It takes a lot of time and effort to become a licensed social worker, but it also takes some effort, and smarts, to maintain a license in good standing. Social workers should know what kind of actions will cause them to lose their hard-earned clean record, and perhaps their license.
The State of Michigan monitors and audits licensees for compliance with statutes and administrative rules governing licensed professionals, including social workers. Not only the government can initiate an investigation against a social worker; anyone with knowledge of a violation can file a complaint with the state. If the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) receives a complaint, it will initiate an investigation, and it will issue a formal administrative complaint if it finds sufficient evidence of a violation. If an administrative complaint is issued, then a social worker will likely be liable for sanctions, unless he or she can prove the state’s allegations are false.
Between November 2016 and November 2017, about seventy-five social workers were sanctioned by the Michigan Board of Social Work. The sanctions included public reprimands, fines, probation, and license suspensions and revocations. The sanctions’ severity depends on many factors, including the number of violations, the social worker’s previous record, and whether anyone was harmed.
Some of the most common violations that the state sanctions are failure to complete continuing education credits (CEs), negligence, incompetence, substance abuse issues, and violations arising from criminal convictions.
Failure to Complete CEs
The Public Health Code and Michigan Administrative Code require each social worker to complete 45 hours of CEs every three years. Of those 45 hours, five must be in ethics, two must concern pain and pain symptom management. When submitting an application to renew a license, social workers must certify that they have completed the required CEs.
The state audits CEs and will randomly contact social workers with requests to provide proof that they completed the CEs. When a social worker fails to provide proof of CEs, the state will issue an administrative complaint and usually will allege two violations: one for failure to complete the CEs under Mich Admin Code 338.2961(1) and one for failure to submit evidence of completion of the CEs. Mich Admin Code 338.2961(2) requires social workers to retain documentation proving completion of the CEs for four years after “the date of applying for license renewal.”
Negligence and Incompetence
Negligence and incompetence are not exactly the same, but they are very similar and are both found in MCL 333.16221. Negligence essentially means that a social worker committed an act or series of acts that were below the general duty of care required of all social workers. Incompetence means that a social worker’s actions demonstrate a lack of competence in the field. The legislature has defined "incompetence" as "a departure from, or failure to conform to, minimal standards of acceptable and prevailing practice for a health profession, whether or not actual injury occurs." MCL 333.16106(1). Because they are so similar, the state often alleges both violations when bringing a complaint based on a social worker’s bad acts or mistakes. These violations are usually reported by clients, their families, or coworkers who believe that a social worker has not been living up to the profession’s standards.
To avoid negligence and incompetence violations, follow the rules, treat your clients well, communicate with your clients, and don’t do anything questionable. Incompetence complaints can be avoided if the social worker follows the Social Work Scope of Practice, the guidelines established in the licensure law’s general rules, and the Michigan Public Health Code. Some of the common acts that have led to negligence and incompetence violations are failure to document clinical notes and care plans, failure to manage a client’s case, failure to communicate with clients (and their families when appropriate), and failure to follow up with other providers regarding a client’s care plan. If you are vigilant when protecting clients’ needs and advocating for clients, communicate with clients and other interested parties, and properly document services and care plans in clients’ files, the state is unlikely to find cause to sanction your license.
Substance Abuse Violations
Having a substance abuse disorder is a violation of the Public Health Code. Michigan law defines a “substance abuse disorder” as a “chronic disorder in which repeated use of alcohol, drugs, or both, results in significant and adverse consequences.” MCL 330.1100d. If the state finds that a social worker has a substance abuse addiction, this could be cause for a complaint. However, the state may allow a social worker with a substance abuse disorder to enter the Health Professional Recovery Program (HPRP), a confidential program that allows professionals to work on their substance issues if they acknowledge they have a problem and are willing to limit their practice or withdraw from it.
A full discussion of HPRP is beyond the scope of this article, but the program is a good opportunity for social workers with substance abuse issues to remedy the issues without receiving an administrative complaint. However, failure to comply with HPRP’s terms will lead to an administrative complaint and likely suspension or revocation of a license.
The state can sanction a social worker for a variety of criminal convictions. The specific convictions that could lead to a license sanction are too numerous to discuss here. If you find yourself charged with a crime, it is important to consult with your criminal defense attorney about the possible licensing ramifications of a plea deal and to see if your attorney can negotiate a plea to a crime that would not violate the Public Health Code. Even if your attorney does work out a favorable deal, remember that the state can always allege negligence or incompetence because of your criminal conviction.
Never try to hide a conviction from the state. All licensed social workers have a duty to report any conviction to LARA within 30 days of conviction. MCL 333.16222(3). It is important to note that this duty begins on the date of conviction, not sentencing, so do not wait until you receive your final sentence before reporting. Failure to report any conviction, or licensing sanction from another state, is a violation of the Public Health Code and will result in an administrative complaint and sanctions. The form to report a conviction is available here: https://www.michigan.gov/documents/lara/lara_ED-206_Criminal_Sister_State_Self_Reporting_2_475557_7.pdf.
The above is just a sampling of the most common reasons for license sanctions. There are plenty of other possible violations, including multiple statutes for improper billing, but these additional violations are less common and usually are alleged as additional counts in an administrative complaint that alleges one of the more common violations.
One last word of advice: It is important to remember that one bad decision can have lasting, negative consequences. If you think an action might be illegal or unethical, do not do it. If it’s a gray area, it’s usually not worth the risk that the state’s opinion will be different from yours. If you feel the need to persist, consult an attorney for advice, or, when in doubt about an ethical question, all NASW members can contact the Michigan Chapter’s Ethics Committee (http://www.nasw-michigan.org/?page=Ethics). The Ethics Committee will not provide advice or tell members what to do, but it will guide members to the appropriate resources to help them make a decision.
Jeffrey Burtka is an attorney and the owner of Burtka Law PLLC. His primarily practices in the areas of professional licensing defense, defending healthcare professionals against Medicare revocations and overpayment claims, as well as estate planning. He represents clients throughout the State of Michigan.
The information in this article is provided for informational purposes and is not legal advice, nor does it create an attorney-client relationship between you and Burtka Law PLLC. Nothing herein should be relied on or used without consulting a lawyer to consider your specific circumstances and possible changes to applicable laws, rules, and regulations.