Are YOU an Unprotected Student of Social Work?

Avoiding Malpractice: Tips for Social Workers to Manage Risk

Are YOU an Unprotected Student of Social Work?

Last month, we talked about the many hazards and forms of liability lawsuits that are dangers to Social Workers, just like damaging explosives ready to detonate in a mine field.

For those students of social work who perform intern work with social workers and social workers organizations, such as in private practices, agencies, or schools, or even as research assistants, there are certain liability perils that can arise. These perils can lead to lawsuits, and also penalties and fines, particularly from breached confidential information.

The potential liability is now a fact of Social Work regardless of role, context, or venue. A Social Worker cannot assume that her/his employer or school will assume any liability. A Social Worker or a Student of Social Work cannot assume that the employer’s or school’s liability insurance will cover the Social Worker or Student. That is why the Social Worker or Student must have a Professional Liability policy, a Cyber Liability policy, and in many cases, a General Liability policy.

The purpose of this Tip-of-the-Month is to provide a brief discussion about social worker student liability and risks.

According to the Graduate Student Handbook published by the Department of Sociology, Indiana University – Purdue University, Fort Wayne, Indiana (11/13/2007), graduate research assistants in social work are required to participate in research on a variety of topics common to social work. Duties include numerous activities related to social work practice and research such as interviewing research participants, data transcription, case report writing, and reporting under the control of the social worker who acts as the principal investigator. Although a research assistant assignment provides the student with valued experience of practice methodology and participation in any area of interest, it opens the door for liability in many areas, particularly confidential patient information breach, HIPAA fines and penalties, Board inquiries, and potential malpractice liability lawsuits brought by clients of the social worker or principal investigator.

According to “8 Tips for New Social Work Interns”, The New Social Worker, the social work careers magazine, (by Sharon L. Young, Summer 2014), it is common for a social work student to be put into field placement assigned to a field instructor or placed in a social work agency. Both of these venues afford real practice experience on the one hand, yet potential liability risk on the other hand. For example, field placement means learning how to become a social worker with hands-on activities including participation on treatment teams, community meetings, and in residential patient settings. “Practicing social work skills in field practicum leads to greater learning outcomes and higher satisfaction for students.” (Lee & Fortune, 2013). However, this activity leads to more liability exposure.

“Social work students often turn to friends, family members, or fellow students to discuss stressful or emotionally charged field situations. (Litvack, Mishna & Bogo, 2010). This is one of the dangers of information breach which triggers liability lawsuits, HIPAA violations, and Board inquiries.”

Young goes on to say that, “Discussing difficult client situations with friends and family could lead to a breach of confidentiality and could also compromise your (‘the student’s’) professional career. The field instructors, faculty, and the student’s liability insurance carrier are there to help the student, so use them.”

Breach of Confidentiality

This relates to a Social Worker releasing records to the incorrect individual or discussing confidential information with a person who does not have the authority to have the information. This includes conversations with people outside the case, lost case transcripts and reports, stolen computer devices and phones containing confidential information, and even misdirected faxes sent to the wrong telephone number or to the wrong people. Most insurance policies on the market today do not cover these perils. The RRG PLI policy covers them, and the RRG Cyber Liability policy covers all the major HIPAA information breach categories.

HIPAA – Lost or Stolen Information

Since 2013, Social Workers have been held accountable by HIPAA and the Federal Government for third-party information breach. That means that if the Social Worker hires a mover who loses the records or damages them in a storage facility, or a cyber-records provider corrupts the information, the Social Worker is responsible. Even client telephone numbers stored on the Social Worker’s phone or information on the Social Worker’s laptop or Notebook that are stolen constitute a HIPAA information breach violation.

There are many HIPAA mandated restitution requirements that the Social Worker must pay for including fines and penalties. The NASW RRG offers two Cyber Liability Data Breach policies that protect the Social Worker from all of these perils. The RRG Professional Liability policy protects the Social Worker from third-party assault perils that result in the loss of the Social Worker’s personal property and even replaces the property. To our knowledge, no other insurance carriers offer this protection.

Filing a lawsuit does not guarantee a judgment, but it does guarantee that the Social Worker has to pay defense counsel fees to answer the complaint and file a motion to dismiss. A common occurrence is that the plaintiff simply writes a complaint letter to the State Licensing Board and it automatically causes a Licensing Board inquiry. Does your professional liability insurance policy cover this? The NASW RRG Professional Liability policy covers this.

In conclusion, there are a lot of liability risks and moving parts that can hurt a Social Worker financially and professionally, regardless of their status as a Student, an Employee, or as a Sole Practitioner. The best way to stay ahead of the “damages and risk curve” is to regularly attend NASW Risk Management Seminars, follow the NASW Code of Ethics and NASW practice standards, stay abreast of local venue laws, policies, and rules that your NASW Chapter Executive Director can help you with, and utilize the NASW Assurance Services free Help Line to learn what to look for when shopping for a good set of liability insurance policies to protect yourself.

NASW Assurance Services offers a comprehensive set of low premium high coverage liability insurance policy plans that are insured by the NASW Risk Retention Group that is owned by the Social Worker policyholders, endorsed by the NASW with controlling Boards comprised of Social Workers, that include Professional Liability, Cyber Liability with third-party Cyber Liability, and General Liability.

There is no doubt that social work is a noble profession with implicit values of service, social justice, human dignity, integrity, and clinical competence. Despite all of the sincere devotion provided by Social Workers and Students of Social Work, they need to be aware that non-NASW endorsed liability insurance plans that are all sold by insurance brokers and insured by publically owned insurance carriers focused on quarterly earnings, may not cover Social Workers and Students of Social Work in certain areas of liability.

Published July 2015

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