Eye on Ethics: Moral Courage in Social Work
In 2015, Kentucky child welfare worker Tim Williams reported to state social service officials that nearly 100 cases of alleged child abuse and neglect were misplaced and not investigated for months. Williams also alleged that some social workers had lied in court about investigations and made serious errors. As a result of his disclosure, Williams claimed, he was punished by agency administrators. In a lawsuit Williams filed against the state child welfare agency, his attorney asserted that the retaliation included incessant harassment by supervisors who focused on silencing him rather than looking after the needs of children. In 2022, a jury awarded Williams $2 million in response to his whistleblower lawsuit.1
Moral Courage in Social Work
In reality, of course, whistleblowing decisions are complicated and can be fraught with negative repercussions. Even the most virtuous whistle blowers can suffer painful retaliation and become radioactive in their workplaces. In short, whistleblowing requires moral courage.
The term “moral courage” was first coined in the 19th century by English philosopher Henry Sidgwick. The concept of moral courage entails the willingness to face personal risk in order to confront and disclose injustice and wrongdoing. For example, in San Jose, California, in 2019, more than a dozen social workers and other human service activists were arrested after blocking a street to protest Santa Clara County’s decision to move its Department of Family and Children’s Services family resource center more than three miles away from where clients tend to live. Protestors alleged that relocating the center would have a dire impact on vulnerable clients. “Moving the center would be the end of it,” said Veronica De Leon, a social work supervisor who had worked at the center for many years. “We’ve been here for 25 years, and the purpose of a family resource center is to be in the community where the services are needed. … We’ve spent years building trust and supportive relationships with the east side community. Instead of providing additional resources for the growing needs, the county is dismantling services.”2
Belling the Cat in Social Work
The fable says that long ago, the mice had a general council to consider what measures they could take to outwit their common enemy, the Cat. Some said this, and some said that; but at last, a young mouse got up and said he had a proposal to make, which he thought would meet the case. “You will all agree,” said he, “that our chief danger consists in the sly and treacherous manner in which the enemy approaches us. Now, if we could receive some signal of her approach, we could easily escape from her. I venture, therefore, to propose that a small bell be procured, and attached by a ribbon ’round the neck of the Cat. By this means we should always know when she was about, and could easily retire while she was in the neighborhood.”
This proposal met with general applause until an old mouse got up and said: “That is all very well, but who is to bell the Cat?” The mice looked at one another, and nobody spoke. Then the old mouse said: “It is easy to propose impossible remedies.”
Ethical Mandates in Social Work
• A clinical social worker at a prominent mental health center began work with a new client who struggled with feelings of depression linked with early-life trauma. Two years earlier, this client received counseling from one of the social worker’s colleagues at the mental health center. During one session, the client reflected on several occasions when she was sexually abused by men. The client reported to the social worker that she had become sexually involved with her former therapist, the current social worker’s colleague.
• A social worker at a community action agency directed the program that serves people who struggle with homelessness. The program was funded by a federal grant. The social worker reviewed program expenditures and noticed significant discrepancies between federal funds made available to the organization and program funds made available to the social worker. After exploring her concern, the social worker discovered that the agency executive had diverted a significant amount of grant funds for personal use.
• A social worker in private practice provided clinical supervision to a social work colleague who was about to submit an application to the state board for his independent license. The clinical supervisor reviewed the application, on which she was expected to verify the supervision she provided, and discovered that the supervisee had falsified data on the number of hours he had worked under clinical supervision.
At the macro level, social workers may learn of unethical organizational practices or public policies. Here are several examples:
• A social worker in a large for-profit multisite mental health organization learned that administrators were submitting fraudulent reimbursement claims to the state’s Medicaid program. According to the social worker, organization administrators knew that they were in violation of a strict state law that only permits reimbursement when services are provided by properly licensed and supervised clinicians.
• A social worker in a women’s health clinic heard the news that her state’s legislature passed a new law prohibiting health and behavioral health practitioners from engaging in any conversation with clients about pregnancy termination. The social worker believed that the law violated her ethical duty to help clients make informed choices about their health care.
• A social worker employed in a state prison was contacted by four inmates who reported that they had been sexually abused by correctional officers, one of whom was a relative of a senior prison administrator. The social worker shared the information she received with department officials. Over time, the social worker became convinced that prison administrators were engaged in a cover up to prevent any disclosure of the evidence.
In the 1990s, the NASW Code of Ethics was completely rewritten in response to dramatic developments in the evolution of professional ethics generally and, more specifically, of social workers’ understanding of complex ethical issues. Among the most significant standards included in the new code were several focusing explicitly on social workers’ fundamental obligation to confront wrongdoing, including: “When necessary, social workers who believe that a colleague has acted unethically should take action through appropriate formal channels (such as contacting a state licensing board or regulatory body, the NASW National Ethics Committee, or other professional ethics committees)” (standard 2.11[d]). Further, the code’s preamble states, “social workers promote social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients.”
Social work is a remarkably noble profession whose moral foundation entails a deep and simultaneous commitment to promoting social justice and challenging injustice. At times, fulfilling this commitment requires great moral courage and a willingness to risk unbidden consequences. Indeed, sometimes social workers must be willing to bell the cat.
— Frederic G. Reamer, PhD, is a professor in the graduate program of the School of Social Work at Rhode Island College. He’s the author of many books and articles, and his research has addressed mental health, health care, criminal justice, and professional ethics.
2. Hutton AF. Social workers arrested in fight to save East San Jose family resource center. San Jose Spotlight. September 20, 2019. https://sanjosespotlight.com/social-workers-arrested-in-fight-to-save-east-san-jose-family-resource-center