Oct. 20, 2020

By Adam McCormick
Assistant professor of Social Work

In a unanimous vote, the Texas State Board of Social Work Examiners recently changed a section of its code of conduct and will now allow social workers to turn away clients based on disability, sexual orientation or gender identity.

This change, made at the recommendation of Gov. Greg Abbott and without public input from social work professionals, has been met with criticism from social workers across the state. Social workers have argued these changes are in direct violation of the profession’s code of ethics.

Perhaps there is no youth population in our state in greater need of the services of social workers than LGBTQ+ youth, who experience nearly every form of child maltreatment at disproportionately higher rates than non-LGBTQ+ youth.

Given the overwhelming rates of trauma, abuse and discrimination, it is no surprise LGBTQ+ youth are much more likely to need the services of social workers. One in every 3 teens who dies by suicide each year have LGBTQ+ identities. LGBTQ+ youth are nearly three times as likely to be placed in foster care and nearly four times as likely to experience homelessness than non-LGBTQ+ youth. Having an LGBTQ+ identity is the single greatest risk factor for child sex trafficking.

Many LGBTQ+ youth need social workers. It is disheartening to think the governor’s office and the state Board of Social Work Examiners would allow for state-sanctioned discrimination against a population already facing so much adversity. It is equally disheartening they did so when they could have instead engaged in efforts to better equip the social workers across Texas who are working every day to address the safety and mental health needs of our most vulnerable youth.

LGBTQ+ youth who are served by social workers are often experiencing crises rooted in issues related to the rejection and marginalization they experience from their families and peers. LGBTQ+ youth who experience rejection are nearly eight times as likely to attempt suicide and nearly six times as likely to be depressed than those who had experiences of acceptance. Given these experiences of rejection, the idea of a social worker denying services for reasons related to a youth’s identity can be especially harmful.

Some would argue that a social worker who denies services based on a youth’s sexual orientation or gender identity could simply refer the youth to another social worker willing to uphold the profession’s code of ethics. Doing so, however, only serves to further reinforce the experiences of family rejection and marginalization from the very people who are supposed to protect and advocate for their clients’ safety and affirm who they are.

Instead of seeking measures that further embolden a tiny fraction of people who would take advantage of these protections, leaders should work to create safer schools for LGBTQ+ youth, work with families to foster acceptance and affirmation, and fund homeless youth and foster care programs that provide affirming and accepting services. Social workers have an ethical obligation to challenge injustice on behalf of our state’s most vulnerable and oppressed populations.

For the overwhelming majority of social workers, it is this unapologetic commitment to social justice that attracted them to social work, and it’s the profession’s commitment to fighting for those on the margins that make them proud to call themselves social workers. These are the very reasons that most social workers are disheartened and incensed by this decision.

This commentary was originally published in the San Antonio Express-News.