6 Steps to Address Boundary Issues

8 Jul

By Cindy Webb, MSSA, LISW-S

NASW Ohio Chapter Executive Director

The most common and most difficult ethical dilemmas arise from boundary issues. I believe the problem begins with us. What do I mean by that? We tend to have the hopeful mind set, “I hope that won’t happen to me”. Instead we need to have the stance “It is bound to happen” and “I need to be prepared”.

This is especially true for social workers in rural communities. You need to plan on seeing your client in the supermarket, at church, or in the next PTA meeting.

So what do you do? No matter what community you work in there is always the dual relationships. It is your responsibility, not your client’s to understand the repercussion of dual relationships. From intake throughout your relationship, discuss potential conflicts with your client and develop an agreed upon plan on how to handle those situations.

Always be prepared and know how you will handle situations as they arise. Utilizing Fred Reamer’s six major elements in Risk Management Protocol I have listed six steps to assist you in managing potential boundary issues. You can find more information about risk management here.

1. The first step is anticipating situations that may put you at risk of crossing a boundary. As a social worker you need to be vigilant to recognize the potential for a conflict of interest in relationships.

2. The second step is to plan how you will address the situation. How many times has a client offered a gift to you? It may be a painting from your 4 year old client or the offer of tickets to a play from your client who is the theatre manager.

3. The third step is to consult others when a situation arises. Generally you will have time to process the issue and when you do seek consultation from colleagues, supervisors, professional literature, NASW ethic standards, your agency policies, and state regulations and laws (See here).  Contact our licensing board, the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker, and Marriage and Family Therapist Board if you prefer to call and seek their input.

*You may find yourself in a situation where you must make the decision without prior consultation, for example, you arrive at a client’s home where they have a meal waiting for you and you are asked to take a seat. This is where you must make a decision and then follow-up with consultation.

4. After consultation, it is critical that you document your concerns, all discussions over the issue, consultation, and supervision. Document all the steps you took to deal with the issue. Remember, if it is not documented there will be no way for you to provide information of how and why you handled a situation in a specific manner. Bill Hegarty from The Ohio Counselor and Social Work Board often states that he is most interested in hearing how you arrived at the decision you made and there are time when this information is more critical than the decision itself. Remember these are dilemmas where one must take into account many factors and where there is not one simple “right way” to handle the situation.

5. This step is putting into action your plan of addressing the conflict and documenting the implementation.

6. Once you develop a strategy, you monitor the plan and stay vigilant for the next conflict to arise.

Boundary crossings – some need to be prevented and some need to be managed. What situations have you encountered and how have you prevented or managed those conflicts?
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