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Eye on Ethics

Managing Boundaries in Small Communities
By Frederic G. Reamer, PhD
January 27, 2012

Recently, I had the opportunity to conduct ethics training overseas for social workers who live and work on military bases. During my conversations with the training participants, I was struck by the challenging boundary issues they face, especially when the military bases on which they live and work are located in remote, sometimes dangerous, areas of the world, thus limiting social workers’ opportunities to spend time outside of their small, gated communities. Inevitably, working in such confined communities produces challenging boundary issues; these social workers may eat and shop in settings frequented by their clients, work out in the gym with clients exercising on adjacent equipment, and attend the base movie theater with clients in nearby seats.

Boundary Challenges in Small Communities
Of course, these are not entirely novel challenges in social work. Practitioners who live and work in rural communities face comparable issues, as do social workers who are deaf and provide services to the local deaf community with whom they have considerable social contact.

Social workers who provide professional services to members of their own religious and faith communities also face significant boundary issues. Their children’s classmates and playmates may be the offspring of the social workers’ clients. It is not unusual for social workers in rural communities to have no choice but to have their car serviced by the one transmission specialist in town, who happens to be a client. The one local electrician may end up servicing her social worker’s home to address a sudden power outage.

Social workers in every setting and field of practice encounter boundary issues, such as whether to engage in a friendship with a former client, disclose personal information to clients, accept gifts and invitations from clients, or hire a former client who has specialized expertise. However, some boundary issues in small communities are truly unique and require skillful management to protect clients and practitioners. Practitioners in these settings often describe how they walk through their day wondering when—not if—they will encounter clients outside their work settings. They devote considerable effort to managing these encounters in a way that minimizes potential boundary confusion.

Consider these examples of boundary challenges in small communities:

• Maria was the only clinical social worker in a rural town. Her son, who was in the fourth grade at the local school, became friendly with a classmate who, unbeknown to him, was one of Maria’s clients. Maria’s son invited his new friend to his home to play. Maria was unsure how to handle this predicament, particularly because she could not disclose to her son that his friend was her client.

• Pamela was a clinical social worker in a small town who provided counseling services to adolescents and adults in the surrounding area. One of her clients was the town’s police detective who was struggling with marital issues. One evening, Pamela. received a telephone call from the detective. The detective informed Pamela that the detective had to arrest Pamela’s adolescent son who was involved in a serious automobile accident. The detective explained that Pamela’s son was charged with driving under the influence and being in possession of cocaine.

• Alonzo was a substance abuse counselor on a military base who provided clinical services to military personnel and their families. In his spare time, Alonzo coached a soccer team for children of military personnel. One boy on his team was a client’s son. The child’s father was recently charged with child abuse. Alonzo was ordered to prepare a report concerning the soldier and his family, including details concerning the relationship between the father and the son.

Managing Ethical Risks
In small communities, some unanticipated encounters between social workers and clients are innocuous and unlikely to pose significant problems. For example, practitioners and clients who encounter each other in the local supermarket or at the pharmacy may feel awkward, but these brief, unplanned encounters are not likely to have significant, lasting repercussions. In contrast, the social worker whose child becomes friendly with the practitioner’s client, and the social worker whose son is arrested by the social worker’s client, face more daunting challenges.

Dual relationships in small communities and rural areas take several forms, most commonly overlapping social relationships and overlapping business or professional relationships. Given the likelihood that such dual relationships will occur, social workers would do well to anticipate the ways in which their professional lives may intersect with their personal and family lives and, where appropriate, talk with clients about how they might best handle these challenging circumstances. As the NASW Code of Ethics says, “Social workers should not engage in dual or multiple relationships with clients or former clients in which there is a risk of exploitation or potential harm to the client. In instances when dual or multiple relationships are unavoidable, social workers should take steps to protect clients and are responsible for setting clear, appropriate, and culturally sensitive boundaries” (standard 1.06[c]).

In some instances, practitioners and their clients can come up with relatively straightforward ways to manage the boundary issues. For example, a practitioner whose client works for the sole local plumber in town might talk about why it would be best for one of the client’s colleagues in the plumbing company to handle visits to the practitioner’s home. A practitioner who has an opportunity to chaperone an overnight church youth group trip that includes both the practitioner’s teenage child and the practitioner’s client can decide not to sign up to chaperone to avoid potential boundary confusion. Also, practitioners can talk with clients ahead of time about how they—the practitioners—will not approach clients they encounter in the community, such as in local stores or restaurants, to avoid boundary complications.

In contrast, however, are situations in which the potential or actual boundary issues are more difficult to manage. The social worker whose client is employed at the same company as the practitioner’s spouse may not be able to avoid encountering the client at a holiday party sponsored by the company for employees and their families. The social worker whose client moves into a house near the practitioner’s home cannot be expected to resolve the problem by moving to another location. The social worker whose client is the one automobile mechanic in town cannot be expected to drive 35 miles to another mechanic, especially if her car is disabled.

In these circumstances, it behooves the practitioner to broach the boundary issues with the client as early in their relationship as possible and discuss reasonable ways of handling potentially awkward circumstances in a manner that both find comfortable and in a way that protects the client’s interests to the greatest extent possible. Social workers should document these conversations to demonstrate their earnest efforts to handle these situations responsibly and ethically. In some situations, practitioners may feel the need to consult colleagues for advice or refer clients to other providers—if feasible—in an effort to avoid inappropriate or harmful dual relationships.

— 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.