In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Risk Management in Social Work

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Negligence Theory: Tort Law and Standards of Care
  • Licensing and Regulatory Standards
  • Client Rights
  • Informed Consent
  • Confidentiality and Privileged Communication
  • Conflicts of Interest, Boundary Issues, and Dual Relationships
  • High-Risk Interventions
  • Use of Technology
  • Consultation and Referral
  • Supervision
  • Documentation
  • Termination of Services
  • Practitioner Misconduct and Impairment
  • Licensing Board Complaints, Ethics Complaints, and Litigation

Social Work Risk Management in Social Work
Frederic G. Reamer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 August 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0019


Social workers face several possible risks when they provide services to individuals, couples, families, small groups, communities, and organizations. Risk that is managed skillfully and professionally protects clients, third parties, social workers, and social workers’ employers. Risk that is managed poorly can harm clients and others. Parties that believe they have been harmed by social workers may file lawsuits and formal complaints with state licensing boards and professional associations. Some risks arise when social workers do not adhere to prevailing ethical standards in the profession and pertinent laws and regulations. Others arise when social workers fail to obtain or use proper education and training or when they are impaired. Key risks involve client rights, informed consent, confidentiality and privileged communication, conflicts of interest, boundary issues and dual relationships, high-risk interventions, use of technology, consultation, supervision, documentation, and termination of services.

General Overviews

Social workers can consult several useful publications and resources to help them grasp key concepts related to risk management, professional negligence, standards of care, and licensing and regulatory standards. Bucky, et al. 2009; Kavaler and Alexander 2014; Nakamura and Carroll 2011a; Nakamura and Carroll 2011b; and Nakamura and Carroll 2011c provide useful, comprehensive overviews of the concept of risk management in settings that provide health and mental health services. Hart 2014 focuses specifically on clinical challenges involving high-risk clients who pose a threat to themselves or others. Reamer 2001 examines risk management issues in social work. Reamer 2015 provides a comprehensive overview of risk management issues in social work and practical strategies to protect clients and prevent malpractice claims, liability, and disciplinary proceedings. Rome 2013; Saltzman, et al. 2016; and Slater and Finck 2012 provide broad overviews of the relevance of law in social work practice.

  • Bucky, Steven, Joanne Callan, and George Stricker, eds. 2009. Ethical and legal issues for mental health professionals in forensic settings. New York: Routledge.

    This anthology provides a valuable overview of ethical and legal issues that arise in child custody cases, preparation of forensic reports, and civil lawsuits. Clinicians and attorneys offer practical advice for clinicians who serve as expert witnesses and who testify in depositions and courtrooms. The book includes a summary of common malpractice claims and regulatory board actions.

  • Hart, Chris. 2014. A pocket guide to risk assessment and management in mental health. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/97802037955

    A useful overview of risk-management issues and challenges involved in the assessment of high-risk clients. Focuses on issues related to suicide, self-harm, and dangerousness. Provides a practical discussion of clinical skills practitioners can use to prevent risk.

  • Kavaler, Florence, and Raymond Alexander, eds. 2014. Risk management in health care institutions: A strategic approach. 3d ed. Burlington, MA: Jones and Bartlett.

    A valuable introduction to the concept of risk management and the topics of quality assurance, risk-management strategies and protocols, professional standards, regulations, ethics, and malpractice. This comprehensive text explores risk-management issues in various settings, such as psychiatric hospitals, medical hospitals, nursing homes, home care programs, and managed care organizations.

  • Nakamura, Peggy, and Roberta Carroll, eds. 2011a. Risk management handbook for health care organizations. Vol. 1, The essentials. 6th ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    The first volume of a three-volume set provides a comprehensive introduction to the concept of risk management, legal concepts, development of a risk management program, ethical issues, documentation, and information technology.

  • Nakamura, Peggy, and Roberta Carroll, eds. 2011b. Risk management handbook for health care organizations. Vol. 2, Clinical risk. 6th ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    The second volume of a three-volume set provides a comprehensive introduction to client safety, crisis management, research issues, behavioral health, critical care, home care, and long-term care.

  • Nakamura, Peggy, and Roberta Carroll, eds. 2011c. Risk management handbook for health care organizations. Vol. 3, Business risk: Legal, regulatory & technology issues. 6th ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    The third volume of a three-volume set provides a comprehensive introduction to risk mapping, managed care, employment practices liability, advertising liability, claims and litigation management, information technology, statutes and regulations, standards, and privacy.

  • Reamer, Frederic G. 2001. The social work ethics audit: A risk management tool. Washington, DC: National Association of Social Workers.

    Provides step-by-step instructions for social workers who want to conduct a comprehensive ethics audit. Reamer summarizes the nature and purposes of an ethics audit and provides a comprehensive outline of issues to examine in an audit.

  • Reamer, Frederic G. 2015. Risk management in social work: Preventing professional malpractice, liability, and disciplinary action. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    Provides in-depth discussion of risk areas in social work that can lead to ethics complaints and malpractice claims. The author highlights impairment issues and provides an overview of pertinent ethical and legal concepts, summarizes common risks, and reviews relevant ethical standards in social work.

  • Rome, Sunny. 2013. Social work and law: Judicial policy and forensic practice. Boston: Pearson.

    This book provides an overview of the ways in which social work and the law intersect. Rome discusses basic legal concepts that are relevant to social work. The author distinguishes among pertinent statutory, case, and regulatory laws.

  • Saltzman, Andrea, David Furman, and Kathleen Ohman. 2016. Law in social work practice. 3d ed. Boston: Cengage.

    This text includes discussions focused on key risk-management issues in social work. Topics include social work regulation, licensing board complaints, exceptions to client confidentiality, boundary issues, documentation, termination of services, impaired practice, malpractice and liability, criminal liability, and liability insurance.

  • Slater, Lyn, and Kara Finck. 2012. Social work practice and the law. New York: Springer.

    The authors provide a thorough review of the ways in which social workers can address clients’ needs in diverse legal contexts. The authors’ discussion of the role of social work in civil proceedings is especially helpful to practitioners concerned about risk management.

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