The NASW Code of Ethics addresses several criteria with regard to social work supervision and field instruction. The NASW Code of Ethics specifies that social workers who provide supervision or consultation are responsible for setting clear, appropriate, and culturally sensitive boundaries and should not engage in any dual relationships with supervisees in which there is a risk of exploitation of or potential harm to the supervisee.
The NASW Code of Ethics further requires that social workers who function as educators, field instructors for students, or trainers should provide instruction only within their areas of knowledge and competence and should provide instruction based on the most current information and knowledge available in the profession.
In addition to following the NASW Code of Ethics, field instructors for social work interns also abide by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards. Those standards stipulate that social work field education must meet the following requirements:
- Field education must be associated with an academic program at an accredited institution of higher learning.
- Field education is structured around a classroom or academic experience, with articulated learning objectives/competencies.
- The college or university exercises oversight over the internship program and provides educational credit.
- The field education experience is supervised by Social Work program personnel; there is an agreement between the program and the field site as well as a learning contract between the student and the site.
- The Social Work Field Education program is meant to be solely educational and provide training to prepare the professional Social Worker. It is not meant to supplant or replace existing employees of Social Work within the field education program site.
- The field placement is meant to provide an educational and training opportunity to the Social Worker and is not meant to provide any immediate advantage to the employer or the field site.
Potential field instructors should reflect upon their personal area(s) of expertise with respect to accepting interns. What professional competencies can your agency support? What are your personal areas of expertise and interest? Do these areas seem to align with the prospective intern’s concentration and stated goals? A good match is important so that field instructors don’t take on students whom they are unprepared to mentor.
It is clear that interns should not be placed in fieldwork sites to satisfy staffing ratios or to engage in tasks no one else wants to do. The field instructor and the fieldwork site have an obligation to provide the intern with rich, meaningful opportunities. Assignments should be carefully chosen, with the intern having input. Assignments should reflect the intern’s interests and educational focus, agency mission and capacity, field instructor competencies, the intern’s capability and educational level (Advanced MSW students will take on more complex and sophisticated assignments than undergraduate Social Work interns.)
If a fieldwork site or administrator attempts to use interns inappropriately (to augment staffing ratios, in a residential program, for example) it is the responsibility of the field instructor to advocate for the intern. In cases where the issue persists, the field instructor may need to report the issue to the placing school so that corrective action may be required.
Scheduling time to supervise interns on a consistent, focused and regular basis is a commitment that the field instructor and the agency make to the intern upon accepting a student. All schools and universities have minimum requirements that agencies and field instructors agree to provide when interns are placed.
Interns may occasionally require extra supervision time, especially when dealing with issues that are new to them or highly sensitive, such as potential abuse or concerns about suicide. At these times, our interns may need access to supervision after hours. Keeping in mind that field instructors have a responsibility to the student or client as well as to the intern, it is clear that the field instructor, or a qualified designee, needs to be made available for these situations. As field instructors, we need to ensure high-risk situations are thoroughly assessed and appropriate, and timely actions are taken.
Phone and email supervision may be utilized when urgent issues arise. When emailing with an intern, use client identification numbers in lieu of names, in the interest of confidentiality. When speaking about clients on the phone, be sure the intern is making the call from a private space to insure client confidentiality is protected.
Fieldwork sites are required to provide "reasonable accommodation" to enable the student to be considered for the placement. Interviewers cannot ask questions about a student's disability either because it is visible, or because the student has voluntarily disclosed. Fieldwork sites can refuse to accept a student ONLY if the disability poses a significant risk of substantial harm to themselves or others. A fieldwork site cannot refuse to accept a student based on a slightly increased risk, speculation about future risk, or generalizations about the disability.
Field instructors are required to maintain confidentiality with regard to an intern’s personal health information once that information has been disclosed to them. There may be cases in which an intern broadly discloses their personal health information within a fieldwork site. Even in these instances, the field instructor should maintain confidentially with regard to the intern’s personal health information and/or disability.
The experience of mentoring an emerging social worker can provide a field instructor with rewards on multiple levels. Seasoned social workers benefit from viewing the agency and their practice from the fresh perspective an intern brings. Serving as a field instructor also has the added benefit of offering the field instructor increased access to university training and professional development. Mentoring social work interns is a concrete way for experienced Social Workers to have an impact on the field of Social Work and to share knowledge and wisdom gained during their career.
Susan Radzilowski is a member of the NASW Michigan Chapter Ethics Committee and currently serves as a field instructor for The University of Michigan School of Social Work. She has previously served as Field Instructor for Wayne State University and The University of Windsor. Susan is the Lead Social Worker for the Detroit Institute for Children.
- Code of Ethics - National Association of Social Workers - http://www.socialworkers.org/pubs/code/default.asp
- Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) - http://www.cswe.org