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NASW Standards for the Practice of Clinical Social Work

Prepared by the NASW Provisional Council on Clinical Social Work
Approved by the NASW Board of Directors June 1984
Revised April 1989
(Currently under Revision)

Contents

  • Introduction
  • Definitions
  • Goals and Objectives of the Standards
  • Standards for the Practice of Clinical Social Work
    • Standard 1. Clinical social workers shall function in accordance with the ethics and the stated standards of the profession, including its accountability procedures.
    • Standard 2. Clinical social workers shall have and continue to develop specialized knowledge and understanding of individuals, families, and groups and of therapeutic and preventive interventions.
    • Standard 3. Clinical social workers shall respond in a professional manner to all persons who seek their assistance.
    • Standard 4. Clinical social workers shall be knowledgeable about the services available in the community and make appropriate referrals for their clients.
    • Standard 5. Clinical social workers shall maintain their accessibility to clients.
    • Standard 6. Clinical social workers shall safeguard the confidential nature of the treatment relationship and of the information obtained within that relationship.
    • Standard 7. Clinical social workers shall maintain access to professional case consultation.
    • Standard 8. Clinical social workers shall establish and maintain professional offices and procedures.
    • Standard 9. Clinical social workers shall represent themselves to the public with accuracy.
    • Standard 10. Social workers shall engage in the independent private practice of clinical social work only when qualified to do so.
    • Standard 11. Clinical social workers shall have the right to establish an independent private practice.

Introduction

Historically, the social work profession has focused on both people and their social environment. Clinical social work, whose focus is on individuals, families, and groups, has its roots in social casework, which always has been a primary method for the delivery of social work services. The number of clinical social workers has grown continuously, and clinical social work continues to contribute significantly to the development of knowledge and skills for the profession. In 1978, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) formally recognized clinical social work as part of a process of organizational differentiation. At that time, NASW established the Task Force on Clinical Social Work, which became the Provisional Council on Clinical Social Work in 1982.

Clinical social workers have practiced in governmental and voluntary agencies and, since the time of pioneer social worker Mary Richmond, in private practice. In 1961, NASW defined private practice as a setting for the delivery of clinical social work services and published its first Handbook on the Private Practice of Social Work in 1967.

Clinical practice continues to be an integral part of the services delivered in agency settings. At the same time, an increasing number of clinical practitioners have been moving into independent private practice, which further attests to the commitment of trained and experienced professionals to the direct treatment of individuals, families, and groups. This development, encompassing solo and group practice as well as other arrangements, is in addition to the practice of clinical social work in traditional voluntary and governmental agency settings.

Many states require the legal regulation of social work practice; some states require a special license for practitioners of clinical social work as well as those in independent private practice. Generally, certification for clinical social work requires a master’s degree in social work plus at least two years’ experience as well as an examination.

Given the variations among the states regarding legal regulation and the needs of clinical social work practitioners, NASW has taken appropriate responsibility for establishing standards of practice for all clinical social workers in all settings. These standards are to be considered desirable for all clinical social workers and are designed to do the following:

  • Guide clinical social work practice.
  • Guide state regulatory agencies.
  • Provide information to insurance carriers and others who, under various health-benefit plans, reimburse clients for clinical social work services.
  • Inform consumer groups.

The NASW Code of Ethics is the primary standard by which all members are bound. A summary of the Code of Ethics will be found following these standards.

Definitions

The following definition of clinical social work was accepted by the NASW Board of Directors at its January 1984 meeting:

Clinical social work shares with all social work practice the goal of enhancement and maintenance of psychosocial functioning of individuals, families, and small groups. Clinical social work practice is the professional application of social work theory and methods to the treatment and prevention of psychosocial dysfunction, disability, or impairment, including emotional and mental disorders. It is based on knowledge of one or more theories of human development within a psychosocial context.

The perspective of person-in-situation is central to clinical social work practice. Clinical social work includes interventions directed to interpersonal interactions, intrapsychic dynamics, and life-support and management issues. Clinical social work services consist of assessment; diagnosis; treatment, including psychotherapy and counseling; client-centered advocacy; consultation; and evaluation. The process of clinical social work is undertaken within the objectives of social work and the principles and values contained in the NASW Code of Ethics.

In May 1961, the NASW Board of Directors endorsed the following definition of private practitioners of social work:

Private practitioners are social workers who, wholly or in part, practice social work outside a governmental or duly incorporated voluntary agency, who have responsibility for their own practice and set up conditions of exchange with their clients, and identify themselves as social work practitioners in offering services.

Goals and Objectives of the Standards

The goals of the standards are

  • To maintain and improve the quality of services provided by clinical social workers.
  • To establish professional expectations so social workers can monitor and evaluate their clinical practice.
  • To provide a framework for clinical social workers to assess responsible professional behavior.
  • To inform consumers, governmental regulatory bodies, and others, such as insurance carriers, about the profession’s standards for clinical social work practice.

Toward the achievement of these goals, the standards

  • Define and delineate clinical social work and the private practice of clinical social work.
  • Establish specific ethical guidelines for the practice of clinical social work in agency or private practice settings.
  • Provide documentation of professional expectations for agencies, peer review committees, state regulatory bodies, insurance carriers, and others.

Standards for the Practice of Clinical Social Work

Standard 1. Clinical social workers shall function in accordance with the ethics and the stated standards of the profession, including its accountability procedures.
Interpretation

All social workers have a fourfold responsibility: to clients, to the profession, to self, and to society. Social workers shall identify themselves as members of the social work profession. NASW members shall be familiar with and adhere to the NASW Code of Ethics and shall cooperate fully and in a timely fashion with the adjudication procedures of the Committee of Inquiry, peer review, and appropriate state boards. They shall be aware of and adhere to relevant stated professional standards for social work practice.

All clinical social workers shall be willing to have judgments and decisions reviewed by knowledgeable peers in a formal process. When requested by a client, the clinical social worker will provide information about how to file a complaint charging unethical behavior.

Standard 2. Clinical social workers shall have and continue to develop specialized knowledge and understanding of individuals, families, and groups and of therapeutic and preventive interventions.
Interpretation

Areas of knowledge about individuals, families, and groups required for effective clinical intervention encompass the following:

1. Social, psychological, and health factors and their interplay on psychosocial functioning, such as these:

  • theories of personality and behavior,
  • social-cultural influences,
  • environmental influences,
  • physical health, and
  • impairment and disability, including mental and emotional conditions.

2. Community resources

  • available social resources in the community and their operation and how to use them in the client’s behalf and
  • how to identify appropriate services and negotiate a referral.

3. Specific practice skills, including the ability to

  • establish a relationship of mutual acceptance and trust,
  • obtain, analyze, classify, and interpret social and personal data, including assessment and diagnosis,
  • establish compatible goals of service with the client,
  • bring about changes in behavior (thinking, feeling, or doing) or in the situation in accordance with the goals of service.

4. Knowledge about and skills in using research to evaluate the effectiveness of a service.

The clinical social worker shall have available a variety of appropriate social work therapeutic intervention techniques that he or she uses selectively, depending on the client’s needs and capacity for change.

When knowledge and skills are acquired, other than those specific to social work, the practitioner is responsible for obtaining the appropriate training and certification. Clinical social workers shall maintain and enhance their skills through appropriate forms of professional development and continuing education (see NASW Standards for Continuing Professional Education) and are personally accountable for all aspects of their professional behavior and decisions.

Standard 3. Clinical social workers shall respond in a professional manner to all persons who seek their assistance.
Interpretation

Clinical social workers shall respond to each client regardless of the client’s lifestyle, origin, race, sex, religion, or sexual orientation.

Clinical social workers shall limit their practice to those clients whom they have the skills and resources to serve. However, they shall be aware of and seek to ameliorate any of their attitudes and practices that may interfere with their ability to offer competent and equitable service. They have a professional responsibility to help a client establish contact with other appropriate resources when they cannot meet the needs for service of a particular client.

If the clinical social worker is unable to schedule a timely appointment for an initial assessment, he or she may screen the client by telephone to determine the urgency of the client’s situation. The well-being of the client is the key factor in all decisions. In emergency situations in which the clinical social worker cannot be available to a new client, every effort should be made to find an appropriate source of immediate help.

On occasion, a client may decide to terminate treatment before a clinician judges the client to be ready. When the clinical social worker is sure that the termination is premature but the client persists in his or her decision, it is the clinician’s responsibility to refer the client to another appropriate treatment resource or, failing that, to help the client terminate treatment as constructively as possible, leaving the door open for the client to reapply for service at another time.

Standard 4. Clinical social workers shall be knowledgeable about the services available in the community and make appropriate referrals for their clients.
Interpretation

In accordance with the definition of clinical social work (see "Definitions"), the perspective of the person-in- situation is central to clinical practice. Therefore, clinical social workers must be alert to the clients’ situations, especially those that affect the clients’ behavior and functioning, and must be able to modify the environment, when possible, by referrals to other community services. There will also be occasions when advocacy on behalf of a client will be necessary to obtain needed services.

When a client is being served by other agencies, the clinical social worker shall maintain collaborative contacts as necessary with the other providers to ensure the coordination of services and the client’s receipt of optimal benefits from the various services.

When the client is involved with more than one clinician, collaborative consultation shall be maintained as necessary to ensure delineation of the specific areas of responsibility. The clinician shall not share information about a client without the client’s informed consent. (See Standard 6 for an elaboration of confidentiality.)

Standard 5. Clinical social workers shall maintain their accessibility to clients.
Interpretation

In the process of managing a therapeutic relationship, various factors or events may create problems of accessibility. The clinician shall be able to respond to the unanticipated needs of a client by, for example, having telephones answered, either by a person or machine, and messages relayed promptly and accurately. When the clinical social worker is unavailable because of vacation, illness, or any other reason, he or she should make arrangements for coverage by competent peers. These details should be discussed with the client at the beginning of treatment.

In establishing an office, the clinical social worker shall be aware that some clients may have or develop physical handicaps. Thus, the clinical social worker shall make every attempt to ensure that offices are free of impediments to mobility and that helping devices are available for sensorially impaired clients. The office’s accessibility by public transportation, when it is available, also should be a consideration.

Standard 6. Clinical social workers shall safeguard the confidential nature of the treatment relationship and of the information obtained within that relationship.
Interpretation

Respect for the client as a person and for the client’s right to privacy underlies the maintenance of confidentiality in the client-clinician relationship. Although assurance of this confidentiality enhances the therapeutic interaction, the client should be advised that there are circumstances in which confidentiality cannot be maintained. These circumstances would include but not necessarily be limited to the legally mandated requirement to report to appropriate authorities a suspicion of child abuse, including the sexual abuse of children, or to disclose information necessary to avert danger to the client or others. In some circumstances, a clinician may need to advise the parents of a child client’s self-destructive behavior to ensure adequate protection for the child. In all such situations, the clinician shall advise the client of the exceptions to confidentiality and privilege, be prepared to share with the client the information that is being reported, and handle the feelings evoked. Except for such explicit, overriding requirements, the clinical social worker shares information only with the written and informed consent of the client.

Standard 7. Clinical social workers shall maintain access to professional case consultation.
Interpretation

In an agency setting, professional social work supervision or consultation should be available to all social work staff, either in the agency or through a contractual arrangement. If clinical social workers are not available, case consultation may be obtained from qualified professionals of other disciplines.

The beginning clinical social worker requires regular case-consultation supervision. For the first two years of professional experience, at least one hour of supervision should be provided for every fifteen hours of face-to-face contact with clients. After the first two years, the ratio may be reduced to a minimum of one hour of case consultation supervision for every thirty hours of face-to-face contact with clients. In some situations, additional consultation will be sought by the clinician, because of complex issues involving a client, or suggested by the consultant, because of difficulties the consultant perceives in the clinician’s handling of a situation.

Clinicians with five years or more of experience should utilize consultation on an as-needed, self-determined basis. Although clinicians who are in independent practice shall utilize more case consultation when they first begin practicing, they should maintain consultative arrangements throughout the time they are in practice. Clinical social workers shall be knowledgeable about how and when to utilize the expertise of other professional disciplines in the area of medical problems, including pharmacology, and be alert to the effects of prescription drugs on a client so they can provide feedback to the client’s physician.

Standard 8. Clinical social workers shall establish and maintain professional offices and procedures.
Interpretation

The clinical social worker keeps records of clients that substantiate service in a secure place. He or she maintains the records accurately and in a manner that is free from bias or prejudicial content. The social worker makes these records available to clients at their request.

The clinical social worker should ensure that appropriate insurance is maintained: agency liability, personal professional liability, premises protection, and other protective policies.

Clinical social workers shall establish a fee structure when in independent private practice or utilize the fee structure of the agency in which they are working. All fees and procedures for payment shall be discussed with the client at the beginning of treatment; to minimize misunderstanding, it is useful to present these policies in writing as well. This discussion should include the use of insurance reimbursement and how it will be handled; charges for missed or canceled appointments, vacations, and collateral contacts; and any other financial issues. Clinical social workers shall not refuse service to clients solely because the clients are not covered by insurance.

Billing procedures shall be included in the original discussion and clients’ accounts shall be maintained according to acceptable accounting methods, with all bills and receipts provided on a regular and timely schedule. Clinical social workers shall discuss overdue accounts with clients and make every effort to avoid accrual of debt. When it is clear to a client and clinician that, for whatever reason, the client can no longer afford to pay for treatment, a mutually acceptable alternative plan for compensation or an orderly and appropriate termination or referral shall be instituted. Nothing in this standard shall be construed to rule out an individual clinician’s decision to provide services on a pro bono basis.

When all efforts to collect an overdue account from a client have failed, the client should be informed that unpaid accounts may be turned over to a collection agency or small claims court or that other types of legal action will be taken. If there is a dispute over charges, the clinical social worker should make every effort to resolve it without damaging the therapeutic relationship.

Waiting rooms and offices should be kept clean, and the environment should be properly maintained to ensure a reasonable degree of comfort. Interviewing rooms should ensure privacy and be free of distractions. Steps should be taken to assure the client’s and the social worker’s personal security.

Standard 9. Clinical social workers shall represent themselves to the public with accuracy.
Interpretation

The public needs to know how to find help from qualified clinical social workers. Both agencies and independent private practitioners should ensure that their therapeutic services are made known to the public. In this regard, it is important that telephone listings be maintained in both the classified and alphabetical sections of the telephone directory, describing the clinical social work services available.

Although advertising in various media was thought to be questionable professional practice in the past, recent judicial decisions, Federal Trade Commission rulings as well as current professional practices have made such advertising acceptable. The advertisement must be factual and should avoid false promises of cures.

The content of the advertisement should include the private practitioner’s or agency’s name and professional credentials and the address and telephone number or other contact information. It might also include the type of services provided (e.g., individual, family, or group therapy; alcoholism counseling; divorce mediation; and so forth) and the type of problems that are dealt with (e.g. marital distress, parent-child conflicts, eating disorders).

Standard 10. Social workers shall engage in the independent private practice of clinical social work only when qualified to do so.
Interpretation

Many states have legal regulations for social workers at a clinical or independent-practice level. If practitioners work in such a state, they must be licensed or certified at this level to engage in independent private practice.

The NASW standards for the independent practice of clinical social work are those required for inclusion in the NASW Register of Clinical Social Workers:

  • A graduate degree from a social work program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.
  • Two years of full-time (or equivalent part-time) clinical social work experience supervised by a clinical social worker.
  • Current membership in the Academy of Certified Social Workers or a license or certification in a state at the appropriate level.
Standard 11. Clinical social workers shall have the right to establish an independent private practice.
Interpretation

Clinical social workers shall have the right to establish a separate independent practice as a form of secondary employment or after leaving a place of employment. When they establish such a practice, either alone or as part of a group, they are responsible for assuring that the diagnostic and treatment services meet professional standards. If such a practitioner hires clinical social workers or other employees, he or she, as an employer, is responsible for the services provided, for maintaining all these standards, and for upholding all applicable local, state, or federal regulations.

Clinical social workers who are employed by agencies and have an independent private practice should not refer agency clients to themselves unless they have made a specific agreement with the agency and have offered alternative options to the clients. Agencies have the responsibility to establish written, reasonable guidelines or policies about secondary employment (see NASW Standards for Social Work Personnel Practices). When an agency does not have clear written policies, the clinical social worker may cite the relevant NASW standards.

When a clinical social worker leaves an agency to establish an independent private practice, he or she must take great care to explain fully the options available to clients. Clients in treatment may be offered various options after consultation with the agency. These options include (1) transferring to another staff member in the agency, (2) continuing with the same clinician in an independent setting, (3) transferring to another agency or to a different private practitioner, or (4) terminating treatment. The overriding principle is the client’s right to self-determination and freedom of choice. That is, the client’s best interests must always be paramount in these decisions.

 
 
 
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