further stories involving respected individuals within the public, shocked society with articles featuring; “Irish Catholic church child abuse: A cruel and wicked system” (McDonald, 2009). Therefore, strengthening society’s negative view of sex offenders.
However, in recent years, there has been an increasingly oppositional view of these offenders. Sarah Goode, published by Damian Thompson, in the Telegraph (2013), states “Adult sexual attraction to children is part of the continuum of human sexuality; it’s not something we can eliminate…if we can talk about this rationally…we can maybe avoid the hysteria”. Likewise, a recent television documentary: ‘The Paedophile next door’ (Channel 4, 2014) showed a rise in public debate. The documentary attempts to discover why legislation has failed to protect children from sexual abuse, and investigates drastic and controversial alternatives. Peter Saunders, founder of the National Association of People Abused in Childhood, told Metro “We have to tackle these sordid issues head on and if someone is seeking help, better we do that before they offend rather than after” (Binns, 2014). Statements like these reinforce the fact that awareness has increased and that there is more evidence in support of assistance for sex offenders to change. Therefore, viewing the offender as a person and not focussing on their offence.
As a result, there are ways in which a social worker can control the conflict of values and dominate the mixture of feelings which are triggered by these offences. These include; not labelling, recognising and validating experienced trauma, understanding attachment difficulties and understanding the pathway an individual has undergone to get where they are (Hebb, 2013). This approach can help to encourage the individual to believe that they can lead a purposeful life and achieve goals without posing a threat to others.
As a social work student, I know I will find some situations more challenging than others. My personal beliefs have been instilled into me from a young age, therefore, training to be a social worker and having to learn new values which I have to take into account will be difficult. The code of practice clearly states that all “social workers must protect the rights and promote the interests of service users and carers” (NISCC, 2002), therefore it is important to recognise that the appropriate action is to assess someone’s needs while working at a professional level. Furthermore, social workers operate from a ‘Framework for Theory and Practice’ (Dalrymple and Burke, 2006) that understands the presence of inequality and oppression that exists in society. Therefore, using this framework will help to develop the skills required within practice without causing oppression or inequality. These skills will also help to improve working relationships with multi-agency and multi-disciplinary groups. These can be applied to my practice and will strengthen my ability as a social worker. .
As previously stated, social workers regularly make difficult decisions, where there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer. This essay supports the argument that social work values, such as, client self-determination and sustaining confidentiality can create an uncertain process, causing confusing between values and process, therefore resulting in the inability to find the ‘correct’ response. A clients concerns are often complex and have many aspects, therefore, it could be suggested that the greater the knowledge and skills that a practitioner is able to develop in ethical decision making, the more effective this would be for a social worker in practice. Additionally, the foundations of good social work practice is knowing your values and principles, how you’ve learned to interact with people, your knowledge and skills learned. I have always considered myself to be an empathetic person, who listens well, does not judge others and is sensitive to the feelings of others. But, I am aware that there are still some areas I need to strengthen. For example; the ability to work with a person that has abused a child, I have always focused on the areas I would like to work and never considered being placed with a person or group of people I might struggle to accept or work with. This will be a conflict of my personal and professional values, however, through consistent training and development, I will be able to further develop in the profession of social work based on a commitment in practice to key values and principles.
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Saxon, C., Jacinto, A. G., and Dziegielewski, F, S., (2006) ‘Self-Determination and Confidentiality: The Ambiguous Nature of Decision-Making in Social Work Practice’. Journal of Human Behaviour in the Social Environment, 13 (4) p. 56.
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The Paedophile Next Door (2014) [TV programme] Channel 4, 25 November 2014 21:00
Thompson, D., (2013) Guardian: Paedophiles are ‘ordinary members of society’ who need moral support. The Telegraph [online] Available at http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/damianthompson/100196502/guardian-paedophiles-are-ordinary-members-of-society-who-need-moral-support/ [Accessed 23 November 2014]
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