What follows is an ethical dilemma faced by a student intern who unintentionally acquires information about her client during the course of the field seminar. Read the following case and give some thought to the dimensions of the ethical dilemma and how you, as the social worker, would decide what action to take.
Rachel is a social work intern placed at a local Family Services Agency. Over the course of the last six months, she has worked with Carla Rodriguez to reunify her with her three children, ages 11, 4, and 3. Carla (age 28) is the mother of Tatiana (age 11), Derrick (age 4), and Angel (age 3). The children were removed to foster care when charges of neglect were substantiated. Derrick and Angel were placed in separate foster homes, and Tatiana stayed with Carla’ sister. Carla’ drug addiction limited her ability to care for her children, who were found to be living in squalid conditions. While the children were in foster care, Carla made a concerted effort to have the children returned to her care. She entered and completed a drug treatment program, and claims now to be “completely drug free.” Carla entered similar programs twice before; this is the first time she completed a program. The children were reunified with their mother two months ago. Carla has been drug free for a number of months and is meeting the minimum standards of care for her children.
In the field internship seminar, social work interns were exchanging information about their cases. An intern placed in a local junior high school asked her peers for advice about the group she is running. Taking precautions to change the names and identifying details of the group members, the intern spoke about “Mary’” fears about her family being broken up again “after they just got back together.” Her mother isn’t “doin’ the bad drugs anymore, but she smokes pot with her boyfriend in the apartment.” “Mary” tells the group that her mother told her “not to say nothing to nobody” if she doesn’t want to split up the family. “Mary” does not want her mother’ social worker to find out about the drug use.
Rachel, the intern working at the Family Services site, realizes that the client being described is the daughter of her client, Carla. Carla has adamantly denied any drug use and always appears “straight” at the time of the agency visits. Rachel has no firsthand evidence to suggest that Carla is using drugs. Rachel wonders what to do with this information.
There are many questions for Rachel to consider as she decides how to use the information she has just acquired. The following are questions social workers might ask to resolve this ethical dilemma and determine what action to take.
Do you think Rachel is obligated to report Carla’s drug use and, if so, to whom should she report it?
Rachel must be clear to which client she owes her primary responsibility. If her obligation is to protect the children, she may feel more obligated to report Carla’s drug use, as it may affect the children’s safety. If, on the other hand, Rachel is Carla’s advocate, could she “overlook” Carla’s occasional marijuana use, perhaps believing the risk to children is not great?
The social worker’s beliefs about the family unit and the local foster care system are also factors that will influence the decision to act. Is the risk to children greater if the family unit breaks up again? What are the harms/benefits to children of being returned to foster care?
Are the same foster homes still available?
Could the disruption caused by foster care possibly be greater than the
consequences of Carla’s recreational drug use?