I have recently been asked to present information before the Minnesota Nursing Home Social Workers Association. This post will outline what a social worker can expect when facing a complaint, and what immediate steps should be taken. I’ll “pull back the curtain” on what is happening when a complaint is received, some common areas where social workers get into trouble, and what you should do if a complaint is filed against you.
- What is the Purpose of the Board of Social Work (BOSW)?
- What are some Common Risk Areas where Social Workers Should be Wary?
- Why do Social Workers Generally Get into Trouble?
- What is the Complaint Process and What should a Social Worker do When Facing a Complaint?
The Board of Social work exists to:
“…protect the public by ensuring that all persons licensed as social workers meet minimum standards of practice. The board shall promptly and fairly investigate and resolve all complaints alleging violations of statutes and rules that the board is empowered to enforce and (1) take appropriate disciplinary action, adversarial action, or other action justified by the facts, or (2) enter into corrective action agreements or stipulations to cease practice, when doing so is consistent with the board’s obligation to protect the public.” Minn. Stat. 148E.185 (2017).
The Board exists to ensure that social workers meet minimum standards of practice, to investigate complaints, to take disciplinary action when warranted, and to enter into corrective agreements if a social worker is found to have violated their professional obligations.
When a complaint is received the Board will issue a letter of inquiry, which is simply a request for more information. If there are additional questions, the Board will issue a Notice of Conference. At times, the board will automatically suspend a license while a complaint is pending.
The Board has received more than 3000 complaints over the past 25 years but has only taken action against 322 social workers. What this means is that most cases are resolved without action against the social worker. Most cases (74%) are also resolved within 3 months. However, this depends a great deal upon how you handle your matter in the early stages when a complaint is filed.
What are some risk areas for social workers? The chart below outlines the various types of violations over a five-year span from 2009 to 2014:
Complaints Received by Type
Failure to Make Mandated Report
Failure to Pay License Fee
Violation of Licensing Requirement
Sexual Conduct or Harassment
Unlicensed Practice Misrepresentation
Violation of Board Order
Some common areas lead most often to Complaints being filed. These include:
Attitude Toward Clients
- Interacting in a patronizing or condescending manner
- Making critical or judgmental comments
Failure to Listen
- Failing to Listen – interrogating, interrupting, acting informally
- Failing to consider cultural meaning and background
Moving too Quickly
- Confronting/challenging/speculating or pushing action before adequately assessing the individual
- Trying to find solutions too early in the process to meet timelines
Overfamiliarity – Boundaries
- Displaying inordinate emotions
- Oversharing personal information
Other Common Risk Areas:
- Confidentiality and Privacy
- Informed Consent
- Non-traditional Services
- Termination of Services
In general, there are three broad reasons why social workers receive complaints:
- Willful Failure to follow ethical and legal guidelines, knowingly acting in unprofessional and unethical ways.Wo
- Honest mistake with respect to ethical and legal guidelines
- Illness– Mental Illness AND/OR Substance-Abuse
So, what should you do if you receive an Inquiry or a Complaint?
You have received an INQUIRY
This is a Notice that the Board is looking into Allegations.
Continue to perform your job to the best of your abilities. However, do not ignore the inquiry – many social workers do not want think about this and hope that it will go away if they ignore it. That will not work.
At this point you should contact an Attorney – REMEMBER – your license may be at stake
Give your attorney EVERYTHING that you have relating to your employment.
- Disciplinary records
- Other Communications
The #1 mistake that social workers make is LYING to or MISLEADING their advocate in the initial stages of the process.
They cannot address issues if they do not know what the issues are.
If you have substance abuse problems own up to them.
If you have made mistakes admit them now.
You have been notified of an Investigation by the Board
- You will be asked to attend an initial interview with a Board investigator.
- The Board will request waivers and other materials to help gather information.
- Again, you should have an attorney by this point, and he or she will help you determine what if any information you need to provide, and will help you get in front of any negative information that may come out before the Board.
You have received a Notice of Conference
- If the Board of Social Work determines they need more information, a Conference will be set.
- The Notice will contain the allegations against you, and enable you to formulate your response and defense.
- 14 days prior to the Conference, you will submit a response to the allegations.
At the Conference:
- You will appear before the Board to discuss the allegations and Responses.
- This typically takes an hour and is somewhat informal.
- The Board is trying to determine what has happened – openness and honesty are the best policies.
After the Conference:
- The Board may investigate further.
- The Board will then issue a decision:
- Dismissing the Complaint
- Suspending or Revoking the social worker’s license
- Proposing a Stipulation outlining corrective action
- You can review the stipulation and propose changes to the language
- Board decisions are appealable to the Minnesota Court of Appeals
- If the Board sends a proposed Stipulation:
- Read it carefully – THIS DOCUMENT WILL BE PUBLIC
- Follow ALL STEPS in the Stipulation – failure to do so will result in further action by the Board
- The BOSW is there to ensure client safety and minimum standards of practice – NOT to punish or harass social workers.
- Many Complaints can be avoided BEFORE they end up before the BOSW if you are aware of common pitfalls.
- If you do receive Notice of a complaint, do not panic – in most cases, there is a reasonable explanation.
- BE OPEN AND HONEST with the BOSW – Nothing you may have done will be worse than if you are caught being untruthful.