Ethical dilemmas confronting social workers

The following are examples of ethical dilemmas confronting social workers. Answers are difficult because there are no perfect solutions. What would you do if you were a social worker in each of the following situations?


Complete and submit a half- to one-page response for each scenario.

Scenario A

Evita was a hospital social worker called in to talk with parents who had just brought their 6-week-old infant Eric, the youngest of their three children, to the emergency room. Eric, whose skin had turned blue and who was not breathing, was placed on a respirator in intensive care for 3 days. After that time, the medical staff determined that he was brain-dead, and the parents Bill and Brenda, sorrowfully gave their permission to “pull the plug.”

Evita had the opportunity to speak with Bill and Brenda as they waited steadfastly by Eric’s bedside hoping that he would revive. She discovered that Bill had been babysitting Eric while Brenda ran some errands. Eric had been sleeping on the bed when Bill lay down to take a nap next to him. Apparently Bill had fallen asleep and rolled over on Eric, accidentally smothering him. Evita thought it was odd that Bill had not awakened when Eric, an active baby who was large for his age, must have been struggling desperately for breath. Bill admitted that he had a couple of beers prior to his nap, but he insisted that he was not drunk.

Tests revealed that Eric displayed no sign of injuries or other suspicious symptoms. The physician in charge of Eric was unaware of the story’s details. Therefore, she determined that Eric must have died of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), which she planned to cite as the cause of death. SIDS is “death from cessation of breathing in a seemingly healthy infant, almost always during sleep” (Nichols, 1999, p. 1305).

Evita knew Eric’s death was not due to SIDS. Yet informing the overseeing physicians about what really happened would probably do little good. Bill and Brenda were filled with sorrow and blamed themselves for the tragedy.

Critical Thinking Questions

· What good would it do to raise suspicions about the cause of death and parental competence?

· If you were Evita, what would you do?

Scenario B

Harry is a county Department of Social Services worker whose clients consist primarily of poor, female-headed families receiving public assistance. During one of his meetings with Dora, a single mother of three small children, she happily reveals that she is babysitting for several neighborhood children. She is thrilled to earn the extra income and is proud to share her news with Harry. Regulations state that people receiving public assistance must report any additional income, with benefits then decreased proportionately. But reporting her income would probably undermine Dora’s trust and destroy Harry’s relationship with her. And Dora would probably stop babysitting because it would no longer get her ahead. She is barely making ends meet as it is with her meager public assistance payment. Dora already is participating in a compulsory job-training program, preparing her for full-time employment.

Critical Thinking Questions

· What good would it do to report this income despite the fact that regulations require such reporting?

· Dora likely will get a full-time job soon, at which time the public assistance payment will no longer be an issue. What should Harry do?

Scenario C

Ping is a social worker at a mental health center that provides individual and group counseling for a wide range of problems and issues. One of Ping’s clients is Cheyenne, age 14, who is depressed and potentially suicidal. During one of their individual counseling sessions, Cheyenne tells Ping that she is sexually active. She states that if she gets pregnant with her current boyfriend, she will surely kill herself. Cheyenne asks Ping to help her get some form of contraception, possibly from Planned Parenthood. Cheyenne indicates that her boyfriend refuses to use condoms because he says he doesn’t like to feel restricted. Ping knows Cheyenne’s parents are very religious and are fervently against premarital sex. They would never consent to Cheyenne using contraception and would vehemently oppose Ping’s interference in this matter.

Critical Thinking Questions

· How do you think being sexually active, potentially getting pregnant, and trying to please her boyfriend affects Cheyenne’s life and well-being?

· What should Ping do?


Adapted from Kirst-Ashman, K. (2009). Ethical dilemma. Introduction to social work and social welfare: Critical thinking perspectives. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole, Cengage.