What do the professional bodies say about gaining assessment information from social media?

In a recent post on Facebook we reported on some recent research published in England about social workers in children’s services viewing service users’ Facebook pages to gain access to information.

It seems timely to examine the Social Workers Registration Board Code of Conduct for social workers in Aotearoa New Zealand. This Code also applies to social workers who are not registered, as Section 105(1)(b) of the Act states that it not only applies to Registered Social Workers but also ‘should apply generally in the social work profession.’ Some individual employers require employees to comply with relevant professional codes of ethics or practice and if so, this Code applies.

There’s not one definitive edict that says social workers must not search for service users on social media, rather there are several related principles that seem to have relevance. The US guidance discussed further on in this post offers greater clarity.

Friend requests : “Never make a ‘friend request’ to a client to become friends on a personal, non-work- related social-media site. It is strongly advised that you politely decline any requests from clients and former clients if they wish to be ‘friends’ on a personal, non-work- related site. Consider changing privacy settings so as it is not possible for clients to request this.” (p.29).

Positive exceptions: “where social workers who have set up a work-related site to enable, for example, younger clients to connect and communicate with each other and/or their social worker and have a professional profile, the considerations may be very different. Guidance from a supervisor may be required”. (p.29)

Privacy Act 1993: The Privacy Act applies to all of us and should be considered paramount in making decisions about using social media to find out information about clients

 “Remember that you are bound by the principles in the Privacy Act 1993. These include that information collected should be connected to a function or activity of the agency and it is necessary to collect that information for that purpose.”

Online searches: “information must not be collected by means that are unfair or intrude unreasonably (Privacy Act principle 18.) “If you’re doing an online search of a client without their consent, you may be breaching the Privacy Act and perhaps other ethical responsibilities. It could undermine the professional relationship, which is based on trust and confidence, as you hold the burden of the ‘secret’.

“If you find yourself interested in investigating the online activities of your clients, question your reasons for this and if necessary, discuss the issue in professional supervision. (p. 29)

Emergencies:“Sometimes searching for information about clients online is professionally justifiable, such as in emergency or crisis situations. The actions taken and the reasons for it should be fully recorded” .(p.30).

BASW Social media policy

The British Association of Social Workers offers this cautious statement:   “Social workers have a responsibility to consider the use of social media as part of safeguarding investigations but need to be mindful of the ethical implications. It is important to work with those professionals who are best placed to undertake the task of scrutinising social media and to ensure it is in the service user’s best interest”.

This caution is probably because of the uncertain legality in the UK context which is discussed in our article.

USA social media policy 

By way of contrast the professional bodies in the  United States offer this guidance in the very comprehensive National Association of Social Workers Association of Social Work Boards, Council On Social Work Education, Clinical Social Work Association Standards for Technology (2017) which is very clear . Standard 3.09: Using Search Engines to Locate Information about Clients (p.38) states:

“Except for compelling professional reasons, social workers shall not gather information about clients from online sources without the client’s consent; if they do so, they shall take reasonable steps to verify the accuracy of the found information”.

In the interpretation of this section  (pp.39-40) the key points are worth adding here as these recommendations seem useful for social workers everywhere to consider, regardless of their own local codes, as they are grounded in professional ethics.

  • Consent: Before social workers gather information from the Internet, they should obtain the client’s informed consent. Intentionally gathering information about a client through electronic means without consent should only be done if there is an emergency situation or specific reason that the information cannot or should not be obtained from the client directly or from third parties designated by the client.
  • Privacy: Social workers should respect the privacy of client information posted on online social networks or other electronic media and not communicate with clients through these formats or gather information about clients through consent.
  • Unintended viewing: If a social worker unintentionally comes across information about a client through electronic forms of communication, the social worker should avoid reading or gathering further information from this source once the identity of the client becomes evident. If information about a client is unintentionally accessed through electronic means (for instance on a social networking site belonging to another person), the social worker should make this known to the client and discuss the implications of the social worker having this knowledge.
  • Exceptions to seeking client consent to gather information online may arise in emergency situations, for instance, when the client poses a serious, imminent risk to self or others, and the only way to identify where the client is would be to search for information online. Even in such cases, social workers should consider whether it is appropriate for them to search for client information online, or whether it would be more appropriate for police, emergency response teams, or other protective services professionals to do so.
  • Documentation: Social workers who search online for information about clients for compelling professional reasons should include proper documentation in the client’s record.
  • Verification: It is important to verify online information gathered about a client. This may be done by contacting the original source of the information, checking the accuracy of the information with the client, or checking the accuracy of the information with other appropriate sources

There’s plenty of information here for social workers to think about. But from an Aotearoa New Zealand perspective, it seems like more coherent  and comprehensive guidance is needed. We would  be pleased to see comments from social workers in Aotearoa and other countries about using Facebook for assessment and checking.


BASW Social media policy. Accessed at:  https://www.basw.co.uk/system/files/resources/Social%20Media%20Policy.pdf

Cooner, T. S., & Beddoe, L. (2018). Facebook: An unethical practice or effective tool in child protection? Retrieved from https://youtu.be/gfNPJawHZK4

Cooner, T. S., Beddoe, L., Ferguson, H., & Joy, E. (2019). The use of Facebook in social work practice with children and families: exploring complexity in an emerging practice. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 1-22. doi:10.1080/15228835.2019.1680335 read here 

National Association of Social Workers Association of Social Work Boards, Council On Social Work Education, Clinical Social Work Association (2017). Standards for Technology. Washington DC: Authors. Accessed https://www.socialworkers.org/includes/newIncludes/homepage/PRA-BRO-33617.TechStandards_FINAL_POSTING.pdf

Social Workers Registration Board ( 2016). Code of Conduct. Wellington, NZ : Author. Accessed at https://swrb.govt.nz/for-the-public/code-of-conduct/

Photo credit Inaki del Olmo Unsplash

Child Protection – checks, balances and contested imperatives

This one is for the lawyers. Child protection and the appropriate legal framework to facilitate ‘best practice’ is a subject which has been vigorously contested across Anglophone societies over the last forty years. These debates reflect differing disciplinary perspectives and differing ideological influences such as the tension between the discourse of individual children’s rights on the one hand and claims to collective cultural autonomy for whānau Māori on the other. Much of this friction is generated by, and reflected in, the economic and political changes that have developed since the 1970s, when the so-called ‘Welfare State consensus’ started to unravel. Parton (2014) argues that changes to child protection practice over time are best understood as responses to changing (and contested) constructions of the preferred relationship between the state, the family and children; and more specifically the children of the poor.

Continue reading Child Protection – checks, balances and contested imperatives

Viewing Facebook in social work: An (un)ethical practice?

In 2018 we published a guest blog by Eileen Joy about the growing use of viewing Facebook to gain information about individuals and families.  We were interested to start some discussion about the ethical issues in social media use in social work.  Our review of literature and codes of ethics/ conduct didn’t provide us with much help. Eileen commented :

most codes of conduct and discussion of the use of social media by social workers seems to be more concerned with how social workers might protect themselves against clients, not how clients might protect themselves from social workers.

Continue reading Viewing Facebook in social work: An (un)ethical practice?

The spotlight is on us- an apology is due

Lesley Max’s book ‘Children: An endangered species’ in 1990 opened the eyes of many in Aotearoa NZ to the horror of child abuse. And in a recent story on Newsroom Max expressed her feelings about how little has changed. In this post I’m not saying that we can’t do so much better because we have to!  Social workers must apologise when we do wrong and take responsibility for poor practice in our name and work to fix the systems that hamper good work. We have to stand up for a human rights-based social work against the orders of risk averse managers. As a social work educator and researcher I want our students and graduates to go into systems that support the best practice.  We can’t let overwork and scarce resources become an excuse for not treating whānau with respect and kindness. We have to fight for much better support for families. We have to ensure that practice is principled, honest and can stand the spotlight. It is time for child protection in Aotearoa to be more transparent, see for example the UK based Transparency Project.

Continue reading The spotlight is on us- an apology is due

Disguised compliance revisited

In a recent new blogpost Jadwiga Leigh asks, do we still have issues with this term two years on from her first blog on RSW (Leigh, 2017).

In 2017, Paul Hart, a family law barrister, wrote an article for the Family Law website entitled ‘Disguised compliance or undisguised nonsense?’ It was an article which led to a huge debate on Twitter which Jadwiga Leigh captured by turning into a storify [sadly unavailable now due to the closure of storify] . It took two years (!) but we have finally managed to turn that storify into an article  (Leigh, Beddoe, & Keddell, 2019) which has just been published with Families, Relationships and Societies. For those who want the shortened version of the article, here is the blog that accompanies it:

When Hart published his online piece, it was clear he was troubled by two things. First, although the term disguised compliance was being applied to the concept of parental resistance, it was ineffectively describing that which was being implied. Therefore, although the term was being used by social workers to express concerns about non-compliance or resistance, when broken down into two distinct separate words, ‘disguised’ ‘compliance’, it actually meant ‘concealed’ ‘agreement’. Hart realized that it was highly unlikely that parents would hide their agreement with a social care plan but much more likely that parents would try and hide their disagreement with a plan. Therefore, disguised compliance is a term that more effectively describes parental agreement rather than disagreement or resistance…….

In child protection work, expectations of compliance almost always emerge in the context of a contract-like agreement between the professional and service user that establishes roles and responsibilities. However, without collaboration from parents, lack of parental investment is a likely outcome. The parent then becomes the problem rather than the professional…. or the forensic, risk-laden context in which the professional is situated in. And, sadly, these kind of cultural contexts are primed to interpret the behaviour of parents who do not keep appointments but do tidy the house as exhibiting ‘disguised compliance’.

To read more visit the blog here


Leigh, J., Beddoe , L., & Keddell, E. (2019). Disguised compliance or undisguised nonsense? A critical discourse analysis of compliance and resistance in social work practice. Families, Relationships and Societies. Online first. Free until 30 June.

Leigh, J. Beddoe, L., & Keddell, E. (May 30 2019). Disguised compliance or undisguised nonsense? Two years on from the original Twitter debate, are there still issues with disguised compliance? [Blog post] Retrieved from https://www.newbeginningsgm.com/single-post/2019/05/30/Disguised-compliance-or-undisguised-nonsense-Do-we-still-have-issues-two-years-on-from-the-original-Twitter-debate

Leigh, J. (30 April, 2017) ‘Disguised compliance’ – innocent shorthand term or jargon hiding a powerful discourse? [Blog post]. Retrieved from  http://www.reimaginingsocialwork.nz/2017/04/disguised-compliance-innocent-shorthand-term-or-jargon-hiding-a-powerful-discourse/

Child Protection Visions – Sticks, Carrots and Care

Looking at the budget announcement of a new specialist support service delivered from 5 Oranga Tamariki sites “employing family/whanau support workers to support children and young people who are at risk of harm to be safe in their home”, I am pleased to see that at least some form of initiative has come to pass, albeit 3.5 years out from the Expert Panel recommendation for an intensive intervention programme. Having said that, this response remains seriously underwhelming. It reflects the inability of Oranga Tamariki and the current Government to get its priorities right in relation to child protection social work. In this post I will consider some of the challenges in moving child protection practice from a statutory care focus to a social work support focus. I will also explore some of the tensions arising from the conflicted legislative mandate within which this particular specialist support service will operate.

Continue reading Child Protection Visions – Sticks, Carrots and Care

Working to dismantle racism in social work

On Friday, I along with several other social workers and social work students attended the Rally Against Racism in Auckland. This rally was called in response to the racist speaking tour of white supremacists Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux. These speakers have engaged in an international tour designed to incite racism and hatred (Smith, 2018). As social workers we felt that it was important to speak up personally, and as social workers, against this kind of explicit racism. Those of us who have the privilege of being able to speak out without losing our jobs (such as academics) need to be particularly willing to engage in overt action to challenge racism. Another recent example of this kind of overt action against racism is seen in the action of Swedish social work student Elin Ersson who recently refused to sit down on an aeroplane, temporarily preventing the deportation of an Afghan asylum seeker (Crouch, 2018).

Continue reading Working to dismantle racism in social work

The problem with checklists in child protection work

A guest post by Eileen Joy, PhD candidate, University of Auckland

In the United Kingdom, ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) have been getting a lot of government attention recently – largely due to a government committee announcing, in October 2017, that it was going to “examine the strength of the evidence linking adverse childhood experiences with long-term negative outcomes, he evidence base for related interventions, whether evidence is being used effectively in policy-making, and the support and oversight for research into this area”.  Here in New Zealand the conversation about ACEs has been less official, but has still permeated government departments and local social media, with exhortations to watch Nadine Burke Harris’ ‘Ted Talk’ about them.

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Heroes or villains, or is social work more complicated?

Over the past few months there have been a few debates on Twitter (where I talk to many people in many countries about all sorts of social work and politics stuff) about our profession and the nature of our public perception. This often-debated issue is inextricably tied up with our representation in ‘the media’. There is a long-standing theme in the literature going back to the 70s that the profession is given a tough time in the media. Like used-car sales people and estate agents we’re rarely in the news for doing good. Which is utterly aggravating (and underlining the contradictions) when we often suffer the disparaging epithet ‘do-gooder’.

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Who is looking at you? Social media, the new assessment tool

A guest post by Eileen Joy (PhD candidate, University of Auckland)

You’re a busy social worker…. you have a client, you are worried about them, they have missed two of their most recent appointments, in the past they have talked about suicide ideation and you know that their current living arrangement is precarious. You try texting them, there is no answer. You try phoning them, there is no answer. You try an email, and get no reply. You even might try visiting where they live, and nothing.

Continue reading Who is looking at you? Social media, the new assessment tool