Ethical Dilemmas

When I was very young and starting my social work career as a probation officer, I was surprised to find myself facing ethical dilemmas.

For example, my probationers often had the television on while I visited and frequently at top volume, especially if they didn’t like me. What to do? I would start talking in long sentences but say certain words above the volume of the television. These words included “curfew,” “good behavior,” and “early release.” Whereupon the probationer would leap to his feet, turn off the television, and take the chair next to me, listening with rapt attention. I would then explain in a normal tone of voice that the curfew would remain the same until the behavior improved and then we might consider early release from probation.

A more awkward situation occurred when I left the bar with my friends at 1:00 a.m. and encountered a probationer on the street, out after her curfew. What to say? The probationer broke the silence by asking, “You have friends?” That focused my attention on the immediate need and I responded, “You know that you’re out after curfew. Get home right now and be in my office at 9:00 in the morning—ummm, make that 10:00.”

We’ve all done stupid things. Looking back I realize inexperience contributed to many of mine. I was only five years older than many of the probationers I was trying to help and I had a lot of maturing to do. Amazingly, five years later I encountered far fewer ethical dilemmas.

Here’s something that young IFPS therapists today will have a hard time believing: I started out with no mobile phone, laptop, computer…not even a beeper! I did have a tablet (white paper with lines) on which to keep notes. The advantage I had was that my mistakes were viewed by and mainly of interest only to those who were present at the time. Now, everyone is only a click away from fame or infamy. I know, it’s not fair!

There are many resources available to guide us through ethical dilemmas, and I’ll provide a link to one of them at the end of this post. I understand now that one of the reasons why supervisors and administrators are so important is they can offer advice about how to handle ethical dilemmas. What seems confusing and complicated gets much easier to unravel when two people are looking at the situation.

The following are some things I’ve learned over the years that may be of help:

  1. Never violate your conscience. You only have one and you need to be able to rely on it. Violating it continually will render it useless when you need it most.
  2. Never do anything that you (or your mom!) wouldn’t mind reading about on the front page of the newspaper. I learned this handy rule early on during 18 years of legislative work. Unfortunately, some of the legislators learned it the hard way.
  3. If you like second chances, offer them to others. I have many opportunities to recall my own wrong behavior when I observe what others are doing. People forgave me and willingly offered me another chance to get it right. I can make a choice to do the same for others.
  4. Seek friends, mentors, supervisors, and administrators with the highest standards. These people will help you grow in the right direction and you’ll become a better person than you ever thought possible.
  5. Suffer fools gladly. You’re sometimes one too! Say, “I’m sorry,” overlook offenses, reduce defensiveness, and be ever on the lookout for ways to make other people happy.

The North Carolina Family Based Services Association has graciously shared their Ethical and Safety Guidelines which can be viewed here:

Posted by Priscilla Martens, NFPN Executive Director