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Ethical practice for the professional social worker involves the resolution of challenges and difficulties that arise in professional practice. Social workers can be faced with making decisions that contain competing principles where any alternative or choice has an undesirable outcome. The AASW Code of Ethics contains values, ethical principles and responsibilities, and guidelines for decision making, but it does not provide easy formulas or absolute answers. Decision making is a rational process that includes an assessment of risks and benefits to all people involved. Systematic guidelines and decision making models may offer a logical approach to this process, but ultimately decisions are made on the judgments and perspectives of the social worker or the collective professional team. Social workers need the virtues of strength, integrity and moral courage to face such challenges. That moral courage comes from confidence in critical reasoning and ethical decision making, and a good working knowledge of ethical theory can help guide that.


For the purpose of this paper I will focus on one social work client group; women experiencing violence perpetrated by a male partner. Different ethical theories will be identified and discussed, and then applied to issues emerging from this client group to demonstrate their influence in guiding ethical decision making.


Domestic violence against women is a long standing serious issue in Australia. Current statistics reveal that between 80-100 women are killed every year by a male partner and 1 in 3 women report abuse by a male partner in their lifetime (2016). Safety, fear, social perception, abuse, children and financial dependency can all be contributing factors to a woman’s reluctance to leave these violent relationship.2012). This can create an immense challenge for the social worker as they are committed to human rights and social justice, but also embrace the principle of client self-determination. xxxxxxxx (2011), state that social workers are to support, assist, and advocate for those who are affected by domestic and family violence and “seek to empower family members to take control of their lives and move beyond the effects of domestic and family violence” ( ).


When faced with these difficulties, social workers are guided by the theory of ethics, which is based on the work of philosophers over many centuries. (1993) describes two main ethical theories for developing strategies to approach these problems. Deontological, which emphasizes adherence to rules and a ‘sense of duty’, and teleology (consequentialism), which means weighing up the potential harms and benefits of all people involved before making a decision. A common example of these in contrast would be lying. Deontology teaches that a social worker must always tell the truth, regardless of the outcome, and consequentialism would be more focused on the outcome rather than the principle.


The first ethical theory is from the eighteenth-century German philosopher ( ). Kant discussed two types of duties in his teachings: hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives. A hypothetical imperative is a social work duty that is required to accomplish specific goals, it is something that is done to achieve an end. In social work, we may look at the hypothetical duty of

a social worker to achieve success and help women in violent relationships by practicing by the code of ethics. However, in real professional practice that may prove to be challenging when faced with the complexity of domestic violence issues. Social workers need to make decisions about what they think is best for the client, the organisation, the community, other people and themselves, but they also need to respect their clients decision making, even if they disagree with that decision. Dilemmas arise when social workers suspect clients are making decisions based on fear and anxiety.

 A categorical imperative in deontology is an unconditional rule or duty. The duty remains the same regardless of the impact on others and must be done. One example in social work is if enough evidence exists, to report male perpetrators threatening to kill clients or others to the police. Social workers take a paternalistic approach and interfere with self-determination for the good of the client. This is a duty regardless of the outcome or the threat to the therapeutic relationship. Safety is a primary concern when an identifiable risk of death can be prevented and doesn’t necessarily need to be in a policy written by the employing organisation. Respecting a client’s right to self-determination and acting on our sense of duty to protect, a social worker needs to weigh and consider the potential benefits of intervention against the potential risks and danger. But in the face of evidence of this danger, social workers need to take action. Social workers might find it helpful when making such ethical decisions to use the ranking of ethical principles as redrawn below (2000).

This model clearly shows that ‘protection of life’ outranks ‘privacy and confidentially’ to the client.


Kantian ethics principles include ‘respect for persons’ as self-determining beings. This means social workers must respect the client’s decision if a woman does not disclose violence or does not want to leave the relationship. This is an ethical difficulty but it is important to be patient.


000(8) states the client’s agenda must take precedence during these times and that “patience is critical to making well thought out and considerate decisions” (85). This highlights the

importance for the social worker to build self- esteem, educate about what a healthy relationship is and also what is considered domestic abuse and the impact it has. Social workers need to empower women with knowledge and educate about community resources and domestic violence service providers in the local community.


The Kantian principle of ‘respect for persons’ also includes respect for a person’s cultural, spiritual and family values. It is important for a social worker to become engaged in family perspectives on these values and not just impose their own judgements. However, being respectful of cultures does not mean turning a blind eye to oppression and abuse; ethically, safety is always the social worker’s primary objective. So, any values that are used to oppress, hurt and abuse women in the name of culture or religion may influence a social worker to prioritise the client’s safety over their right to self-determination. However, if the client is already aware of the danger that she is in, it may be ethically challenging for the social worker to cease feeling any responsibility or ethical obligations to intervene. Kantian ethics may be contradicting here depending on the individual social worker’s perspective. On the one hand, we need to uphold a women’s right to self-determination, and on the other hand we may feel it is our “duty” to intervene regardless.

 A core ethical principle is preventing harm to clients. As social workers can’t always foresee when safety concerns may cause confidentiality breaches, they should always adhere to ethical practice to minimize any damage to the therapeutic relationship with clients. Social workers should always explain at the beginning of treatment what are the limits of confidentiality and what issues would be serious enough to bring obligation to report, even when not mandated to do so. Always make assessments for domestic violence, encourage discussions about the availability of certain resources and if possible develop a safety plan and a plan to reduce the potential for future violence. Even when reporting has been decided on, social workers need to empower clients by upholding their right to self-determination by encouraging them to report the incident themselves.

Kant suggests that we need to consider the implications of our actions as if they were universal. Breaking client confidentiality without due cause or justification would be an enormous breach of trust and be significantly detrimental to the client/ social worker relationship. Deontological ethics would consider the implications of all social workers breaking the confidentiality of their clients without good reason. The therapeutic relationships would cease to be beneficial, domestic violence victims would not feel safe reaching out, and the prospect of potentially helping women in genuine need would be crushed. To break the cycle of violence, firstly women need to feel safe in disclosure and have trust in the therapeutic relationship. It’s only then, through that relationship that social workers can foster empowerment and self-determination.

 The next major group of theories is teleogical or consequentialist ethical theory. This approach to ethical choices determines decisions based on the goodness of the consequences after weighing and exploring all potential outcomes. The effect on the woman, her children, her security, her financial situation, secure accommodation, the agency and damage to the therapeutic relationship are all important issues to consider along with the emotional impact on the clients well-being.

(2013) explore the multitude of reasons and perceptions shared by women in these vulnerable positions. They state “the decisions to stay and leave are complex and change with social and personal circumstances” (p58). The post traumatic effects of violence and abuse may also create barriers.

 Joshua ( 2014) discusses a hypothetical case to demonstrate the different perspectives that can be held by different social workers on the same issue (p.43). In this case the client has a broken jaw and has a genuine fear of her partner hurting her and her children. She is ready to leave him because she has finally saved enough money, but she has saved that money by committing serious welfare fraud. Our ethical responsibilities as professionals, to the profession, and to society at large are all to be considered. Consequentialist ethics allow different people to weigh different factors differently based on their own values and beliefs. One social worker might place considerable emphasis on the importance of client privacy, whereas another practitioner might place more value on the importance of respect for the law ( p.68). This one example illustrates the complexity social workers are faced with when facing ethical dilemmas and the importance of adhering to professional values.

 To completely explore and apply consequentialist ethics, a decision-making model should be considered and explored. Decision-making models encourage systematic, comprehensive, and analytical thinking about the range of factors to be considered.



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