Expert Advice

Social Work Code of Ethics: Relationships Between Clients and Providers

| Updated November 28, 2017

Sexual relationships between clients and providers? NO!

Nonprofit experts Gary G. Godsey, executive director of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, and Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk, MissionBox co-founder and CEO, have teamed up to create MissionBox DoubleTake — a column that offers opinions about the peskier aspects of working in the nonprofit sector. The opinions offered here are based on the authors' personal nonprofit experience and may not reflect the opinions of MissionBox, Inc. These opinions should not be considered legal advice or used as a substitute for professional legal consultation. MissionBox readers are invited to submit alternative responses, which may be published here as well.

I'm a nonprofit exec and I'd like to air a grave concern. I'm not writing to be scandalous. I'm writing because I faced a situation 15 years ago that I didn't know how to handle. I had no one to ask for advice and I didn't tell anyone about the situation, which I've always regretted.

At the time, I was 18 and working my way through school with my first quasi-professional job. I was a staff member at a residence for adults with developmental delays. Our staff social worker (and supervisor) confided in me that she had become sexually involved with a resident and was pregnant. She was in tears when she told me that she'd already confessed to her husband and had just quit her job. She said she planned to terminate the pregnancy and try to save her marriage. I was clearly and profoundly shocked. Based on my horrified reaction, it was a short conversation and I did nothing about it. She provided no forwarding contact info and I haven't spoken with her since — nor can I find her today through the usual social channels.

Do you think illicit relationships between providers and clients are at all common? If so, perhaps your advice could help another inexperienced new professional.

Gary says …

I'm never surprised by any type of behavior — illegal, immoral or otherwise. As an executive, you have a legal obligation to make sure this type of behavior doesn't exist in your workplace. If you discover it, you must take immediate action. The situation you described is a legal matter in which the client was violated. Clearly, this made an indelible impression on you and created a sensitivity to "doing the right thing" on your part. That's a positive thing. As they say, we must live and learn.

Kathryn says ...

I feel your pain, friend. It's hard to look back and know you've done the wrong thing, even if it was due to inexperience or lack of training and guidance.

So, here's my advice.

First, forgive yourself. You didn't know what to do because your employer failed to properly prepare you. Being a houseparent is a difficult and demanding job and you deserved to be thoroughly trained and supported.

Moving forward, you clearly don't know where this troubled woman is or how to right the wrong from so long ago. You could go to the police, but I don't know if they'd follow up. Do check it out, though, if that seems right to you. (Of course, this is not legal advice — just my thinking on the matter.) Either way, remember that you're not 18 anymore. Don't make the same mistake again or you'll be part of the problem.

Next, never excuse the predatory actions of a provider against a vulnerable child or adult. Never. Ever. Period. Done. Should you experience a similar situation again, report it to the head of your organization and demand that the police be notified. If your boss fails to follow through, call the police yourself — immediately. If all else fails, call the press. Illicit relationships between clients and providers are serious. They're illegal and just plain wrong. They're akin to the teacher as predator. Or the priest. Or the police officer. It's power against vulnerability. This social worker should have been reported, lost her license and been tried in court. Who cares if she saved her marriage or how she felt? She preyed on a young adult in her care, who was likely damaged forever by the experience.

Others have shared similar scenarios with me. So, unfortunately, these relationships aren't unheard of — although thankfully they're rare. Every one of us must stand up and speak out the very second we become aware of this sort of behavior. The sickening conduct of a few taints us all and certainly harms those who expect, deserve and usually receive our best, most thoughtful and ethical care.

Thanks for being brave enough to air your experience.

MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.

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