Law, ethics and confidentiality ESSAY

Law, ethics and confidentiality

Introduction to social work

Legal Standards

Legal standards relevant to social work take various forms, including the following:

Statutory law: Many federal laws enacted by Congress and state laws enacted by legislatures affect social workers. Examples include statutes governing social workers’ obligation to report suspected abuse and neglect of children, elders, and other vulnerable people; statutes governing minors’ right to consent to mental health counseling and drug and alcohol abuse treatment; and the federal HIPAA laws.

Case law: Many laws relevant to social work are created by the courts in the context of litigation and judicial rulings. For example, a judge may need to interpret the meaning or application of existing law, resolve conflicts between laws, or fill gaps in existing laws. Such rulings by the court become legal precedent or case law. For example, current guidelines concerning social workers’ duty to disclose confidential information without client consent to protect third parties were initially established in the 1970s by a major California court case.

Regulatory law: Social work practice is also governed by many regulations promulgated by federal and state government agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and state human service, child welfare, and mental health agencies. Under our system of law, federal and state agencies have the authority to establish enforceable regulations. Public agencies must follow strict procedures when they create regulations (e.g., providing public notice and opportunity for public comment about drafts of regulations).

Legal standards

Constitutional law: The U.S. Constitution and state constitutions include numerous provisions that pertain to social work practice. Examples concern citizens’ right to privacy and protections against improper search and seizure (which are important in residential treatment programs) and protections against cruel and unusual punishment (which are important in juvenile and adult correctional facilities).

Executive orders: Chief executives in federal, state, and local governments (e.g., a president, governor, mayor, or county executive) may issue orders that resemble regulations. This authority is usually based in federal and state statute. Examples include a governor’s executive order requiring state-funded agencies to withhold health and human services from undocumented immigrants.

Professional ethics

According to the National Association of Social Workers, professional ethics are at the core of social work. The profession has an obligation to articulate its basic values, ethical principles, and ethical standards. 

Ethical Principles: Service, Social Justice, Integrity, Competence

Ethical Standards: Informed Consent, Self-Determination, Conflicts of Interest

You can review others here:


 Social workers may disclose confidential information when appropriate with valid consent from a client or a person legally authorized to consent on behalf of a client.

Social workers should protect the confidentiality of all information obtained in the course of professional service. 

Limits of Confidentiality:

If a client is a danger to themselves

If a client is a danger to others

Child abuse

Children witnessing domestic violence

Elder abuse

Dependent adult abuse

Not all states have the same limits to confidentiality

Unit 2 Lesson 4: assignment vignettes

Elder Abuse:

Josephine is a 60-year-old, female who has been admitted to the hospital after a fall at home. You

receive a referral to meet with this patient for an assessment. You are advised that she does not

have any social supports and has requested community resources for financial support.

Unit 2 Lesson 4: assignment vignettes

Child Abuse:

Thomas is a 6 year-old, boy that has been referred to you by the school counselor. You are advised that within the past couple weeks, Thomas has become more withdrawn in class and doesn’t play with the other kids anymore at recess. When the teacher has asked Thomas about this, he begins to cry and says his “mom told him not to tell.” You also observe a couple of bruises on Thomas’ arm.


National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics. (2017).

Reamer, F. (2008). When ethics and the law collide. Social Work Today. 8(5).