Social Issues

The Problem With Dual Relationships


This purpose of this paper is to explore the ethical issues that are associated with social workers and the overall importance of their role.  According to Reamer, dual relationships occur when professionals engage with clients or colleagues in more than one relationship, whether it is social, sexual, or business relationships. Next it will be determined if these key points are considered boundary crossings or boundary violations. It is important to make these distinctions, since according to the National Association of Social Workers; this will violate the Code of Ethics. Dual relationships should be avoided at all cost because it could be harmful to the clients. Clients could become emotionally and psychologically attached to the Social Worker. This paper will discuss the issues associated with dual relationships like boundary crossings and boundary violations.  This paper will analyze the case study of Juan S. and the three select areas of dual relationships.  These three areas are physical contact, performing favors, and extending personal relationships with clients.  Finally, the framework in Reamer’s article Boundary Issues in Social Work: Managing Dual Relationships will be used to support the analysis of this paper.

The Problem with Dual Relationships in Social Work

In this paper all three examples of dual relationships are taken from the study of Juan S.  The actions of the social workers will be examined to determine if their behavior can be classified as ethical or unethical.  Discrimination on the basis of age, sex and race are also unethical social behavior.  Ethical behavior and unethical behavior can vary from one place to another within the world.  An ethical behavior is that which applies to proper conduct and overall morality.  Reamer states that unethical behavior is behavior that does not abide by the rules of morality. (Reamer, 2003)  We will look at examples of 3 key terms the case study.  The first would be physical contact which is considered intimate relationships.  The second area is performing favors which is considered altruistic gesture, and lastly would be extending relationships with clients which would be emotional and dependency needs.  It is import to explore these types of dual relationships to understand the potential harm of the therapeutic relations that could result if these boundaries are violated.  In addition it could be extremely harmful for the clients overall healing process.  Using Reamers article Boundary Issues in Social Work: Managing Dual Relationships this paper will address the relevance of these boundaries.  Understanding the harm associated with dual relationships will provide social workers with the necessary boundaries and a clear understanding of the personal repercussions that can occur if these boundaries are violated.

Summary of the Case Study of Juan S

In the case study of Juan S, we were introduced to a 6 year old who spoke very little English and was bullied at school due to his size. This affected him in the sense that he showed little interest in classroom activities, and was sometimes physically aggressive toward his classmates. At his first meeting with the social worker, Juan crawled up into her lap while the social worker spoke with his mother Silvia about his issues.  Juan’s mother Silvia advised the social worker that they emigrated from Mexico and of Juan’s traumatic upbringing, which included losing his home during a hurricane and his dad being electrocuted to death by a downed wire.  Silvia decided to move with her four children closer to her sisters and shortly after two of her older sons were killed in a drug related incident close their home, which Juan witnessed and barely escaped with his own life.  Silvia then decided to relocate to America. Silvia was afraid to apply for public assistance  because she was not in the country legally.  She eventually went to work for a wealthy family, but was not paid well.  Silvia asked the Social Worker if she knew of anyone who needed a housekeeper.  The Social Worker decided to hire Silvia to work in her home, since she had been looking for a live-in housekeeper to take care of her own children.  They would both benefit and Juan would be able to get one-on-one sessions in addition to his regular scheduled therapy in the agency. The Social Worker was also convinced that this would be beneficial to Juan since nding for the services offered at the agency would only allow for twelve sessions and he would need more long-term treatment, due to his extensive history of trauma.  The social worker’s children would benefit also by learning Spanish at home.  When they got to Silvia’s home, Silvia thanked the social worker, ran inside and brought her a cake that she had baked that morning.  She wanted the social worker to give the cake to her kids prior to her meeting them so they had a good impression of her.

Dual Relationships Involving Physical Contact

Federic G. Reamers article, Boundary Issues in Social Work: Managing Dual Relationships defines physical contact as boundary violation.  (Reamer, 2003)  Reamer categorized intimate relationships to involve physical contact and this case study clearly shows the violation was made when Juan jumped into the Social worker’s lap, and also when he kissed her on the cheek she placed in on the ground after he woke up from his nap. Physical contact may be sexual or non sexual, and appropriate in a number of circumstances. This boundary violation would be appropriate in the case of Juan S. as Reamer states, “such brief, limited, physical contact is not likely to be harmful, and may be therapeutic to some clients. Physical contact may be culturally appropriate and encourage in some social communities This may have been the case for Juan kissing the Social Worker on the cheek, since he is originally from Mexico. According to the Code of Ethics, this in unethical behavior, and states that “social workers should not engage in physical contact with their clients when there is a possibility of psychological harm to the clients as a result of contact.” (Zastrow, 2010) The social worker allowing Juan to show affection in this manner clearly violated the physical contact expectations.  Allowing Juan to show such attention could change the social workers role as a neutral party to a dependency or maternal relationship. There are reasons that physical contact is forbidden whether it is innocent or sexual.  It confuses the client to see the role of the social worker in a different manner than the role they are intended to play.  This will clearly hinder the progress of Juan recovering from the trauma he experienced in his short little life.

Dual Relationships Involving Performing Favors/Altruistic Gesture

The Social Worker in the case study performed a favor by hiring Silvia as her own live in housekeeper, to take care of her own children. This would stabilize Silvia’s financial and housing situation.  The favor would benefit the social worker and perhaps appear to benefit Silvia, however in the long run this will be detrimental.  If the social worker chooses to help the family financially she needs to relinquish her position as their social worker.  The social worker believes that she would be able to work one-on-one with Juan in addition to his regular therapy sessions. She also believes that continued contact with Juan might help him adjust to his new environment. He would also benefit by being in an English speaking environment, which would improve his communication skills in school. The Social Worker would also benefit by having her kids learn Spanish in the home. Reamer’s article clearly states according to the NASW Code of Ethics, “Social workers should not take unfair advantage of any professional relationship or exploit others for personal, religious, or business interest.” (Reamer, 2003)  Hiring Silvia is a personal and business interest for the social worker violating the altruistic gesture.   Accepting the gift from Silvia took their relationship from professional to personal as well.  The personal favor of accepting this token of appreciation can seem harmless expects it can lead the client to fantasies about friendship instead of the professional relationship that is really in place.  Even if the social worker did not benefit personally from allowing Silvia and Juan to move in it still violated the clear line that needs to keep personal and professional relationships very separate.

Dual Relationships Involving Extending Relationships/ Emotional and Dependency Needs

In this case, the Social worker decided to drive Silvia and Juan home after Silvia got worried that she might have missed her bus. The social worker also accepted the cake that Silvia gave her to give to her kids so they could have a good impression of her prior to meeting her.  Zastrow would consider these crossing boundaries, breaking the necessary personal professional segregation.  By crossing the boundaries, it can sometimes give the clients the wrong meaning of the relationships. According to Reamer, this is an unethical behavior because the client can develop emotional and dependency need, based upon extending the relationships.  According to the Code of Ethics, “some relationships with clients can be ethically appropriate as long as the clinical dynamics are handled skillfully.”  In some cases social workers are adamantly oppose to visit client’s homes or invite them to theirs because of potential boundary problems.  From the very beginning of their meeting, the social worker allowed the extending relationship.  She continued by inviting Silvia and her family to live with her.  The social worker had good intentions to help, but ultimately she was laying the ground work for serious emotional and dependency needs from Juan and possibly even Silvia.


Understanding the harm associated with dual relationships will provide social workers with the necessary boundaries and a clear understanding of the personal repercussions that can occur if these boundaries are violated.  It is important for social workers know about dual relationships so they do not harm their clients. In this paper we found that there are different types of dual relationships, which resulted in boundary crossing and boundary violations.  The case study showed the violation three types of dual relationships, physical contact, performing favors, and extending relationships.  It also clearly shows the potential damage that could result from violating the necessary standards and guidelines that exist for social workers.  The case of Juan S. is clearly unethical behavior on the part of the social worker.  If she had followed the Code of Ethics many of the events would have changes drastically.  Violations of the set Code of Ethics can determine whether a social worker will lose or keep his/her license.  Ultimately, it dictates the outcome of the clients overall well-being by adhering to the standards that have proven to be effective.


Reamer, F.G. (2003). Boundary issues in social work: Managing dual relationshipss. Social Work, 48 (1), 121-133.

Zastrow, C. (2010, 2008). Introduction to social work and social welfare, 10th Edition. Belmont, CA.: Thompson Learning.