Social workers’ primary responsibility is to promote the well-being of clients. In general, clients’ interests are primary. However, social workers’ responsibility to the larger society or specific legal obligations may on limited occasions supersede the loyalty owed clients, and clients should be so advised. (Examples include when a social worker is required by law to report that a client has abused a child or has threatened to harm self or others.)
Commitment to clients is appropriately the first standard in the NASW Code of Ethics as it captures the essence of the social work profession’s mission and values while balancing this commitment with the contextual factors that inform social work practice.
When approaching an ethical dilemma related to a client, more often than not, Standard 1.01 Commitment to Clients is applicable. This standard challenges the social worker to reconcile his/her primary responsibility to promote the well-being and interests of clients with the responsibility to uphold the legal requirements that protect the interests of society.
When situations arise that require choosing between the client’s interests and that of the general public, arriving at a sound ethical decision can be challenging. At times the requirement to follow the law supersedes the obligation to the client; e.g., when the social worker is required to follow state mandated reporting laws and/or duty to warn obligations.
In order to uphold Standard 1.01, it is imperative that social workers understand the legal requirements that govern their practice and apply them appropriately. This will require training, consultation and continuing education – all necessary for ethical practice.