Get to Know the NASW Office of General Counsel

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The NASW Office of General Counsel (OGC) provides important services supporting individual NASW members and the social work profession generally. Gary Gross, NASW Interim General Counsel, discusses the work OGC does to support members and all social workers.

NASW: Tell me about yourself. How did you become Interim General Counsel at NASW? How long have you been in this role?

Gary Gross: I worked for many years as an attorney in government and nonprofit practice, with a focus on civil rights and employment issues. I joined NASW as Associate Counsel in 2016 and was promoted to Interim General Counsel in 2023.

How does NASW’s Office of General Counsel help social workers? How big is the team? Do you serve individuals or the profession as a whole?

We are a small staff of seven but strong -- and passionate about the Association’s mission, which includes enhancing the professional growth and development of our members. OGC includes our legal team and NASW’s Office of Ethics and Professional Review (OEPR).

The legal team (in addition to providing internal legal counsel services supporting the Association) operates a consultation service for members on a broad range of social work practice legal issues. OEPR operates a similar consultation service, focusing on social work practice ethical issues. These consultation services are a major free member benefit that folks may not be aware of.

Tell me more about these consultation services.

For assistance on both legal and ethics issues, members may contact NASW Member Services at 800-742-4089; they will then be referred to a team member for a prompt confidential discussion.

In terms of the legal consultations, some of the common issues that come up include:

  • restrictions on providing telemental health, which has been especially important given the pandemic
  • client access to their clinical records
  • disclosure of confidential client information to third parties -- for example, when a social worker is subpoenaed for client information in the context of a lawsuit, such as a child custody dispute
  • the duty to warn others about a client who may pose a danger to themselves or others
  • reporting child abuse and neglect committed by a client, and
  • the rights of minors to independently obtain mental health care

We average about 150 legal consultation calls per month. For each call, we provide in-depth guidance and resources that can help resolve the concern, and make referrals to other organizations if appropriate. However, we are unable to provide legal advice.

Are there other legal resources available to members?

Yes, the legal team has developed many model policies and forms for social workers. Importantly, we have developed extensive resources on federal patient privacy protection requirements under HIPAA for social workers. This includes a member toolkit containing a comprehensive compilation of sample policies and forms necessary for HIPAA compliance that can be adapted to a specific social work practice setting. We have also written many publications addressing common legal issues for social workers -- including our Legal Issue of the Month series -- that are available to members, in most cases free of charge.

Another important area of our work is the Legal Defense Fund (LDF). Through the LDF, the Association files amicus briefs in cases of importance to the profession around the country, including social justice. (An amicus or “friend of the court” brief is filed by groups that are not parties in the case but, given their expertise, can bring an important perspective to the case.) Through these briefs, the Association can provide a court with additional information and arguments – based on the perspective of the social work profession -- that can help ensure a positive decision benefiting the profession. The LDF also provides financial legal assistance and support for selected legal cases and issues of concern to NASW members and the social work profession, such as cases addressing the rights of clinicians to protect the confidentiality of client records.

Why are these member resources valuable?

Social workers may be faced with complicated issues in areas of the law and ethics that can have a significant impact on them. It may be very difficult for a social worker to find guidance in these areas. We take our responsibility to provide this help very seriously. Not all professional membership organizations provide comparable services -- and I’m proud that we have these resources in place.

That is a lot. Can you describe some of your recent legal advocacy efforts to support members and the profession?

We have two big initiatives – the first of which just concluded successfully. This first initiative involved combatting a troubling and potentially deceptive business practice affecting thousands of social workers and their clients nationwide. This relates to the marketing practices of CareDash, a healthcare review and referral website for a wide variety of healthcare providers, including clinical social workers. CareDash has been posting the profiles of thousands of social workers (sometimes with erroneous information) — without their consent or knowledge — in order to drive their prospective clients to other providers that partner with CareDash. This practice may amount to a misappropriation of social workers’ names and reputations for commercial gain. In addition to the possible loss of clients through this practice, it may also harm social workers by conveying inaccurate information about their backgrounds. We have taken a number of actions to address this concern, including mobilizing our members to file consumer protection agency complaints and engaging in discussions with CareDash to resolve the matter. As a result (and with the assistance of our sister therapy associations), CareDash eliminated the most egregious aspects of this policy – and in February 2023 went out of business. Read the news release about CareDash.

The second initiative relates to providing legal assistance to the NASW Licensure Task Force on the development of an Interstate Licensure Compact for Social Workers. An interstate compact is a legislatively enacted legally binding contract among states. The recently released Social Work Interstate Compact Model Bill was developed by the Council of State Governments (a nonpartisan organization supporting excellence in state government) with participation from NASW and other partners. The compact will permit social workers to provide services interstate in compact participating states and to increase access to desperately needed social work services.

Learn more about how the NASW Office of General Counsel supports members.

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