When do social workers have to apologise?
Sharifa, a social worker, disclosed confidential information to a lawyer representing her client’s estranged spouse, who then used the information against the client during a child custody dispute. She was questioned by the client.
Alan’s client asks him whether he has had social contact with the client’s former spouse, a fact which had occurred. Alan wonders what he should say.
My advice to Sharifa is:
The following should be considered:
Upholding human dignity
My advice to Alan is:
The following should be considered:
Did Alan know about client’s connection to former spouse?
Was Alan accountable to his client or supervisor?
Ashler Low Ern Ser
Some years ago, Harold Kushner wrote a poignant book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. In it, he wisely reflected on our efforts to manage crises and tragedies in our lives.
One sad reality of social work practice is that practitioners sometimes encounter crises when they err and when clients and former clients accuse them of wrongdoing. Too often I’ve consulted on litigation and licensing board cases where unhappy clients and former clients claim, for example, that social workers violated boundaries, mismanaged confidential information, improperly terminated services, provided poor service, or engaged in a conflict of interest. The good news is that it’s relatively rare for social workers to be named in formal complaints. The bad news is that this happens too often.
Although some social workers—a very small minority, fortunately—truly have misbehaved, many formal complaints filed against social workers arise out of honest and unintentional mistakes made by Kushner’s “good people.” Errors happen. Busy and overwhelmed social workers may forget to obtain a client’s consent before releasing sensitive confidential information, neglect to document critically important information in the client’s record, or fail to be available or arrange backup coverage for a client who experiences a crisis.
In recent years, several scholars have explored social work professionals’ management of error (Cantor, 2002; Kraman, 2001; Reamer, 2008; Zimmerman, 2004). Much of the research has focused on the impact of apology when practitioners err and effective ways to minimize harm.
Ideally, social workers would offer clients sincere apologies when warranted in an effort to make amends. This certainly is consistent with social workers’ duty to treat clients with respect. Realistically, however, social workers face significant disincentives to apologize. They may feel a profound sense of shame about their mistakes or fear that any admission of wrongdoing will be used against them in a complaint.
Social workers have a vested interest in responding to error compassionately and constructively. Although self-protective instincts are understandable, social workers’ principal duty is to protect and care for clients. That said, empirical evidence suggests that professionals who respond to unintentional harm in a forthright, conscientious manner may minimize the likelihood of having a complaint filed against them.
For example, in a prominent study conducted at the Lexington VA Medical Center in Kentucky, researchers found that the hospital administration’s earnest attempt to learn about patient injuries, investigate them, and honestly acknowledge errors with patients and next of kin led to very reasonable financial settlements and greatly reduced litigation costs (e.g., attorney fees, expert witness fees). The VA administrators also found that acknowledging error minimized negative publicity (Zimmerman, 2004).
Many health care organizations have established formal error disclosure policies (Mazor et al., 2004). For example, prominent institutions such as the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore have made it a policy for their workers to acknowledge mistakes and apologize. The National Patient Safety Foundation’s statement of principle on the disclosure of health care injuries urges health care professionals to be forthcoming about such injuries and errors and to provide truthful and compassionate explanations to patients and families when errors occur. Some agencies retain consultants to teach staff how to best convey their apologies.
One popular option adopted by several health care organizations is using a so-called care partnership agreement (Liang, 2002). A typical care partnership agreement invites clients to ask questions about their care and notify agency staff if they observe any mistakes.
Another strategy involves using error investigation teams and error disclosure teams (Liang, 2002). An error investigation team explores the extent to which serious errors occurred and practitioners adhered to policies and appropriate procedures. Typically, the team’s members—usually agency administrators, program managers, and supervisors—have appropriate knowledge and expertise to investigate errors that might have led to adverse events. The team may include on-call members who can be summoned to begin assessment as soon as a potential or actual error is identified.
An error disclosure team assumes responsibility for notifying victims of practitioner error. A client care liaison can communicate with the client or other error victim regarding the progress of any investigation. The client care liaison also offers a point of contact for those seeking information about the error and its investigation. The liaison also can help victims obtain assistance and remedial help to the extent necessary.
Even the most skilled, knowledgeable, and dedicated social workers can make mistakes. Indeed, this is true in every profession and walk of life. What matters is that when errors occur, social workers manage them in a manner consistent with the profession’s deep-seated values and ethical standards.
— Frederic G. Reamer, PhD, is a professor in the graduate program of the School of Social Work at Rhode Island College. He is the author of many books and articles, and his research has addressed mental health, health care, criminal justice, and professional ethics.