As the provincial regulator of social workers and social service workers, the College’s mandate is to protect the public interest. The College fulfills this mandate in a number of ways, including through its complaint and discipline processes. Everything that the College does comes down to safeguarding the public from unqualified, incompetent and unfit practitioners. As noted in an earlier Perspective article, there is a growing trend of sexual abuse-related complaints against College members – an alarming trend that has continued into 2022.
“We recognize that the COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for College members both personally and professionally,” notes Richelle Samuel, Director of Complaints and Discipline. “Notwithstanding the cumulative and ongoing impact of the pandemic, a member’s professional obligations remain unchanged. When a client receives services from a social worker or social service worker, they are seeking help at a time when they are vulnerable. There is an inherent power imbalance in this relationship, and members can do real harm to their clients if they take advantage of this imbalance in any way, and especially through the violation of sexual boundaries.”
The College is reminding all members of their obligation to adhere to the Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice and is providing the following information and resources to help support members in practising ethically and professionally.
Members should evaluate their own practice and determine if they are:
- impacted by social isolation;
- struggling to manage their mental health;
- extremely stressed or feel overburdened on an ongoing basis;
- misusing substances; and/or
- not seeking the support they need.
If a member answers “yes” to any of these questions, they should speak with their manager, supervisor immediately, consider whether they need to step away from practice, and/or seek appropriate support.
It’s Okay if You’re Not Okay
All members must regularly undertake a process of critical self-review and self-reflection. This is especially important now, as there are risk factors associated with the pandemic that may be impacting a member’s competence.
Members must examine the context of their situation critically and evaluate whether the ongoing challenges of the pandemic are affecting their judgment. Through the critical self-review process, if a College member notes any areas of concern when evaluating their own practice and/or behaviour, they should speak to a manager, colleague or their doctor and step back from their practice so that they can seek the support they need. Members are also encouraged to check in with their peers and colleagues to see if they are experiencing challenges and offer support, as needed.
Important note: College members are required to file a report with the College if they have reasonable grounds to believe that another social worker or social service worker has sexually abused a client.
Members should consider the following questions about client interactions:
- Am I serving my needs instead of the client’s?
- Would I be uncomfortable disclosing anything about my conduct with colleagues?
- Have I stopped documenting interactions with my client?
- Have I asked my client not to tell anyone about our interactions?
If a member answers “yes” to any of these questions, they may be blurring boundaries and should speak to a manager or supervisor as soon as possible.
Upholding Ethical and Professional Practice
Under the Social Work and Social Service Work Act, the College is legislated to develop and enforce professional standards which are applicable to all College members. Members are required to adhere to the Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice, which sets out the minimum standards of professional practice and conduct for members.
The College expects members to review the Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice Handbook at least annually and when they are facing a particular issue or dilemma. This will help to ensure they are applying their professional judgment while practising social work or social service work. In particular, the College advises members to note the following principles:
Code of Ethics, Principle 8: A social worker or social service worker shall not provide social work or social service work services in a manner that discredits the profession of social work or social service work or diminishes the public’s trust in either profession;
Standards of Practice, Principle I, Interpretation 1.5: College members are aware of their values, attitudes and needs and how these impact on their professional relationships with clients;
Standards of Practice, Principle I, Interpretation 1.6: College members distinguish their needs and interests from those of their clients to ensure that, within professional relationships, clients’ needs and interests remain paramount;
Standards of Practice, Principle II, Interpretation 2.1.5: As part of maintaining competence and acquiring skills in social work or social service work practice, College members engage in the process of self-review and evaluation of their practice and seek consultation when appropriate;
Standards of Practice, Principle II, Interpretation 2.2.6: College members do not engage in the practice of social work or social service work,
i) while under the influence of any substance, or
ii) while suffering from illness or dysfunction, which the member knows or ought reasonably to know impairs the member’s ability to practise; and
Standards of Practice, Principle VIII: College members are solely responsible for ensuring that sexual misconduct does not occur.
The College maintains rigorous complaints and discipline processes and investigates reports and complaints made by the public regarding a member’s alleged conduct. Violating professional boundaries and engaging in sexual abuse is an extremely serious form of professional misconduct that can result in penalties up to and including the revocation of a member’s certificate of registration with the College.
The following College resources are meant to provide further support and guidance to ensure that members are practising ethically and professionally.
- Spring 2021 issue of Perspective: College Sees Uptick in Sexual Abuse-Related Complaints
- Practice Notes: The Slippery Slope to Sexual Misconduct: Be Informed, Be Aware
- Practice Notes: Dual Relationships: Ensuring Clients’ Best Interests Are Paramount
- Practice Notes: Boundary Violations
- Practice Notes: “But How Do I Know If I’m Competent?” – Issues to Consider
- Mandatory Reporting Guide
- The Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice Handbook
A Reminder about Professional Obligations
The alarming rise in sexual abuse-related complaints must be stopped. College members must remember their ethical and professional obligations.
“All forms of sexual behaviour between a client and member are prohibited,” says Samuel. “Because of the inherent power imbalance in the relationship between members and their clients, there can never be true consent for sexual behaviour – even if the client ‘agrees’ to sexual contact.”
College members with any practice-related questions can contact the Professional Practice Department at firstname.lastname@example.org.
College members who feel the need to report themselves or other College members for suspected sexual abuse can contact the Complaints and Discipline Department at email@example.com.