Every time I write these “Notes” I often find several cases on which I might comment, but I can only cover a few. This time, I have chosen to focus on just one case because of its importance to the work we do.

The Importance of Screening for Intimate Partner Abus

On July 21, 2020, the Discipline Committee of the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers released a decision about a social worker who failed to properly screen for intimate partner abuse. The decision is reported as Ontario College of Social Workers v. S. 2020

On first reading, this case seemed repetitious, but on a further reading, I realized that the Committee was cognizant that intimate partner abuse is a very wide-ranging concept. For this reason the Committee covers many aspects of screening in considerable detail. Therefore, what had seemed repetitious is actually a detailed and nuanced exploration of the concept. This Note follows that pattern.

The issue will be of interest to social workers who mediate family issues and to other professionals who employ – or should employ – screening for domestic violence in a mediation context. This disciplinary action arose in the context of couples counselling provided by a social worker in private practice. The counselling comprised a number of joint sessions and one individual session over a four to five month period.

The allegations raised by the female partner (hereafter referred to as “F”) in this relationship were that the social worker,

1) failed to properly screen for/and/or recognize and/or respond to signs of domestic abuse and/or domestic violence;

2) failed to recognize that “F” felt she was under threat of violence by the male partner (hereafter referred to as “M”);

3) failed to recognize signs that the male’s behaviour might involve emotional, psychological, and/or physical abuse of “F”;

4) failed to recognize that “F” was frightened by “M”’s behaviour;

5) failed to conduct a proper screening regarding issues of possible domestic abuse/violence and/or failed to assess the power dynamics in the relationship adequately;

6) failed to ask follow-up questions, or meet separately with “F” or otherwise enquire about domestic abuse/violence. This happened, despite having been informed that the couple’s previous counsellor had indicated that “M” was “ abusive and/or bordering criminal” when “F” discussed her partner’s “rage” or when “M” acknowledged having an “anger problem” and engaging in behaviour that could be perceived as controlling;

7) failed to ensure that “F” had a safety plan in place;

8) blamed “F” by asking her what she was doing to “trigger” and/or “escalate” the conflict.

In the end, the member admitted the allegations and evidence was presented by way of an Agreed Statement of Facts. The Committee made a number of evidentiary findings based on the Agreed Statement provided.

During counselling, “F” told the social worker that “M”’s anger felt like rage and that he said hurtful things. A previous counsellor indicated that “M”’s behaviour was abusive. The social worker was told by “M” that his anger could be “over the top” and that anger was a problem. He admitted that he became angry if he did not get his way and engaged in behaviour that could be seen as controlling. The anger issues were raised during at least two sessions.

In addition, “F” told the worker that she felt pressured to do things “M”’s way, and “to smile and be happy even if she felt his behaviour was not responding to her needs and feelings”.

The Committee found that the social worker did not conduct an adequate screening for signs of intimate partner abuse, nor did the worker adequately assess the power dynamics between the two parties. The worker did not ask follow-up questions when informed that the couple’s previous counsellor had described “M”’s behaviour as abusive. The social worker did not adequately explore the concerns raised about “M”’s behaviour. The worker was also faulted for focussing on the couple’s roles in triggering one another’s behaviour, while indicating what “F” could do to avoid escalating “M”’s anger.

The Committee also pointed out that, after counselling stopped, “F” ended the relationship and sought police protection in the form of a restraining order. Criminal charges were laid. “F” experienced psychological problems and obtained ongoing treatment to deal with them.

After learning of the complaint, the social worker (who had faced a similar complaint a few years earlier) told the Committee that she took various steps to upgrade her knowledge of the issues by reading articles, discussing her counselling of the couple with a former supervisor to develop a standard assessment protocol, and by taking three courses, one of which was “Responding to Domestic Violence”.

In finding that the social worker had acted dishonourably by violating numerous sections of the profession’s Misconduct Regulations, the Committee found that the social worker 

1) failed to observe, clarify and enquire about information presented by “F”;

2) failed to be aware of the extent and parameters of her competence and her professional scope of practice and limit her practice accordingly;

3) failed to inform her client of the option to be referred to another professional;

4) failed to ensure that her services were competently provided by seeking additional supervision, consultation and education;

5) failed to be guided by the client’s interest in making certain recommendations without first suggesting a referral to another professional;

6) failed to remain current with emerging social work knowledge and practice relevant to her areas of professional practice with respect to intimate partner abuse issues;

7) failed to maintain current knowledge of policies, legislation, programs and issues related to the community, its institutions and services available in her area of practice with respect to intimate partner abuse issues;

8) failed to ensure that any professional recommendations or opinions she provided were appropriately substantiated by evidence and supported by a credible body of professional social work knowledge with respect to intimate partner abuse issues;

9) failed to engage in a process of self-review and evaluation of her practice, and failed to seek consultation where appropriate;

10) engaged in conduct and performed an act relevant to the practice of the profession that would reasonably be regarded by members as disgraceful, dishonourable or unprofessional, which reflected negatively on the profession of social work;

11) failed to deliver client services, respond to client queries, concerns and complaints in a timely or reasonable manner.

The Committee also pointed out that the social worker, in the Agreed Statement of Facts, agreed that “intimate partner abuse” constitutes a form of domestic abuse and/or violence. 

Other comments of interest were that the social worker failed to use appropriate screening tools specific to intimate partner abuse, did not assess the power dynamics in the case, and used a therapeutic approach that was inappropriate given the situation. She may have also, unintentionally, condoned and/or enabled “M”’s behaviour by discussing “F”’s role in “triggering” or “escalating” “M”’s anger. 

The social worker was reprimanded, suffered a suspension of her Certificate for a fixed period of time, was ordered to attend, at her expense, a course approved by the Registrar on intimate partner abuse. Her practice was to be supervised by an approved professional for two years on terms set out in the decision. She was also ordered to meet with the Registrar (or designate) within six months to discuss certain other enumerated topics. She had to pay $5,000 in costs. 

The decision included some mitigating factors which were taken into account: the worker admitted the professional misconduct, agreed to a joint submission and showed herself as not averse to educating herself further about intimate partner abuse. 

This case should set off warning bells for any professional engaged in family mediation – particularly social workers. It highlights the need to know relevant legislation, to recognize power imbalances, to utilize a good screening tool, and it requires a willingness to consult with experts in the field. Some might argue that the principles set out about screening should apply to lawyers conducting mediation as they also, under their profession’s code of conduct, have an obligation of duty of care to their clients.

Food for thought – interesting case.

Until next time…

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