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Importance of Ethical Behavior in Social Work

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Social Work
Wordcount: 2647 words Published: 23rd Jul 2018

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  • Veronica Anderson
  • Shalondria Wade Hill



I. Ethics and Social Work

For professions rooted in health and human services, ethics are a vital part and have the most importance. The social work profession is the epitome of both integrity and ethics. Although the majority of social workers display ideal ethics and the nature of the career tends to attract the most compassionate and principled individuals, there is a small minority that engage in behavior that is considered to be unethical. The NASW (National Association of Social Workers) Code of Ethics emphasizes that the core of any type of social work revolves around professional ethics. The mission of the social work profession is rooted in a set of six core values. It is somewhat of a map that guides each social worker’s journey and is important to all social workers regardless of working conditions. These core values serve as the root for all social workers and if followed properly will ensure that each and every social worker remain highly ethical in any situation that they may face. These core values are: (1) Service, (2) Social Justice, (3) Dignity and worth of the person, (4) Importance of Human relationships, (5) Integrity, and (6) Competence (National Association of Social Workers, 2013).

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Unethical behavior for a social worker is any deviation or violation from the six core values and the several principles and standards set forth by the NASW. The reason social workers misconduct is so important is because misconduct and neglect of duty by a social worker could have harmful consequences. Misconduct by a social worker can result in serious injury, lost financial support, child endangerment, and in some cases death (Hyslop, 2015). With such fatal consequences, it is urgent that the social work profession understand why some of their workers engage in such ethical misbehavior. According to Dr. Frederic G. Reamer, there are several prominent themes when it comes to social work misconduct: (1) Desperation, (2) Greed, (3) Impairment, (4) mental illness, (5) addiction (including addiction to substances, sex, and gambling), and professional burnout (Reamer, 2012).

II. Competence

One of the critical core values set forth by the NASW is competence. Competence is the ability to perform one’s duties both successfully and efficiently. This is critical for social workers. Social workers tend to work long hours and have a number of cases, so it is important that they can work efficiently but also keep the same standards to ensure that the job is done successfully as well. The ethical principle states how “Social workers must practice within their areas of competence and develop and enhance their professional expertise” (National Association of Social Workers, 2013). For social workers it is proper to utilize their education, personal values, experience, training, and any other professional related experiences in order to properly address any situation.

Although it may be overlooked at times, being competent is a crucial factor in many cases of unethical behavior. With many of these situations, competence is the first core values that many unethical social workers neglect. Having a competent social worker is the necessary first key to resolving any situation and when it is lacking, terrible consequences could be the result. The NASW believes that social workers should continually strive to increase their professional knowledge and skills in order to apply them successfully in practice. In order to remain competent social workers must work every day to not only maintain their level of competence but to also build upon it as well.

III. Case

An example of unethical behavior in social work can be seen in the case of Candice Lassiter and Craig Smith in North Carolina. These two social workers were each charged with three counts obstruction of justice in relation to the death of a 15 month year old little girl. According to Mitch Weiss of the Huffington Post, the social workers were aware of the child abuse going on in the home, yet after the death of the child Lassiter, who was in charge, ordered Smith, a subordinate, to falsify records to make it appear like they did an fair and competent job in investigating the case (Weiss, 2013). There were several violations of social work ethics in this case which include: (1) lying, (2) incompetence, (3) service, (4) social justice, and (5) the unethical conduct of colleagues.

Gregory Achen notes how child abuse can be hard to substantiate and requires comprehensive, time-consuming assessments from social workers (Achen, 2013). If the two social workers in the previous case used the code of ethics this child’s life could have been spared. According to the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), child abuse and neglect is defined as: Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or an act or failure to act, which presents an imminent risk of serious harm (U.S. Dept. Health and Human Services, 2012). In the United States 9.3% of children were victims of abuse and/or neglect in 2009. With approximately 9% of children in this country neglected and/or abused, there needs to be a voice for the children, and that voice needs to be in skilled, ethical social workers.

To explain this problem in a social work setting, I propose this hypothetical situation. A social worker coming straight out of a Master’s program has just been hired by the Mississippi Department of Health and Human Services (MDHS) as a child protection services specialist. This social worker’s superior has been an excellent mentor so far and has provided necessary skills and knowledge on the subject matter and how to deal with a variety of situations. Over the past year, the young social worker has been to various functions with the supervisor and now considers them to be not only colleagues but close friends.

At MDHS, social workers are informed of suspected cases through the hotline and once the case gets assigned they have 3 levels. Level 1 is called the screen out; it is centered on neglect more than actual abuse. Level 2 is still neglect and abuse but more severe than level 1 and the social worker has up to 72 hours to make a home visit. Level 3 is the most severe level. Here are the cases of extreme physical abuse and sexual abuse and the social worker has up to 24 hours to make a home visit. (MDHS). Now unfamiliar to the young social worker, her supervisor has already had a level 2 call about child abuse in a pretty bad neighborhood. The supervisor has neglected numerous home visits and eventually the hotline receives a level 3 call about this same child. The supervisor still remains to follow through, and two weeks later, the same child is found dead at the home.

Upon hearing of the death, the supervisor is trying to cover their tracks and so they reach out to the young social worker. The supervisor should have handed the case to a CPS worker and oversee all of the home care visits, but did none of it. So they come to the young social worker to falsify official documents. He wants the young social worker to fill out reports showing that home visits were made and that everything seemed to be in order when they visited on the number of calls previously received. The supervisor would then sign off on all of the paperwork and even states how he himself went out to the home with the young social worker on one of the visits to ensure that everything was ok.

In this hypothetical situation the police never find out about the unethical misconduct of the social workers and they continue their friendship, however due to this incident more and more cases could possibly turn out the same way and one child’s life was lost. In this scenario, there has been a variety of social work unethical behavior demonstrated. Obviously lying to cover up another colleague’s neglect is the most obvious. The core values not used were reasonable for all six. The core value of service was not administered at all here.

A social worker’s primary goal is to help people in need, and in this case a child needed them and nothing was done. There was no social justice performed by these social workers because social workers are supposed to help get justice for weak and vulnerable individuals, and in this case this was not accomplished. They did not acknowledge the dignity and worth of this child, possibly because of the unsafe environment with which they were being raised. The importance of human relationships extends beyond clients at times. Although it is the target to obtain a good relationship with colleagues, it is not worth it if the clients, social workers are supposed to help, suffer as a result of it. Lastly there was no integrity or competence shown here with the falsifying of documents to cover the tracks of a superior.

IV. Personal Reflection

Social workers practicing in the child welfare field often face the need to make critical decisions while working in stressful work environments that can include high caseloads and limited supervision, training, and support (National Association of Social Workers, 2013). As an undergraduate social work student here at Jackson State University, the NASW Code of Ethics has played a crucial role in not only how I view social work issues but also how I look at issues in my everyday life. The role of social workers when it comes to abuse varies, but it centers on the safety and well-being of potential victims. This is one major reason why I feel that it is important to have a code of ethics and set of guiding principles that anyone can fall back on when confronted with morally unclear issues such as the prior hypothetical situation.

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In my opinion, both the supervisor and the young social worker were more than wrong in the above scenario. First off the supervisor was neglectful in his duties initially. Any level two calls about child abuse are extremely upsetting and his duty was to call attention to it and respond appropriately. To compound his neglect, upon the death of the child he immediately began lying to his superiors, to the young social worker, and to himself. Lying about visiting the home and lying about the entire situation was not the way to go. To top it all off, due to his negligence he brought in the young social worker to lie on his behalf. He used the friendship he achieved with a coworker to justify and cover up his mistakes. The young social worker is also at fault because she should have had more integrity to not get involved in the cover up and report the negligence of her supervisor to the proper authorities. All she did, by covering up his mistake, was leave the door open for it to happen again and that could cost more children harm and possibly cause another life to end as well.

One of the best things about the NASW code of ethics, in my mind, is the fact that they all work with each other. Without having one core value it lessen any of the other five. That is why I feel that competence is one of the most important ones. If a social worker is not competent it makes it almost impossible to display and of the other five core values. That is why in this case I feel that the core value most in need was competence. I feel that this falls hand in hand with my personal values. My aim is to become an exceptional social worker and the way to ensure this I must remain competent with everything I do. The supervisor lacked competence by not only neglecting his duties but by involving a subordinate in the affairs as well to cover his tracks. The young social worker lacked competence, by not knowing the situation that the supervisor put her in by asking for her to falsify documents.

If I was ever in any situation that could possibly contradict with my personal values or the social work six core values, it would be hard to say one hundred percent what I would do, but I am more than confident that with the importance of my values and the NASW code of ethics that a solution will be reached that does not jeopardize my integrity, the integrity of my career, and my past, current, or potential clients. As a social worker we must rely on our values and the NASW core values to help us in any situation.

If any situation contradicts with either of the two then we must take appropriate action. Not only would I have denied the request the supervisor gave to falsify documents, I would also reported it to either his superior or to the authorities. Social workers are similar to a variety of professions, especially when it comes to the fact that lives could potentially be in our hands. There is no way that someone could die because of my negligence, and instead of owning up to a mistake and serving the potential punishment, I would just cover it up. I would not be able to sleep at night as a result. Social workers are the first line of defense when it comes to abuse victims and with this comes the great responsibility of protecting the innocence of the nation’s children, ensuring that they at least have a chance to rise above the situation and go on to live productive lives.


Achen, Gregory. (2013). The Importance of Ethic in Social Work. San Diego State University School of Social Work. Retrieved From: http://socialwork.sdsu.edu/insitu/social-workethics/the-importance-of-ethics-in-social-work-by-gregory-achen/

Hyslop, J. (2015). Mastering Social Work Values and Ethics by Farrukh Akhtar, Foreword by Professor Hilary Tompsett, Part of the Mastering Social Work Skills series, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London and Philadelphia, 2012. 168 pp. ISBN 978‐1‐84905‐274‐0 (Pbk),£ 17.99. Child Abuse Review.

National Association of Social Workers. (2013). NASW Standards for Social Work Practice in Child Welfare. Retrieved from: http://www.naswdc.org/practice/standards/childwelfarestandards2012.pdf

Reamer, Frederic G. (2012). Eye on Ethics: The Dark Side of Social Work: Ethical Misconduct. Social Work Today. Retrieved Fromhttp://www.socialworktoday.com/news/eoe_051712.shtml

United States Department of Health and Human Services. (2012). 2012 Child Maltreatment Annual report. Retrieved from: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/cb/cm2012.pdf 

Weiss, M. (2013). Candice Lassiter and Craig Smith, social workers, charged in Aubrey KinaMarie Littlejohn’s death. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/14/candice-lassiter-craig-smith-social-workersbabys-death_n_3079938.html?utm_hp_ref=crime

Mississippi Department of Human Services: http://www.mdhs.ms.gov/media/9579/titleandtoc.pdf


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