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You are a Social Worker who provides alcohol and other drug counselling at an AOD treatment service. You have been seeing Koby fairly regularly for a few months and know he has been struggling with drug issues and homelessness. During the session he reveals that he has a laptop in his bag which he is going to sell which will mean he has a bit more money to buy things over the next few weeks and to send some to his ex-partner who has custody of their young children. He tells you him and a mate “got them” from a local computer shop by breaking in which he feels a bit guilty about but it was after hours and nobody was hurt and he was desperate. He says he only told you as he knows the sessions are “confidential”. You are aware the local computer store was recently burgled. Would you report this apparent criminal activity anywhere and what would you need to consider?
This paper explores the ethical dilemma posed by Scenario 8. Reamer’s seven-step ethical decision-making framework is used to resolve the ethical dilemma (Reamer, 2013).
Firstly, there are conflicting ethical issues, social work values and duties. Koby has rights to confidentiality and self-determination. However, the duty of care towards Koby, the need to protect the wider society’s interest, avoid association with crimes and encouragement to respect the law conflict with these rights.
Individuals or groups affected
Secondly, the ethical decision can potentially affect the following people and groups. They are Koby, his children, his ex-partner, his accomplice, my organisation’s clients and my organisation. Additionally, the local computer shop owner, employees and their families, my supervisor and I will also be affected.
Identification of viable course of action
Thirdly, there are three possible options to resolve this ethical dilemma. Each option undergoes a benefit-risk analysis. The first option is to inform Koby of the limits of confidentiality as explained in the first session and make a police report. The benefits of this option are i) The prevention of further offences with more severe outcomes for him, others and the wider community, ii) Reduced financial loss with the return of the stolen good, and iii) Reputation of community services and social workers are protected as social workers are not seen as colluding with clients. Nevertheless, this option has the following risks: i) The breach of confidentiality might break the helping relationship and deter future help-seeking behaviour, ii) Koby might lose contact with his children and have lowered chance of getting custody, iii) He might be hurt by his accomplice for disclosing the offence, iv) Koby might have extended homelessness and greater difficulties getting an accommodation if he is charged, v) Other clients might have greater mistrust of helping professionals, vi) Koby might face additional legal consequences if he were a mandated client, and vii) Given that Koby is facing multiple problems, feeling desperate and actively using drugs, the police involvement might contribute to hopelessness and self-harm or suicide especially if he has a self-harm or suicide history.
The second option is to keep Koby’s confidence and not discuss further. Benefits of this option are the maintenance of the helping relationship and Koby’s confidence. However, this option has the following risks: i) Koby might assume that I support his actions and continue offending, ii) More severe future offences involving physical harm are possible if unexpected passer-by become involved, iii) Koby might commit bigger offences to continue giving to his children and eventually lose access to his children when caught, iii) The public and police might lose faith in community organisations and social workers if the criminal activities come to light, and iv) Fear of being victimised spreads in the community.
The third option is to discuss the long-term consequences of his actions and to support law-abiding actions. This option involves acknowledging his good intentions to support his children and showing concern about the repercussions from his criminal activities. Alternative ways to achieve his goal will be explored after clarifying his goals. For instance, the ways to perform his role as a father, the importance of role modelling as a father and not to prove his ex-partner right that he is a bad influence on his children will be discussed. To prevent further criminal involvement, Koby will be encouraged to choose either to return the stolen good to the shop or directly to the shop owner after informing his accomplice of his reasons. If he declines and prefers to continue offending, I will inform him that I need to terminate the helping relationship and refer him to an alternative service provider. I will explain to him that it is difficult for me to continue working with him when I know that he continues to hurt his and his children’s future.
The benefits of this option are the following: i) Koby is discouraged from criminal activities and prevented from spiralling down, ii) Greater likelihood to maintain helping relationship to address underlying issues and explore alternative paths to reach his goals, iii) Public’s confidence in social workers and community services is maintained, and iv) Wider society’s interest is addressed. The risk for this option is that the helping relationship might break if he decides to continue offending.
Evaluation of viable courses of action
Fourthly, reasons supporting or opposing each option is explored. The rationale explored will be related to the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW)’s Code of Ethics, legislation and legal principles, ethical theories, personal values and organisational policies.
For the Code of Ethics, section 5.2.2 on client’s self-determination, which encourages clients to make informed decision (AASW, 2010), only supports the third decision. Discussion on the repercussions of his actions can help him to make an informed decision on whether to continue offending without being forced to stop through legal compulsion and thereby supporting his self-determination.
Next, section 5.2.4 on information privacy or confidentiality informs that breach of confidential information to relevant third parties is required when there is an identifiable and preventable risk of harm to a specific target (AASW, 2010). Given that there is no risk of danger, this section does not justify the breach of confidentiality and only supports the second and third options.
Overall, the third option is mostly supported by multiple sections of the Code of Ethics. The sections include priority of client’s interest (section 5.2.1), client self-determination (section 5.2.2), information privacy/confidentiality (section 5.2.4), responsibilities in the workplace – service provision (section 5.4.1), responsibilities to the profession (section 5.6) and termination/interruption of service (section 5.2.6). Priority of client’s interest highlights the need to support client’s interests while considering others’ interests (AASW, 2010). This is supported by addressing Koby’s underlying needs while supporting him to respect the law. Next, service provision highlights the need to execute the organisational goals (AASW, 2010). Assisting Koby to achieve his goals through legal means aligns with organisational goals to support clients while maintaining organisation’s reputation. Similarly, this option is supported by responsibility to the profession where the dignity and integrity of the profession is preserved (AASW, 2010). Encouragement to return the good and cease offending maintains the reputation of social workers. With regards to termination of service, helping relationship can terminate when it is unable to serve the client’s interests and client’s needs should be discussed prior to referral (AASW, 2010). Hence, the third option is able to support various considerations adequately.
With regards to legislation and legal principles, two key areas relating to duty of care and aiding and abetting offence are discussed. The duty of care from division 2 of the Wrongs and Other Acts (Law of Negligence) Act 2003 (Vic) states that service providers must take reasonable care to prevent predictable significant harm to service beneficiaries or identifiable person. As I only have a special relationship with Koby as his social worker and not to others such as the local community, I only have duty of care towards him. The first two options breach my duty of care as he might end up being in a worse state. For the first option, Koby might be hurt by his accomplice or self-harm. This is especially when AOD clients have higher suicide risk (Dragisic, Dickov, Dickov, & Mijatovic, 2015). For the second option, Koby might continue offending and eventually lose access or potential custody over his children. Only the third option meets the duty of care. Discussion on consequences alerts him to the potential risks of his actions while supporting him. Additionally, discussion with his accomplice reduces the risk that he will be misunderstood and harmed.
As the offence does not involve physical harm, I do not have a duty to warn any specific person. Furthermore, the absence of a duty to report crimes (Davidson, 2019). opposes the first option.
With regards to aiding and abetting, section 181 of the Crimes Act 1958 (Vic) states that anyone who intentionally aids, abets or participate in any way to an offence is liable. This act supports all options but the first and third options which explicitly disapprove offending avoids any allegation of aiding or abetting. For the second option, I must ensure that I do not assist in any way or cover up for Koby. Overall, the legal principles support the third option considering the context and the criminal activities.
For the ethical theories, theories explored are deontology, utilitarianism and ethics of care. Deontology theory recommends always upholding unconditional universal rules based on duty (McAuliffe, 2014). The universal rules for first and second option respectively are always upholding justice and reporting all criminal activities and always keeping confidence. It can support both first and second options as it does not inform on which universal rule to follow. Deontology theory opposes option 3 as it does not consider the context for basis of action.
For utilitarianism theory, it recommends decision based on the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people (McAuliffe, 2014). Hence, it only supports the first and third options which consider the interest of the wider society, organisation and profession beyond the interest of Koby.
For ethics of care theory, it recommends focusing on compassion and minimising the impact on social relationships (McAuliffe, 2014). This theory does not advise on which types of social relationships to prioritise and if the impact referred to long term impact. If long term impact on him and prosocial relationships are considered, this theory supports only the third option where the helping relationship and relationships with children are likely to be preserved. Overall, the ethical theories explored support the third option.
For personal values, each option is evaluated from my professional, cultural and political ideology perspectives. Professionally, I believe that my role involves gently supporting and guiding him in the right direction with respect and care. I also believe that change is sustained when it is intrinsic rather than extrinsic. My view that a small mistake can lead to bigger mistakes also guides me to address his permissiveness towards offending. Additionally, I see that crisis are windows of opportunity for me to address red flags with Koby. Hence, my professional values would only support the third option as it explores deeper issues and supports decision-making that brings favourable long-term consequences.
For my cultural perspective, it is shaped by the paternalistic Singaporean culture where decisions are guided largely by legislation. My cultural value would therefore only support the first option where all criminal activities are reported.
For my political ideology, I believe in social democracy which considers the systemic factors contributing to societal problems and asserts the state’s responsibility to remove the structural obstacles and support the individuals (Cunningham & Cunningham, 2017). This ideology supports only the third option. The rationale is that reporting to police or keeping confidence do not address the systemic factors and underlying issues. Furthermore, the first option increases stigma towards Koby as he is solely held responsible for the issues. The third option would explore alternative ways to support him, address systemic factors and encourage a more inclusive society. Overall, my personal values support the third option which considers the context and long-term change.
For organisational policies, I would refer to the policy sections on client confidentiality, disclosure related to crimes and mandatory reporting. The options supported would depend on my organisational policies.
Consultation with experts
Fifthly, the options would be discussed further in consultations with appropriate experts. This includes my supervisor, colleagues who handled similar challenges, AASW ethics consultation, Legal Aid and Victorian Drug and Alcohol Clinical Advisory Service (DACAS). DACAS is a consultation service for social service professionals (DACAS, 2019). They can advise on potential issues arising from the options or the standard of care for social workers in the Alcohol and Other Drugs (AOD) field. My consultation with external organisations will not disclose any identifying details and ensure confidentiality.
Sixthly, the final decision is based on the following considerations: Prioritisation of long-term care for Koby, protection of the wider society’s interest, and reputation of social service field. Hence, the decision is to use the third option. This decision also aligns with significant sections of the AASW Code of Ethics and the legal principles. The decision-making process and the consultation outcomes would be documented in a written record.
Evaluation of decision
Seventhly, the outcome will be monitored and evaluated. The following impact of the decision will be monitored: i) Potential physical safety concerns for Koby, ii) Legal consequences for Koby, iii) Potential disruption in his life including contacts with his children, iv) Potential disruption of helping relationship with me or the organisation, v) Responses from other clients, and vi) Unintended repercussions. A follow-up will be made in two weeks with Koby and my manager to ensure support for Koby. Finally, the outcome will be evaluated using benefit-risk analysis and documented.
In conclusion, I would most probably take the third option which is mostly supported by AASW Code of Ethics such as priority of clients’ interest and responsibility to profession, ethical theories such as Utilitarianism, legal considerations such as duty of care, and personal values such as respect and care. The option has the most benefits and least risks. It also holistically considers the context and long-term outcome for people and organisation involved.
- Australian Association of Social Workers. (2010). Code of ethics. Retrieved September 1, 2019, from https://www.aasw.asn.au/practitioner-resources/code-of-ethics
- Cunningham, J., & Cunningham, S. (2017). Social Policy and Social Work: An Introduction (pp. 55-63). London: Sage
- Drug and Alcohol Clinical Advisory Service (DACAS). (2019). Retrieved from https://www.dacas.org.au/
- Davidson, J. (2019). Legal concepts & socio-legal practice [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from SCWK90055, The University of Melbourne Blackboard online, https://app.lms.unimelb.edu.au/
- Dragisic, T., Dickov, A., Dickov, V. & Mijatovic, V. (2015). Drug addiction as risk for suicide attempts. Mater Sociomed, 27(3), 188-191. doi: 10.5455/msm.2015.27.188-191
- McAuliffe, D. (2014). Interprofessional Ethics: Collaboration in the social, health and human services. Port Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.
- Crimes Act 1958 (Vic). Retrieved from http://classic.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/vic/consol_act/ca195882/s181.html
- Wrongs and Other Acts (Law of Negligence) Act 2003 (Vic). Retrieved from http://www.legislation.vic.gov.au/Domino/Web_Notes/LDMS/PubStatbook.nsf/f932b66241ecf1b7ca256e92000e23be/edbb4dd2b6bbb604ca256e5b00214122/$FILE/03-102a.pdf
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