Social Work and the Law
Two years ago, the Columbia office of SCLS welcomed the firm’s first Masters of Social Work (MSW) student from the University of South Carolina. His name was Patrick. Of all the great things I learned and observed in Patrick, I was particularly taken by his ability to identify and meet our clients’ immediate needs. For example, Patrick and I both noticed a certain client’s boots were wrapped in duct tape, and that his shirt had a hole in the elbow. Patrick inquired further, and discovered that this was his only pair of shoes, and he only owned one change of clothes. Patrick was able to get our client some more shoes and clothes. He was also able to help the client sign up for the food bank and showed him how to navigate there on the bus.
Because of our success with Patrick, this year the Columbia office welcomed two MSW students: Mackin and Emily. We now have an MSW student in the office 4 days a week. I am always astounded by the things they can accomplish for our clients. They have assisted our clients with everything from food, clothing, diapers and wipes, feminine hygiene products to wheelchairs, utility payments and even money. For example, we had a disabled client who entered into a rent-to-own agreement, and the SCLS attorney was able to secure clear title to the property. However, in order to clear the title, the client had to pay $3,500. To a client on a fixed income, it might as well have been one million dollars. Mackin and Emily worked with the attorney and managed to raise the $3,500 that the client needed through multiple charities and churches. This client now owns her home free and clear and has new connections to her community thanks to the efforts of our MSW students.
Through my experience with these amazing students, I’ve discovered that social workers are like legal aid attorneys in many ways. They are professionals trained to help the poor, the less fortunate, and humanity, generally. They are able to provide compassion and empathy without judging the client. Finally, like legal aid lawyers, social workers do a wide variety of jobs in a multitude of practice areas.
There is, however, one sticky issue related to ethical standards that can be a potential problem for social workers in legal settings. Lawyers have a duty of loyalty and confidentiality to their clients. We are not mandated reporters. In other words, if we discover there is abuse or neglect happening in a client’s home, we do not have an obligation to report that to officials. In fact, depending on the circumstances, we could be subject to discipline for making such a report. However, social workers and social work students are mandated reporters. This means that caution should be used when having a social worker help on a case. They should not be used in cases where this could potentially become an issue, and clients should be advised of this distinction when you involve a social worker in their case. (If a student does see something that they believe they would be mandated to report, they must first discuss it with the attorney supervisor and their supervising professor.)
If you are interested in how to get MSW students integrated into your legal aid office, or you are a funder who would love to see this program expanded at South Carolina Legal Services as much as I would, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and have your checkbook ready.