Practice Ethics Committee: What to Ask and When to Ask It

When members are asked what they get for belonging to SASW, one of the most frequent responses is the ethical consultations offered by the Practice Ethics Committee. Through this service, a member who is trying to find the best way to approach a difficult situation can get suggestions based on the Code of Ethics, Standards of Practice, and practice wisdom of the committee members. Along with the ethics training provided to members over the past several years this is one of the ways SASW is working to help social workers avoid becoming the subject of a complaint.

In order to obtain an ethical consult, members must complete the online Practice Ethics Consultation Form. In order to access this form, please go to  SASW Website ( and click on the Member Login Services (orange button). Enter your username/password which will take you to your Member Home Page. On the Member Home Page, you will click on the form called “Practice Ethics Consultation” under the ONLINE forms bullet. Please complete this form which will be sent electronically to the SASW office  and then forwarded on to the chairperson of the Practice Ethics Committee for review/response.

There are two things to consider when submitting a request for an ethics consultation. First is whether you are asking a question that fits within the purview of the committee. Sometimes people are confused about the difference between legal matters, practice standards, and ethical dilemmas. Some questions have components of all three. Examples may help to further understanding:

1. Legal Matters

  • A social worker is told by a client that the client committed a robbery. The social worker is wondering whether to tell the police.
  • A client tells a social worker that her partner has committed an offense that violates the terms of his probation. The social worker is concerned about the client’s safety and wonders whether a report can be made to the probation officer without jeop¬ardizing the social worker-client relationship.

These cases have both legal and practice standard elements. The legal question is whether the social worker has an obligation to report criminal activity. The relevant practice standard is whether the client’s confidentiality must be maintained. These cases are also good examples of an ethical dilemma as any decision may have a negative outcome.

2. Standards of Practice

  • A social worker is planning to retire and wants to know about obligations related to closing a private practice.
  • A social worker has received a subpoena to appear in court with a client file. The social worker wants to know how to respond.

These situations deal primarily with legal and practice standards. A social worker should consult a lawyer for information with regard to things like legal requirements for closing an agency or for assistance with court matters. The Standards of Practice addresses closing files and referring clients, record storage and maintenance, and limits to confidentiality upon receipt of a subpoena.

3. Ethical Dilemmas

  • A social worker discovers that her daughter is dating a man who is a client of the agency where the social worker isemployed. The man has been convicted on charges of spousal abuse. The social worker wants to know how she can protect her daughter without violating confidentiality.
  •  A social worker has been doing family counselling with a couple for the past six months. After the last session, the woman tells the social worker that she is plan¬ning to leave the country with her children without her hus¬band’s knowledge and that she is not planning to return. The social worker is not clear about her obligations to each of the parties.

These examples are ethical dilemmas appropriate for review by the Practice Ethics Committee.

The second consideration is with regard to timing. If you need an immediate response to a question the committee is not going to be your best resource. Every effort is made to give a timely response to members, but this work is done by volunteers who need to fit it around other commitments. A normal response time would be two to four weeks.