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Confidentiality in Social Work

Confidentiality in Social Work

Megan Malugani / Monster Contributing Writer

State and Federal Guidelines

More on Social Work


Salary: $32,590 - $48,420
Min. Education: Master's
Related Careers: Psychologist, Rehabilitation Counselor

In cases where violence is not a factor, decisions about whether to maintain a client’s confidentiality may be less obvious. For example, a social worker may be legally required — but morally opposed — to providing information about an undocumented immigrant, Hardeman says. Or, according to Coleman, a social worker may be asked by an adolescent client’s parents to share the adolescent’s therapeutic records. In such cases, state laws differ on how to respond to the requests; therefore, social workers should stay informed on what’s happening in their area.

Social workers should also be aware of federal confidentiality guidelines as well as guidelines in the NASW code of ethics, Coleman says. The NASW and its state affiliates provide continuing-education programs, seminars and workshops on ethical dilemmas related to confidentiality. The organization also makes a law book on confidentiality, which includes information on dealing with subpoenas, available to members.

When social workers do have to reveal confidential client information, it is important that they do so openly and in a way that maintains the client’s dignity. No client should be completely surprised, since a social worker is required to make clients aware of the limits and exceptions to confidentiality at the first meeting.

Hardeman, for example, has called clients or told them in session that he planned to report their negligence to child protective services. “I tell them I’ll work with them and won’t abandon them,” he says. Some clients appreciate his candor and continue working with him anyway. “If I operated behind my clients’ backs, they’d quit therapy and never go to therapy again,” he says.


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