Ethical dilemmas for social workers at a time of cuts

Michelle Coleman, senior social worker at Active8, Liverpool

What should social workers do when legal or financial issues conflict with their personal and professional values? Kirsty McGregor explores the challenges of holding on to ethics in pressing economic times

Social workers encounter ethical dilemmas on a daily basis, from deciding whether to remove a child from his or her parents to delivering care packages that meet people’s needs without blowing departmental budgets.

Financial constraints are often the catalyst for such dilemmas. So it follows that, in the current economic climate, ethical reasoning is becoming more of a challenge.

“Many social workers experience what might be called ‘moral distress’,” says Professor Sarah Banks, who researches social work ethics at Durham University. “They know what they ought to do but they can’t do it.”

To address this, the Social Work Reform Board has included “ethics and values” as one of the nine core values in its professional capabilities framework.

This framework sets out how social workers’ knowledge and skills should develop as they move through their careers. On ethics, the framework stipulates that social workers should be capable of applying ethical principles and values to guide professional practice.

Here, we look at three of the key areas covered in the framework.

Managing your own values

The reform board proposes breaking down ethics and values into seven elements, starting with the social worker’s own personal values.

Students are taught to be aware of these and how they might differ from those of people from other cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

Michael Earle, who qualified as a social worker five years ago and works for Bristol Council, says he was advised never to ignore his “gut feeling”.

“Your personal values are always with you and that’s an advantage,” he says. “Learning how to manage those values is a skill you develop throughout your career.”

Andy O’Beirne, a practitioner at Wandsworth Council, London, and member of the interim board of the College of Social Work, says social workers should use supervision to critically analyse their feelings and reflect on their beliefs. “Understanding that we all come from different backgrounds makes you open to seeing differences in your professional and personal life,” he says.

Applying social work ethics

The British Association of Social Workers has a code of ethics, divided into: human dignity and worth, social justice, service, integrity and competence. The code expects social workers to respect every human being and ensure the protection of vulnerable people. Each individual ought to be treated without prejudice or discrimination and abuses of power should be challenged.

Ruth Cartwright, national manager of BASW England, says she strived as a social work manager to keep human dignity at the centre of her team’s practice.

She recalls fighting a case in which an older woman was due to be moved to a cheaper, less suitable residential home.

“The local authority said that, if she wanted help to pay for her care, she would have to move to a cheaper home, further from her family,” she says.

But Cartwright knew that moving older people away from where they are settled can affect their health and well-being. Despite the threat of disciplinary action, she argued against moving the woman and won the case. “As a social worker, you get involved with individuals,” she says.

Whether these qualities are innate or can be learned is debatable, but Banks says they can be developed through practice, education and working with role models.

Accountability and risk

Balancing confidentiality with the duty to protect vulnerable people can represent an ethical dilemma. But the rules are clear. “You share information if the service user or someone they know is at risk and the other agency can support them or reduce that risk,” says O’Beirne

He says partnership working and effective communication help professionals manage ethical dilemmas. But, ultimately, social workers are accountable to their employers, and must balance their ethics and values with external constraints.

“I don’t think anyone should underestimate the pressure on social workers to get the job done,” says O’Beirne.

Last June, Michael Preston-Shoot, dean of the faculty of health and social sciences at the University of Bedfordshire, argued that councils’ emphasis on government targets over social work practice compromised the ability of social workers to operate ethically.

Banks says social workers need to summon the courage to challenge their employers and other professionals if they sense an injustice: “If you see yourself as part of a profession committed to people’s rights, you should be able to act on your judgements.”

Until the College of Social Work becomes a legal entity in the spring, how can social workers be supported to put ethics and values into practice?

Banks says a strong focus on initial education and continuous learning would help, as would having ethics on the agenda more often, through reading and discussions. “Social workers have to understand, but also be committed to, the ethics and values capability,” she says. “And they have to be clear about the kind of people they are.”

Dilemmas: the law versus human rights

What should social workers do when the law conflicts with the values and ethics of their profession? This is the dilemma faced daily by Michelle Coleman, senior social worker at Active8, a company in Liverpool that provides support and accommodation for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

She says she faces a constant battle to meet the needs of service users within a strict legal framework.

For example, she has to advise asylum seekers to continue to report to the Home Office, due to UK Border Agency policy. “But there is always a risk that they will be detained,” she says.

Coleman manages this dilemma by making sure asylum seekers are aware of the risk, so they can make an informed choice about what is best for them.

If a young person’s asylum application fails, or they reach their 18th birthday the support they receive changes or stops altogether. Coleman finds this challenging, but she recognises the importance of measuring need against resources.

Her manager, Stan Afflick, says Active8 has a strict remit. “It’s tempting to try to do everything, but we have a service-specific agreement with local authorities.

“If we do too much in one area, we can’t do the basics.”

As a result, Coleman’s hands are often tied and she has to resort to signposting people to other services.

But the company has built credibility over the years, she says, which has helped social workers take a more needs-led, ethical approach.

“Decisions have been put on hold or changed because a member of staff has advocated on behalf of or alongside a young person,” she adds.

A benchmark for standards

Ethics and values should cover these key areas:

1 Managing your own values.

2 Understanding and applying the ethics and values of social work.

3 Confidentiality.

4 Person-centred approaches.

5 Promoting partnership.

6 Understanding the legal and statutory context.

7 Professional accountability.

Source: Working paper on the professional capabilities framework, Social Work Reform Board, January 2011

Find out more about the professional capabilities framework

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