The Texas State Board of Social Work Examiners recently changed its Code of Conduct to no longer prohibit social workers from turning away clients on the basis of disability, sexual orientation or gender identity. This new rule is not only inhumane but also contradicts what social work professionals stand for. As social workers, we have a responsibility to serve all persons in need and to uphold the dignity of all persons.
It is not often that deans of a leading school of social work in Texas object publicly to a decision made by a state licensing board. But this decision warrants it. This decision threatens the practice of licensed professional social workers and the many Texans they are dedicated to serving. This is a moment that calls for us — and all Texans — to speak out.
As the National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics states, social workers “should not practice, condone, facilitate, or collaborate with any form of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, or mental or physical ability.”
State board members said Gov. Greg Abbott’s office recommended the change to the Code of Conduct because “the nondiscrimination protections went beyond protections laid out in the state law that governs how and when the state may discipline social workers.”
In other words, state laws do not explicitly note these protections against discrimination, so why include them? In an age when federal laws protect persons with disabilities and LGBTQ persons, how can Texas lag so far behind?
Consider, if you will, how the ruling might affect you, your family or those you love. Many of us have a disability, or disabled family members, or loved ones who identify as LGBTQ.
Discrimination breeds discrimination, and this change in ethics could have broader implications. If we limit access to care for those living with disabilities and those who identify as LGBTQ, who is to say additional groups will not eventually have their access to vital services limited? Could Christian social workers turn away Jewish or Sikh clients? Could the same social workers refuse to serve other Christians who espouse differing doctrines or who read the Bible differently? Could liberal social workers turn away conservative clients or vice versa? These questions follow logically from the current ruling that permits excluding persons from vital services based on their sexual orientation, gender identity and disability status.
Texas has more clinically trained social workers than psychiatrists, psychologists and psychiatric nurses combined. Social workers provide more mental health and social services than any other profession, including in areas underserved by other professionals. Texas already lacks the number of social workers needed in more than 100 counties, including small towns and rural areas. Further limiting access to social work services by permitting discriminatory practices will hurt thousands more Texans already under duress.
We hope that no social workers would exclude someone in need of services but instead follow the profession’s Code of Ethics. All Texans, and especially social workers across our state, should call on our legislators to do the right thing and change the language in the law to protect those living with disabilities and those who identify as LGBTQ from discrimination.
The Texas State Board of Social Work Examiners should reverse its ruling and once again require inclusive, ethical and humane practices that reflect the standards of the noble profession it serves.
Zayas is the dean, and Cole is the senior associate dean, of the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at the University of Texas. This opinion piece was produced for Texas Perspectives and represents the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin or the Steve Hicks School of Social Work. Versions of it were published in the Austin American Statesman , San Antonio Express-News and Dallas Morning News.