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Eye on Ethics

Preventing Ethics Blindness in Social Work
By Frederic G. Reamer, PhD
February 12, 2013

On January 25, 1995, Boston police officer Kenneth Conley responded to a radio call for assistance in a foot chase following a report of a shooting. Officers pursued a car containing four men in a chase that ended when the men fled from the car. When two officers saw a man climbing a fence, they caught him and beat him.

The man turned out to be Boston police undercover officer Michael Cox, who had heard the radio call and joined in the pursuit. The uniformed officers did not recognize Cox. Cox suffered severe kidney damage and head wounds.

Officer Conley told a grand jury reviewing the case that he had not seen anyone beating Cox, although he had been involved in the pursuit. Conley said he experienced “tunnel vision” during the chase and focused only on the suspect and nothing else. Conley was indicted by the grand jury on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice for allegedly attempting to protect his fellow officers from prosecution. The prosecutor said Conley gave false testimony when he denied seeing Cox pursue and grab a suspect as the suspect ran toward a fence. Conley was also charged with falsely telling the grand jury he did not see other officers beat Cox. Conley was convicted in U.S. District Court of one count of obstruction of justice and one count of perjury for telling the grand jury he did not see Cox pursing a suspect. Conley appealed the conviction; eventually all charges against him were dismissed.

The Concept of Inattentional Blindness
This widely publicized case sharpened researchers’ focus on the concept of inattentional blindness. Inattentional blindness is the failure to notice a fully-visible, but unexpected object because attention was engaged on another task, event, or object. Officer Conley, for example, claimed that he was so focused on his pursuit that he failed to see that his fellow officer was being beaten. Creative and compelling experimental research conducted by Arien Mack, Irvin Rock, Ulric Neisser, Christopher Chabris, and Daniel Simons demonstrates that, indeed, people have a remarkable ability to not see things that are right in front of their faces, in part because their attention is focused elsewhere.

Over the years I have encountered this phenomenon repeatedly in my ethics consultations. Certainly some ethical challenges in social work are obvious. It is hard to “miss” patent violations of ethical standards, for example, when practitioners learn that a colleague has engaged in a sexual relationship with a client, forged clients’ signatures on release-of-information documents, or falsified records. However, some ethical issues in social work can be overlooked if we are preoccupied with other tasks and do not look through an ethics lens. Here are several examples:

• A former client contacted a clinical social worker in private practice. The former client asked the social worker to write a letter supporting the former client’s request for sole child custody. The social worker had provided couple’s counseling to the former client and her husband. The social worker wrote the letter, which included confidential information about the former client’s husband, who then filed a licensing board complaint against the social worker alleging that the social worker failed to protect the husband’s privacy. In the efforts to support the husband, the social worker neglected to “see” the ethical duty to protect the husband’s privacy rights.

• A social work administrator who directed a substance abuse treatment program hired a former client in a case management position. The former client had been clean and sober for three years and met the job qualifications. Unfortunately, the social worker did not “see” a variety of ethical issues associated with hiring this former client. The new employee inappropriately accessed clinical records of former clients she had known while in treatment. In addition, program staffers had difficulty managing boundaries with the former client, to whom they once had provided clinical services. The state licensing board became involved after another employee filed a complaint against the social worker because of his concern about these ethical issues. The board sanctioned the social work administrator for failing to anticipate and manage these boundary issues.

• A clinical social worker agreed to provide counseling services to her secretary’s adolescent son. The secretary explained to the social worker that her son was feeling despondent following his parents’ recent separation but was unwilling to enter counseling with anyone other than the social worker, whom he had met informally during several social gatherings. The social worker agreed to counsel the teen and did not “see” the potential conflicts of interest and boundary challenges. After several sessions the teen disclosed to the social worker that his mother, the social worker’s secretary, was having an affair with the social worker’s colleague in the group practice. The teen was eager to discuss this with his mother during a counseling session with the social worker.

Preventing Inattentional Blindness: Conducting Ethics Assessments
Social workers are trained to conduct comprehensive assessments before delivering services and embarking on professional tasks. In the clinical realm, social workers conduct biopsychosocial assessments that include a systematic review of relevant psychological, familial, social, economic, educational, spiritual, cultural, and legal aspects of clients’ lives. This sort of multifactorial assessment framework is ingrained in social work practice. A constructive way to minimize the risk that social workers will overlook pertinent ethical issues in their work is to supplement this widely used protocol by including relevant ethical issues. For example, in clinical social work a comprehensive ethics assessment can focus on a number of well-known ethics challenges related to informed consent; privacy and confidentiality; boundary issues and dual relationships; service delivery; documentation; and termination of services.

Social workers involved in advocacy work can focus on common ethics challenges such as challenging or defying unjust policies and laws; conflicts of interest among community residents; and managing conflicts between social work values and the values embraced by community groups (for example, when a community group supports local initiatives that are discriminatory). Social workers in administrative positions can focus on ethical challenges associated with enforcement of unethical agency policies; conflicts of interest between agency employees and outside parties that have working relationships with one’s employer; dual relationships between staffers and supervisors; impaired employees; fraud and whistle-blowing; and resource allocation. Social workers in policy positions can focus on ethical challenges associated with mechanisms designed to allocate limited resources and public policies that affect efforts to meet the needs of poor, oppressed, and otherwise vulnerable people.

Social workers are often overwhelmed by the professional tasks that await them each day. Amidst the swarm of relentless details, looming deadlines, and unanticipated crises it is all too easy to overlook compelling ethical issues that are right in front of our eyes. Including ethical assessment and monitoring as part of practitioners’ routine protocols enhances the likelihood that social workers will see what they ought to see.

— 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.