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Eye on Ethics

The Moral Imperative of Social Work Advocacy
By Frederic G. Reamer, PhD
January 20, 2012

Dolores is an independent clinical social worker who provides counseling services to individuals, couples, and families. One of her clients is a 29-year-old woman named Tanya who struggles with depression and relationship challenges.
During one clinical session, Tanya, who was adopted at birth, talked at length about how “empty” she feels because she knows so little about her birth circumstances. In the state where she was adopted, adoptees’ original birth certificates are sealed in perpetuity; even when adoptees reach the age of majority, they are not allowed to view their own original birth certificates: “I live burdened with frustration. Why is my identity a secret that must be hidden from me? Why do I not have the same civil rights as nonadopted people?” Tanya wondered. It became clear to Dolores and Tanya that some of Tanya’s current struggles stem from her anguish over this issue.
When they began working together, Dolores knew little about laws restricting adult adoptees’ access to their own birth certificates. Dolores happened to mention the issue during one of her peer consultation meetings. One of her colleagues told her that she had recently heard about a local advocacy group challenging the state law requiring adoptees’ original birth certificates to be sealed. Dolores decided to call one of the group members to find out more information, figuring that Tanya may find this group empowering and want to be involved. Dolores learned that the group had been working with two state legislators who sponsored a bill to allow adoptees to access their original birth certificates.
Dolores told Tanya about the group and suggested she consider participating. Tanya said the group interested her but at the moment, she felt overwhelmed by her efforts to search for her birth parents while earning a living and raising her own children. Dolores told Tanya that the group had invited Dolores to meet with them; Tanya thought it was a wonderful idea and encouraged Dolores to attend.
With some reluctance, Dolores attended the group’s next meeting; she had never been involved in any kind of policy or legislative advocacy and wasn’t sure what she could contribute or how she might participate. At the meeting, Dolores quickly discovered how eager the group members—including adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents—were to draw on her clinical experience with several adoptees who had faced similar issues. The group members explained to Dolores that she could help them try to educate legislators about the devastating emotional impact of the current law on the lives of many adoptees, their birth families, and their adoptive families, especially several legislators vehemently opposed to allowing adoptees access to their original birth certificates. Dolores agreed to work with the group. Eventually Dolores testified at three legislative subcommittee hearings about her experiences as a clinical social worker. While being very careful to protect her clients’ privacy, Dolores provided compelling testimony in support of the pending bill. It was the first time in her career that Dolores had been involved in advocacy.
Social Workers as Advocates
Every social worker knows that, in principle, members of the profession should be concerned about both individual well-being and broader social justice issues. As the preamble to the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics states:
The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well­-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty. A historic and defining feature of social work is the profession’s focus on individual well­-being in a social context and the well­-being of society. Fundamental to social work is attention to the environmental forces that create, contribute to, and address problems in living. Social workers promote social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients.

Some social workers enter the profession primarily because of their passionate wish to address social justice issues. These practitioners learn about strategies for social change and devote their careers to various forms of advocacy as community organizers, policy analysts, social activists, and political leaders. However, the majority of contemporary social workers enter the profession with narrower, and very important, interests in clinical social work. Most social workers devote the bulk of their professional education to coursework focused on direct practice and clinical work with individuals, couples, families, and small groups. They may receive only modest exposure to theories and skills related to social change and advocacy.

Seasoned clinical social workers understand the complex, intimate connection between clients’ personal struggles and the broader environmental forces that affect them. Many clients struggle with clinical depression, anxiety, interpersonal conflict, and substance abuse, for example, that are attributable to and exacerbated by the persistent and toxic effects of poverty, discrimination, substandard housing, limited access to healthcare, unjust laws, and a host of other environmental challenges. Ideally, social workers would spend a portion of their time addressing these broader issues that have a profound impact on their clients’ and other people’s lives. Dolores, for example, understood that her client’s intense struggles were closely connected to the law prohibiting adoptees’ access to their original birth certificates. Dolores grasped that this is a moral issue related to social work’s mission.

Ethical Mandates
One of social work’s distinguishing features is its explicit emphasis on social justice issues. In addition to the inspirational language concerning social justice included in the Code of Ethics preamble, the code also includes several specific standards concerning social workers’ ethical duty to address broader public policy issues that are germane to clients’ lives:

• Social workers should facilitate informed participation by the public in shaping social policies and institutions. (standard 6.02)

• Social workers should engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources … they require to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully. Social workers should be aware of the impact of the political arena on practice and should advocate for changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions in order to meet basic human needs and promote social justice. (standard 6.04[a])

• Social workers should act to expand choice and opportunity for all people, with special regard for vulnerable, disadvantaged, oppressed, and exploited people and groups. (standard 6.04[b])

• Social workers should act to prevent and eliminate domination of, exploitation of, and discrimination against any person, group, or class. (standard 6.04[d])

Dolores understood these mandates and fulfilled her ethical duty as a social worker. Through her clinical work with clients, Dolores recognized a broad, relevant social justice issue. Her advocacy exemplifies what it means to be an ethical social worker.

— Frederic G. Reamer, PhD, is a professor in the graduate program of the School of Social Work, Rhode Island College. He is the author of many books and articles, and his research has addressed mental health, healthcare, criminal justice, and professional ethics.