A. Receiving a complaint
The discipline process is a legal process. The Health Professions Act (HPA) and the Social Work Profession Regulation define the actions that can or must be followed in each case. The process begins when a complaint, or information that is treated as a complaint, is received about a registered social worker.
Within 30 days of receiving a complaint or treating information as a complaint, the complaints director must notify the complainant of what actions will be taken with respect to the complaint. Under Section 55 of the HPA the complaints director may take the following actions :
- encourage the complainant and the investigated person to communicate with each other and resolve the complaint
- with the consent of the complainant and the investigated person, attempt to resolve the complaint
- make a referral to an alternative complaint resolution process under Division 2
- May request an expert to assess and provide a written report on the subject-matter of the complaint
- May conduct, or appoint an investigator to conduct an investigation
- If satisfied that the complaint is trivial or vexatious, dismiss the complaint
- If satisfied that there is insufficient or no evidence of unprofessional conduct, dismiss the complaint, and
- May make a direction under section 118
If the complaint is dismissed, the Complaints Director must notify the complainant within 30 days of their right to apply for a review by a complaint review committee. A request for review must be made in writing within 30 days of receiving notice of the dismissal.
If the complaints director determines that there is sufficient evidence that the social worker may have acted unprofessionally, the social worker will be contacted by telephone. In most cases, initial contact is made by telephone to let the social worker know a complaint has been received. If appropriate, an attempt may be made to resolve the matter informally as per Section 55(2)(a) or 55(2)(a.1) or to make a referral to alternate complaint resolution.
In cases where the complaints director requests an expert assessment or appoints an investigator, the registered social worker is notified of the complaint and given details on the matters to be addressed. In most cases, a copy of the original complaint is given to the social worker. The social worker may be asked to respond to the complaint in writing.
B. Investigating a complaint
The people who investigate complaints about social work practice are normally registered social workers who have received training specific to this role. Their job is not to prove innocence or guilt. It is their responsibility to gather factual evidence with regard to the complaint. Investigators normally begin by interviewing the complainant to gather further details about the allegations so as to ensure that the investigation will be complete. The social worker will also be interviewed, and both primary parties will be asked to identify other people who could provide additional useful information. The investigator will also ask for copies of documents that pertain to the complaint and may ask for samples of other work by the social worker for comparison. The Health Professions Act authorizes the investigator to copy and keep documents, to view originals and if necessary take them away. The length of an investigation will vary based on availability of people and information, complexity of the complaint, and legal or employment matters that may be involved.
C. Making a decision about a complaint
Once the investigation is complete, the complaints director makes a decision whether there is sufficient evidence to support the complaint or if the matter should be dismissed. If the complaint is dismissed, the complainant has the right to an appeal within 30 days. If there is evidence to support the complaint, the matter is referred to the hearings director for a hearing. Hearing tribunals include a minimum of two social workers and one public member.
A hearing is a formal process set out in the legislation. Witnesses may be called by the ACSW or the registered social worker, documents are placed in evidence, the proceedings are recorded, and a decision is issued upon completion. The decision may be appealed to Council.
In the majority of cases that result in a sanction against a social worker, the requirement is for something educational. Social workers have been directed to take courses, to work under supervision, to deal with an impairment that impacts their ability to work, to take some action to demonstrate their learning, and to share their learning with others through presentation or publication. As the cost of discipline proceedings is quite high, social workers are often ordered to pay a portion of the costs. In rare cases, a social workers practice permit may be suspended or cancelled.