NASW's Legal Defense Fund: Providing Protections Since 1972

By Paul R. Pace

From financial assistance to friend-of-the-court briefs to education and training for social workers on legal matters, the NASW Legal Defense Fund (LDF) continues to be a powerful resource for social workers.

The NASW board of directors established the LDF in 1972, after recognizing a need for NASW members and the social work profession to have resources in defending against lawsuits and to protect legal and ethical principles and policies important to the social work profession.

In honor of the recent 50th anniversary of the LDF, NASW is reflecting on the many important legal cases and other programs the LDF has provided over the decades. The three main purposes of the LDF are:

  • Through the LDF, the association files “friend of the court” briefs in cases of import to the profession around the country, like cases addressing the rights of clinicians to protect the confidentiality of client records.
  • Providing financial assistance for selected legal cases of concern to the profession, helping ensure social workers have their “day in court.” To date, the LDF has provided grants totaling approximately $100,000, which was made possible only through the generous contributions of NASW members.
  • Offering members unique education and training resources. For instance, the LDF provides a members-only free consultation service on social work practice legal issues and has released numerous legal publications that help social workers better understand their rights and responsibilities.

“The NASW LDF was established as a trust with its own board composed of NASW members who identify cases and issues that are important to NASW and the social work profession and vote to provide financial or other support to those cases or legal issues,” says Carolyn Polowy, former longtime general counsel for NASW. The LDF acts as a legal arm of NASW and protects the legal interests and policies of the social work profession as articulated in “Social Work Speaks,” NASW's comprehensive policy statement booklet, she said.

Legal issues can be brought to the attention of LDF in several ways. The most frequent is by requests for NASW to participate in friend of the court briefs (“amicus briefs”), which are filed in support of cases on appeal in federal and state courts.

These requests can be made by NASW members, chapter leaders or other nonprofit organizations with interests similar to those of NASW.

LDF counsel reviews the request for the brief to determine whether the case reflects the interests of the social work profession as enumerated in “Social Work Speaks.”

Over the decades, there have been hundreds of amicus briefs NASW has joined or filed on behalf of social workers. For example, an important brief was filed in the U.S. Supreme Court case Jaffee v. Redmon in the 1990s. NASW supported an Illinois social worker and NASW member, Karen Beyer, who refused to release her client’s records in response to a subpoena in a personal injury case that was filed in an Illinois federal district court, Polowy said. In a landmark decision, the high court ruled in Beyer’s favor that social workers like her deserved the protection of psychotherapist-client privilege in the federal court system.

The Jaffee v. Redmond decision provided significant support for the protection of client confidentiality as essential to clinical social work practice, Polowy says. The role of the LDF is key to the participation of NASW in the development of the law through the courts—both state and federal, she says.

“Whether it is protecting the legal rights of social workers or the populations that social workers serve or providing legal support in cases that involve social work principles, it is important that NASW represent the interests of the social work profession, and the Legal Defense Fund fulfills that mission within NASW.”

Chapter Assistance

Legal strategies to protect individual social workers, the profession, and social justice have always been important, but given the current threats to ethical practice happening across the country, the significance of the NASW LDF cannot be overstated, says Danielle Smith, executive director of the NASW Ohio Chapter.

“NASW LDF has filed dozens of amicus briefs to support social work and social justice in Ohio over the past 45 years including supporting social workers in child protective services, opposing time limits on welfare benefits, abortion access, and LGBTQIA rights, including Obergefell v. Hines,” Smith said. Obergefell v. Hines was the legal challenge that came from plaintiffs in Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, and Tennessee that resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court requiring states to license and recognize same-sex marriage in 2015. Over the past two years, NASW-Ohio and NASW LDF worked to secure social workers’ right to provide ethical, competent care by leading NASW to successfully sue the city of Lebanon, Ohio, in collaboration with the ACLU of Ohio and Democracy Forward. The lawsuit, NASW vs. Lebanon, Ohio, was the first time in the history of the association that NASW served as a plaintiff. It also was the first legal action in the country following the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision which unraveled Roe v Wade, Smith explains.

The Future

Cases like these are some of the reasons why Quincy Dinnerson, DSW, Joint Master of Social Work Program director for North Carolina A&T State University and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, volunteered to serve on the LDF board.

“It’s good to have an arm of the professional organization that can advocate for members who need support and guidance,” Dinnerson says of the LDF.

“I was looking for a different area of practice to work in,” he says of what inspired him to serve on the board.

“I always want to expand my knowledge within the profession. This is an area that at first I did not know a whole lot about. That’s what sparked my interest.”

“Some of the cases we have reviewed have been a lesson learned,” he said. For example, the LDF has helpful resources to support social workers who are in a certain legal situation.

He notes he is learning how the professional organization can impact an individual and look at how it impacts the whole profession, such as transgender rights and reproductive rights.

“The LDF was created to give a voice to NASW and the social work profession,” Dinnerson says. “You will see us moving forward addressing more issues.”

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Looking Forward

“As we celebrate the LDF's 50th anniversary and look forward to the next 50 years, the future of the LDF is exciting,” says Ashlee Fox, MSW, JD, interim deputy general counsel at NASW. “We will remain focused on educating and providing our members with helpful resources, while also advocating for the social work profession and the communities we serve. We hope to accomplish this by continuing to update and issue legal guidance on important topics, provide more trainings and webinars, and collaborate with other organizations.”

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