The four boundaries discussed in Linda Cummins, Katherine Byers and Laura Pedrick’s Policy Practice for Social Workers: New Strategies for a New Era are:
- The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics;
- The NASW Standards for Advocacy and Political Action;
- Laws; and
- Societal Norms and Personal Beliefs.
The first of these four boundaries, the NASW Code of Ethics, is just that: The standards and principles that members of that organization are ethically bound to follow. Originally adopted in 1996, the Code was updated and reaffirmed in 2008 at the NASW’s Delegate Assembly. The Preamble for the Code of Ethics states the following with regard to the NASW’s mission:
“The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.” [http://www.socialworkers.org/pubs/code/code.asp]
The Code lists as the NASW’s guiding principles helping people in need to address their social problems; working for social justice in order to repair the underlying societal impediments to progress for the disadvantaged; respecting the inherent dignity and worth of the individual; affirming the importance of human relationships; and exhibiting competence and professionalism in the performance of their duties. By specifying the Code of Ethics as one of their “boundaries,” the authors emphasize the importance of the social workers’ adherence to such principles and standards, the latter of which includes protecting the confidentiality of the client; committing to the well-being of the client; obtaining the client’s “informed consent” when acting on his or hers behalf; and respecting the will of the client to the extent ethically practical.
The second “boundary,” the NASW Standards for Advocacy and Political Action, refers to that organization’s commitment to advocate on behalf of the social worker’s mission and on behalf of the people social workers strive to help. This advocacy involves lobbying legislatures at all levels of government as well as working within communities to address social problems. For example, following is a link to the statement delivered by Elizabeth Clark, the Executive Director of NASW, before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means, Subcommittee on Human Resources, on June 30, 2011. In her prepared remarks, Clark addressed a number of her organization’s high priority programs, mainly involving child welfare, for which NASW was seeking funding from the federal government. For example, Clark, addressing child welfare programs, and noting the difficulties inherent in this major facet of social work, included in her statement the following:
“It has been widely documented that the child welfare system is over-burdened, understaffed and under-trained and that children are left too long before securing a safe and permanent home. Child welfare positions are particularly demanding and stressful, often involving unreasonable workloads and low pay in comparison to jobs in other sectors that require comparable amounts of education and responsibility. Consequently, it becomes difficult to attract and retain the most qualified employees — those with professional training and experience. We hope to work with Congress to identify solutions to these complex problems . . .”
Clark followed these comments with a list of specific recommendations for improving the existing process, including funding better educational opportunities for overworked social workers. [See http://www.socialworkers.org/advocacy/issues/child%20welfare/ways%20and%20means%20cw.pdf]
The third “boundary” specified in Cummins, et. al., is the series of laws that define missions and specify limits on what social welfare agencies can and cannot do. These legal constraints pertain mostly to juvenile cases, which constitute a large percentage of the average social worker’s caseload. Juveniles, of course, are treated differently than adults in both the criminal justice system and in the social welfare system. Many of the laws specific to child welfare cases are state laws, not federal, so social workers must be knowledgeable regarding the laws of the state in which they operate. Laws do not only circumscribe the authorities of social workers, however. They also impose requirements on social workers, particularly with regard to the reporting of instances of abuse of children, the elderly, and the mentally or physically disabled.
Finally, the textbook discusses “Societal Norms and Personal Beliefs” as a boundary in which social workers are expected to function. This boundary refers to the expectation that social workers will respect the unique cultural, ethnic or religious traditions and customs of specific clients. Clients for whom use of medications, for instance, may be circumscribed by religious doctrine, should be respected, as should clients who hold to belief systems that may impede the social worker’s preferred regime for addressing a certain situation. This boundary also refers to the expectation that social workers will recognize the manner in which society evolves over time and adapt accordingly. Social mores change over time, and social workers need to adopt a certain degree of flexibility in addressing client practices that may run counter to conventional ways of thinking or acting that existed in the past, but for which such practices are “appropriate” for the period in which they now occur.