From the NASW (1996) Code of Ethics:
(c) 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. (Dual or multiple relationships occur when social workers relate to clients in more than one relationship, whether professional, social, or business. Dual or multiple relationships can occur simultaneously or consecutively.)
In the movie Precious (Spoiler alert! Though it shouldn’t be a spoiler alert, because it’s pretty much a staple of social work school.), Precious ends up staying with one of her teachers, Blu Rain, and her partner, after a violent altercation with Monique.
[For some reason I thought she stayed at Mariah Carey’s social work character’s house –which would have been awesome, both because it would make my example easier, and because it’s probably the only incarnation of poverty and humility she’ll play– but alas, we’ll use the teacher as an example!]
Most social workers enter the field with good intentions, but given the complexity of the struggles clients face, and the complexity of human relationships and helping mechanisms, we will inevitably come into situations that can look like the ethical vignettes we thought “would never happen” in our ethics classes.
This ranges in everything from whether to accept cake (I like cake), to how to gracefully decline being invited up to the mountains for an awesome hiking party. And yes, the latter happened during an unrelated undergraduate internship, which is a story for another post.
Other times, it can involve decisions that fall outside our scope of practice but call upon some of our values (e.g., Can a social worker buy food for a client in dire need?).
How we handle them depends on the status and kind of conflict of interest. Something like a dual relationship existing from the onset (e.g., finding out the new intake you were assigned is your barber or that guy who spelled your name wrong at Starbucks) would be handled as early as possible with the intention of protecting a client’s confidentiality and referring them appropriately.
More complex conflicts of interest, such as sexual attraction from the client to the therapist, or vice versa, would be handled in supervision. This places the responsibility on the professional to properly process or handle it without burdening or abandoning the client out of discomfort. Karen Maroda, an author we covered in our practice class, has interesting work on erotic transferences and their meaning.
And yet other conflicts of interest can be processed in the therapeutic work (e.g., Is a client okay with being acknowledged in public? What if both a social worker and client live in a small town and go to the same religious space?).
Social Work Today has a good article on these grays (as well as plain black and whites) in an article titled Respecting Boundaries — The Don’ts of Dual Relationships.
Ultimately, avoiding dual relationships is never about “rejecting the clients” or setting ourselves as “apart.” In fact, we will meet clients who, either due to closeness in age, awesomeness, or life experience, will in unspoken ways also touch us with their wisdom and presence. Rather, avoiding dual relationships serves to protect clients and ground us in remembering that we are there for their needs, without them meeting our own needs: a warm and yet unexacting presence. Like Mariah Carey.