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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historical Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Regulatory and Professional Organizations
  • Licensure and Regulation
  • Competency and Continuing Education
  • Legal Aspects of Social Work Regulation
  • Legal Cases
  • Malpractice
  • Specialized Practice Fields
  • Research
  • Emerging Issues

Social Work Social Work Regulation
Karen S. Knox, Andrew Marks
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0196


Social work regulation refers to the laws, rules, and regulations that uphold the profession’s ethical and practice standards and mandate credentialing of social work professionals. Social work regulation specifies the required qualifications for social worker credentialing and the scope of practice and services that can legally be provided. Social work regulation in the United States is relatively new as concerted efforts were initiated in 1969, when the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) passed a resolution to pursue licensing in each state. By 1993, all of the states and the District of Columbia had implemented some form of regulation. Internationally, many European countries, Canada, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand mandate some form of social work regulation, but development is still in process for many countries. Social work regulatory processes are mandated through governmental boards and statutes from the jurisdiction’s legislative body. Another type of social worker credentialing is through voluntary membership in professional associations that establish practice standards and codes of ethics. Protection of the public is the primary focus for both types of credentialing. Governmental regulation protects recipients of social work services through an enforcement process and sanctions for unprofessional behavior with regard to social work values, ethics, and standards of practice. Typical sanctions may include revocation of the regulatory title, additional training and supervision, and treatment for impairments, such as mental illness or substance abuse. Voluntary membership organizations also have consequences for members who violate their standards or policies, usually withdrawal of credentials and dismissal from the organization. There are three types of regulation: licensing, certification, and registration. These titles are used interchangeably by regulatory authorities, and therefore, can be one and the same depending on the jurisdiction. Protection of the title of “social worker” is another purpose of regulation, to ensure that only professionals who satisfy the conditions of social work licensure can, by law or statute, call themselves social workers. These conditions usually require having a social work degree from a higher education accredited social work program and passing a licensing exam at the appropriate level of education and experience. The national licensing exams are administered in the United States and Canada under the authority of the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). Social worker regulation also requires continuing education or training to ensure professional competency, but jurisdictions vary greatly on their regulation requirements and titles, which can be confusing to both professionals and consumers.

General Overviews

Knowledge of social work ethics, values, and practice standards is essential to understanding social work regulation, since these form the basis of the codes of conduct and codes of ethics for governmental regulatory bodies and voluntary associations. Reamer 2006a is a classic, a comprehensive overview of social work values and ethics, authored by one of the most prolific authors on social work ethics. Reamer 2006b also offers a general overview of the National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics, which proscribes ethical standards for social work professionals. Readers can cross-reference Frederic G. Reamer’s article on “Ethics and Values in Social Work” in Oxford Bibliographies online for additional resources and references. Dolgoff, et al. 2012 provides a solid foundation for students and practitioners on social work ethics and values, plus a decision-making model for dealing appropriately with ethical dilemmas. Bibus and Boutté-Queen 2013 presents the most up-to-date coverage of the current state of social worker regulation in the United States, while Groshong 2009 focuses on clinical practice standards and regulation. Barsky 2012 gives the reader a comprehensive overview of the legal systems, issues, and proceedings that social workers need to be knowledgeable about for risk management, since many complaints to regulatory boards involve legal and criminal violations. Pollack and Kleinman 2003 explains and examines legal cases and court rulings that influence social welfare policy and practice. Schroeder 1995 focuses on the impacts of legal systems and legislation on social work service delivery.

  • Barsky, Allen. 2012. Clinicians in court: A guide to subpoenas, depositions, testifying and everything else you need to know. 2d ed. New York: Guilford.

    The author provides a general overview of forensic social work with specific explanations on preparing for legal proceedings, court testimony, and understanding evidentiary issues. Discussion and guidelines for professional preparation for involvement in legal proceedings is helpful for social workers in a variety of settings.

  • Bibus, Anthony, and Needha Boutté-Queen. 2013. Regulating social work: A primer on licensing practice. Chicago: Lyceum.

    The purpose and process of social work regulation and licensure are presented, with discussion of the current benefits, controversies, and suggestions for improvements. Information on the development of global social work regulation is included. A literature review and other resources provide valuable information for social work students and practitioners.

  • Dolgoff, Ralph, Donna Harrington, and Frank Lowenberg. 2012. Ethical decisions for social work practice. 9th ed. Brooks/Cole Empowerment Series. Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.

    A standard resource for social workers that provides an overview of professional values and ethics; the guidelines for ethical decision making are widely used. Special topics and case applications on client rights, informed consent, and confidentiality are included.

  • Groshong, Laura. 2009. Clinical social work practice and regulation. Lanham, MD: Univ. Press of America.

    A general discussion about clinical practice in social work is provided, along with content on the various ways that clinical practice is regulated. The author contributes to the argument for standardizing clinical licensing nationally and presents a set of practice standards for clinical social work.

  • Pollack, Daniel, and Toby Kleinman. 2003. Social work and the courts: A casebook. London: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203426753

    The authors present legal cases, court rulings, and case studies that are relevant to social work practice. The legal summaries clearly explain and examine how the legal system impacts social workers and social welfare policy. A 3rd edition will be available in 2016.

  • Reamer, Frederic. 2006a. Social work values and ethics. 3d ed. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    A comprehensive overview of critical issues, ethical dilemmas, professional misconduct, and malpractice that includes content on the historical development of ethical standards and case applications using the NASW Code of Ethics.

  • Reamer, Frederic. 2006b. Ethical standards in social work: A review of the NASW Code of Ethics. 2d ed. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    This edition offers an in-depth analysis of the ethical and practice standards and code of ethics of the NASW. An overview of relevant literature on ethical conflicts and violations, as well as discussion of challenging ethical cases, is included.

  • Schroeder, Leila. 1995. The legal environment of social work. Washington, DC: NASW.

    The focus on how legal systems impact social work agencies and professionals is useful to both administrators and practitioners. This book covers legislation, laws, and legal cases that pertain to the delivery of social work services.

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