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Social Worker Used Clinical Knowledge For Personal Gain

Health and Disability Commissioner Morag McDowell today released a report finding a social worker in breach of the Code of Health and Disability Services Consumers’ Rights (the Code) for blurring his professional relationship with a man in his care.

The man, aged in his fifties, had a history of depression and anxiety. The registered social worker, who was working as a mental health practitioner, met with the man and undertook an initial clinical assessment.

At this initial meeting, the man’s financial situation was discussed and the social worker suggested that the man, who worked as a tradesperson, undertake cash work for him at his home.

While the social worker subsequently referred the man to an external counsellor, there were continued interactions between them that suggested an ongoing professional relationship.

The relationship deteriorated when the social worker went to the man’s house without prior agreement, to pay him for the work completed. The man raised his concerns that it was inappropriate for the social worker to visit unannounced, and an acrimonious exchange occurred during which the social worker used his clinical knowledge of the man against him.

The Commissioner considered that the social worker blurred his professional relationship with the man by offering him private work, responding poorly when the private relationship deteriorated, and abusing the knowledge he gained in a clinical context for personal gain.

"Maintaining professional boundaries between consumers and providers is an important part of the provision of healthcare services," said Ms McDowell.

"Trust is fundamental to this relationship, and to ensuring that the consumer is assured that the provider is acting with the consumer’s best interests in mind."

Following this incident, the social worker provided evidence of undertaking professional supervision with a psychologist, advised that he had reviewed training material and that he is undertaking further regular supervision with a new supervisor.

The Commissioner encouraged the social worker to include relationship issues, transference and other boundary matters as part of his regular supervision, and recommended that he provide a written apology to the man.

Ms McDowell also recommended that the Social Workers Registration Board consider whether a review of the social worker’s competence is warranted.

The full report on case 19HDC01972 is available on the HDC Website.

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