The legal and ethical frameworks that social workers in Pennsylvania should know

The primary goals of social workers are to help improve individuals’ and communities’ wellbeing and help meet the basic needs of all people. Social workers promote social justice and change, which requires them to make frequent legal and ethical decisions. This makes the profession challenging as it requires dealing closely with individuals, groups and families who are facing obstacles daily. Organizations have implemented legal and ethical frameworks to help social workers identify relevant actions and decisions when ethical uncertainties or professional obligations conflict. 

Legal requirements for social workers in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania is the fifth most populated state in the US, with more than 12 million people. There are numerous job opportunities and areas of specialization for social workers in Pennsylvania. The state has the country’s third largest number of substance abuse and mental health, school, family and child social workers. 

You may be wondering how to become a social worker in Pennsylvania. Some social worker positions will be open to bachelor’s degree holders, but many require a Master’s of Social Work (MSW). It is possible to gain an MSW online at an institution such as the reputable Keuka College. This university offers a three-year program consisting of online coursework and regional field placement services. Studying for a Masters in Social Work at Keuka College will equip you with the knowledge, skills, and ethical framework needed to make a positive difference in the lives of individuals, families, and communities facing a multitude of challenges.

If you want to become a social worker, there are legal frameworks that you need to be aware of on top of the master’s degree you can acquire. These legal requirements include the following.


Before you can practice as a social worker in Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania State Board of Social Workers, Marriage and Family Therapists and Professional Counselors requires that individuals obtain valid licenses. The board regulates the standards of licensed and unlicensed social workers in the state of Pennsylvania.

Individuals cannot practice or call themselves social workers if they have not obtained a board license. The Pennsylvania State Board of Social Workers offers individuals three levels of licensure to practice social work. These levels are Licensed Social Worker (LSW), Licensed Clinical Social worker (LCSW) and Licensed Bachelor Social Worker (LSBW).

Reporting obligations for child abuse and neglect

As a social worker, you are required to make a report if you suspect that a child is a victim of child abuse. A social worker must make this report to the Department of Human Services if they have come in contact with the child during their course of employment or through a regularly scheduled activity. 

A social worker is directly responsible for the child’s guidance, supervision or training. A social worker must also make a report if a person makes a specific disclosure to them that an identifiable child is a victim of child abuse. A report must also be made if a person who is 14 years of age or above specifically discloses to the social worker that they have committed child abuse.

Ethical frameworks for social workers in Pennsylvania 

The Pennsylvania board subscribes to the National Association of Social Workers and the Pennsylvania Society for Clinical Social Work code of ethics and practice standards. The board has mandated that all licensed social workers must adhere to these organizations’ codes and standards. The board uses the following codes and practice standards to resolve ambiguities and achieve optimal wellness. These ethical codes and practice standards include the following.

Informed consent

Social workers must inform their clients of all the necessary details they need to know about the service and get their consent. 

Social workers must inform their clients of the purpose of the service they will be providing; the risks and limits related to the services; effective and reasonable alternative services; the client’s right to refuse or withdraw their consent and the timeframe that the consent covers; costs, billing and late payment procedures and their possible impact on the continuation of the professional relationship; and other information that licensees reasonably expect to influence clients’ decisions to begin or continue the professional relationship. 

The informed consent must be provided in a written document to the client. In cases where the client cannot read or understand the informed consent document, the social worker must take steps to ensure that the client understands. 

Confidentiality and privacy

Social workers in Pennsylvania have a primary obligation to protect their clients’ right to confidentiality and privacy. This obligation must be carried out in accordance with the established law and professional standard of practice. 

Social workers should only reveal confidential and private information to others when the client or client’s guardian has given informed consent. Exceptions are only to be made when failure to reveal the information would violate a specific state or federal regulations or court order. 

The licensed social worker must discuss with their client, the client’s parent/guardian, and the appointed county representative the client’s right to confidentiality, the limitations of the client’s right to confidentiality, and the nature of confidentiality

This discussion must occur immediately or as soon as possible in the professional relationship and as needed throughout the relationship. Social workers shall review with patients the circumstances where confidential information may be requested and where it would be legally required. 


Social workers often encounter circumstances that cause legal and ethical concerns. By being aware of the code of ethics and legal requirements, you will be able to make ethical decisions and successfully deal with any client issues that may arise. This will help you progress in your career and avoid penalties and fines that could cost you your license. 

Ethics and legal requirements in social work help create a professional environment and prevent situations that could harm workers and clients. If you are a social worker or you are about to pursue a career in this field, then it is important to know these legal and ethical requirements.