In 2022, the NSCSW’s professional standards and ethics committee was formed, with the help of a small group of dedicated NSCSW members who gathered together to create the new guidelines for practice for social workers, in light of the new legislation regarding Medical Assistance in Dying. This committee has been meeting for over a year, working on a new set of guidelines related to documentation for social workers, as well as developing a process for ethics consultation.
This ethics consultation process, developed with the support of BSW social work practicum student Amber Gallant, involved researching best practices for social work ethics consultation across Turtle Island and beyond, consulting even as remotely as New Zealand to consider methods and approaches that can ensure optimal support for NSCSW members.
Ultimately, social workers experiencing moral dilemmas in their practice are invited to consult our ethical decision making tool, or to reach out to N Siritsky if they wish to consult with the ethics committee. Members are also invited to join in conversations with Dr. Marika Warren in the new “Ethics Café” conversation series which connects social workers with other disciplines to address those aspects of their ethical dilemma that are not actually related to social work ethics, but rather reflect ethical dilemmas related to larger systemic issues. In this way, social workers are invited to utilize the ethics consultation process as a means of social justice advocacy for change.
As part of their work, committee members have had the opportunity to reflect upon the importance of professional standards in social work, and this blog attempts to distill some of their thoughts. While there are some who may feel like professional standards are dry, and others who are concerned about the risk of hegemony over the diverse ways that social workers seek to practice, this committee has sought to find a middle ground. It is precisely in recognition of this delicate balance that the NSCSW Professional Standards Committee is more likely to create guidelines than standards, in recognition of the diverse and unique circumstances that face social workers in their practice.
With input from the College’s decolonizing social work group, this committee has focused on the ways professional standards and guidelines can provide clarity on how social workers can avoid causing harm to historically marginalized and oppressed groups. Given the continued dominance of systemic racism, colonization, queerphobia and ableism, all social workers carry the risk of unconscious bias affecting their practice. This is all the more vital considering the profession of social work’s complicity in many of these historic and ongoing harms, as detailed more thoroughly in our last year’s blog post on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
This is especially true in a context where the psychosocial factors of health remain underfunded in our political system, and social workers report severe moral distress (as identified in the NSCSW’s Repositioning Report). The vicarious trauma work group has sought to provide input on guidelines created by the Professional Standards committee, and the importance of social justice advocacy is integrated into the committee’s work.
Fundamentally, the Professional Standards committee is committed to advancing the values of the profession and its commitment to social justice and advocacy, by working to create guidelines that can help prevent complaints. By taking the feedback of the complaints committee, it seeks to incorporate the wisdom learned through investigations of what went wrong, and apply them ahead of time. We recognize that more often than not, that social workers come into this profession because of a desire to help. However, due to the complexity of the systems within which we function, and the lack of trauma-informed and supportive policies in the organizations where we may be employed, social workers can inadvertently cause harm.
We advocate for a just culture that works on recognizing that safe practice begins with ourselves. A just culture is one where safety is focused, not only on outcomes but on process. We recognize that more often than not, harm happens as a result of systemic issues. Our goal is to work on transforming the systems within which we operate, so that a culture of blame is replaced by a learning culture. When something goes wrong, we have to look at it and see what we can learn. We need to have clarity within ourselves regarding how we should proceed in the difficult situations wherein we find ourselves. Our standards, guidelines and ethics are meant to serve as that compass.
We eagerly look forward to our profession’s updated ethical framework that will place decolonization and reconciliation, as well as anti-oppressive and anti-racist values front and center. In anticipation of this reality, our committee seeks to ground itself in the voices and perspectives of those equity-seeking groups that have historically been silenced. We also welcome the input of anyone inspired by this blog who wishes to join our work- please just reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Why are professional standards important to ethical social work practice?
Professional standards are imperative because they provide social workers guidance, consistency and an ethical framework, regardless of which area of practice one is in. It protects all social workers especially those who find themselves in the minority of their workplace and who do not feel that their rights are protected by those who are non-social workers because the employer’s expectations contradict the ethical standards.
It also protects the rights of those that we serve, especially the vulnerable or those who find themselves in a precarious situation. It is imperative that all individuals receive full respect and genuine empathy; are able to keep their dignity and not face any biased judgement by those who are entrusted to assist them. I believe that by implementing professional standards, it elevates the social work profession because there is an expectation that all of the registered members are expected to adhere to them. It also protects the social work body itself, so that those who do not adhere to the professional standards framework or who claim to be a social worker but are not in fact registered, do not automatically gain the privilege of calling themselves a social worker or be entitled to practice as one.Joanna Thompson, RSW
Our profession of social work is fraught with barriers and challenges which, along with societal expectations and implicit bias, can cloud our vision, hampering our perspectives. Relying upon personal values and the general hope that everyone will do the “right” thing is hazardous and invites situations conducive to causing harm.Amber Gallant, student member
I did my MSW in another country where I practiced for over a decade. In the context of that environment, my training, continuing education and professional development and my practice were tightly regulated. I came from a strong socialist setting where social work was present in almost all aspects of community care. In arriving home to NS, it became growingly evident that not only did we not have the same national standards I was used to working to, but we lacked standards just within our province. The concept of core skills that all social workers possess was an assumption I made based on my country of practice prior to the move, the connection between theory and practice. When I began my work here, I was not given a solid foundation to begin my work from, here in NS. I had a strong foundation from abroad, but this didn’t translate to social work practice as I was educated and practiced. In order to manage the growing moral distress, that I had never in my career felt, I reached out to the college for stability, structure, and standards. This helped me sure up my rocky foundation of what social work practice in NS looked like, helped me understand the difference from linguistics to practice. I watched many other social work practitioners enter a system with no support, no guidance, and a lack of clear standards to guide them on their journey. This, for me, is why practice standards are so important, why I am motivated to enhance social work practice for our province, why I want our community to be involved. The greatest gift I have been given in my life, is to be gifted a village and all through the complexities of life, my village has been by my side. I am seeking a village in social work practitioners, and I want more for us and more from us.Erin McDonald, RSW
I became a social worker within a pre-existing context of neoliberal austerity. As a clinician in the 21st century I have never experienced anything but the long term consequences of such a short-sighted ideology. My generation of social workers have largely lost access to regular supervision, educational opportunities and in-depth student placements. As a health care social worker I now provide largely assembly-line-esque emotional labour that serves the needs of the institution, with none of the unique supports that such labour requires. As a result I see students completing placements without adequate in-depth supervision and new clinicians with no oversight – in other words, little to no infrastructure to ensure that social workers develop the capacity to apply social work theory to practice in an in-depth fashion. This makes us vulnerable to our profession and our practice being defined by institutions and corporations, rather than our professional values, ethics, and standards of practice.Eva Burrill, RSW
Professional standards are important to social workers for many reasons but overall, I would say that if we are ever to be seen as professional health care providers by OTHER professionals that we work with whether in the healthcare field or not, we must have standards of care that others can rely on. Without these standards, our roles and capabilities are often misunderstood or undervalued. For example, when I was doing another Masters in the science field, the Nursing Chair (my advisor) insisted that social workers were “paraprofessionals.” One of the reasons for these attitudes is that there is such a wide variety in the education in social work and many social workers graduate from programs that, in my opinion, do not provide sufficient direct practice skills. Many social workers end up in roles that are largely financial eligibility processing for various programs that could be done by anyone without a degree in social work. This supports the old idea of “welfare workers” while child protection remains the largest employer of social workers, both part of social work’s negative history in participating or supporting colonialism.Debra Bourque, RSW
As a helping profession, social work has a responsibility to serve the public to the best of our abilities. Developing compassionate and just relationships is at the heart of social work’s commitment to service. To honour this commitment, social workers should have professional standards that guide our development of knowledge, ethics, values, and skills. These professional standards should be a transparent, co-constructed, and dynamic covenant / contract with the public. This covenant / contract should include open and consistent communication about professional expectations, areas of strengths, and areas for improvement. As a helping profession, social work is ethically accountable to the public. Professional standards are essential for ethical practice.Dr. Terrence Lewis, RSW
What professional standard do you feel is most important for social workers to consider, and why?
I personally feel that the most important professional standard is the definition of social work practice itself. Currently, the definition states “For the purpose of this Act, the practice of social work means the provision of professional services to clients through the use of social work knowledge, theory, skills, judgement and values acquired through a program from an approved faculty of social work.” …
Social work is a unique practice and one that is not often respected in the health field. In my experience, I have been told by a number of other disciplines that they “have done social work” in their roles. It takes time and experience to achieve the skills to provide professional services to clients including “Intervention through direct contact with clients, including assessment, case management, client-centred advocacy, education, consultation, counselling, crisis intervention and referral.” These skills cannot be taught from a textbook. They need to be lived and experienced. Therefore, competency and professional development are imperative in ensuring that professional standards in the field of social work are maintained, so that it can achieve the respect that it fully deserves.Joanna Thompson, RSW
I could not really decide here. If I had to pick one it would be 11.1.1.Debra Bourque, RSW
While there are many important elements to consider for professional standards, the following list reflects some of the most important ones for me:
Dr. Terrence Lewis, RSW
- multi-culturally constructed knowledge, values, ethics, and skills for social work practice
- a deep commitment to the worth and dignity of all life,
- a commitment to life-long learning,
- a commitment to reflective practice
- a commitment to justice in all relationships: human, animal, and environmental
I joined the professional standards committee in an effort to participate in the development of more rigorous education, supervision and practice standards to protect our practice from the dissolution of our political values and to protect the centrality and depth of Standard 6.Eva Burrill, RSW
There are many other voices and perspectives on social work, its standards, guidelines and code of ethics. Our committee seeks input from all its members, and has created mechanisms for members to share ideas and feedback. Ultimately, it is clear from some of these comments, that our guidelines and standards, ethical codes and sets of values are meaningless unless implemented. In many ways, this work is foundational to our advocacy efforts.
Many members have noted in particular a lack of sufficient available clinical supervision and mentorship for social workers throughout their career, as our candidacy program only creates structured mentorship for practitioners who are new to the profession or returning to it. Much of our members’ reported distress seems related to this lack of support. Therefore, in addition to working on guidelines for social workers, our College is also embarking upon an employer outreach campaign. It is essential for social workers to have the support that they need in doing the difficult and important work that they are called to do, and, as our committee co-chair noted, it takes a village. We are grateful for the wisdom of all those who are part of our village.