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Social work boundaries: how times have changed

blair-mcpherson-100.jpgby Blair McPherson, a former local authority director of community services

It can be a fine line between befriending a client and getting too close. One in five social work misconduct cases concern inappropriate relationships with clients. The General Social Care Council (GSCC) thinks social workers need more guidance.

It is never acceptable to take advantage of vulnerable people or abuse your position of authority but when the aim is to get to know someone, to build up trust, to offer help and support then it is not always clear where the professional boundaries lie.

Having a sexual relationship with a client is clearly totally unacceptable but the boundaries can get blurred without ever going this far. Recent misconduct cases have involved taking a client to the pub and complimenting her on her looks, taking children out on individual treats for a meal or to watch a football match and encouraging someone to break away from a religious group. All of which could be perfectly innocent but in these cases weren’t.

The motivation may be entirely honourable but due to inexperience or over-involvement the worker crosses a professional boundary leaving them open to allegations of misconduct. 

Being open about your actions is good advice. It gives colleagues and your supervisor the opportunity to point out how your actions could be misconstrued by the client or others. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing what you are doing then you probably shouldn’t be doing it.

Early career

In my early career I worked in a number of residential settings where by the very nature of the work you get close to those you care for. Every year the staff would take children to spend Christmas in their household. The advantage was that no-one had to work over the Christmas period. The younger staff like me took a child to spend Christmas at their parents’ house.

For two years running I took Terry who was only six years old home for Christmas. My brothers and sister still refer to it at any large family gathering. My mother sent Terry a Christmas card and birthday card for many years after I had stopped working at the children’s home.

While working at a residential home I took a 10 year old to London for the day to watch his favourite football team as a birthday treat. His first ever football match. The birthday allowance wouldn’t stretch to cover the costs so I paid out of my own pocket and the staffing was such that it could only happen if we went on my day off. Would that still be considered appropriate in the current climate?

Double or quits

Playing pool or table tennis with adolescent boys may sound an easy way to earn a living but of course the activities are just a way of getting to know each other and stopping the fights. This particular troubled and troublesome lad was very good at table tennis so that’s what I thought I would do with him. Only he wouldn’t play me – I wasn’t good enough. So I said I bet you fifty pence you can’t beat me if you give me a ten point lead. I lost. Double or quits, I said. By the end of the evening he was giving me a fifteen point lead and I owed him £20! I had made a big mistake. He wanted his winnings. I tried to laugh it off by saying you didn’t think I was serious did you? I didn’t give him the money, he felt aggrieved and our relationship was awkward from then on.

When money gets involved it changes relationships which is why you shouldn’t lend money to clients or borrow from them.

I have known of social workers lending or giving money out of their own pocket to clients and in doing so they cross a professional boundary.  As I became more experienced I came to recognise it was not being a disillusioned cynic to recognise that despite the empathy I am not your friend I am your social worker.

Blair McPherson is an author of books on management development and equal opportunities

About Simeon Brody

Community Care managing web editor

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