Alberta College of Social Workers

Complaints / Discipline Process

Information for Registered Social Workers

Complaints against registered social workers are quite rare. That does not mean, however, that complaints are not a serious issue. Only a social worker who has been through the complaint process knows what it is like to have their practice challenged or to feel the fear that his or her future may be irrevocably changed.

It would be easy to say, “Just follow the Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice and you won’t have to worry about complaints,” but that is not necessarily true. We all have an occasional bad day when we can make a mistake that is not typical of our overall practice. We are also likely to work with some individuals who are very hard to please; who can always find something to complain about. What we can all count on is that a process is in place which treats all parties fairly and impartially.

If you are the subject of a complaint, the best way to get through the process is to be honest with the investigator and provide whatever information is requested. No one expects perfection: if you recognize that you have made an error, admit it and accept the consequences. Credit may be given to a social worker who demonstrates learning from the experience. If you honestly do not believe there is any validity to the allegations, provide your evidence in a courteous manner. The investigator is not “out to get you” and can only base the report on the facts as presented.

In most cases yes you will. If the matter is to be investigated you will be provided with written notice of the complaint and given details on the matters to be investigated. In most cases, a copy of the original complaint is sent with the letter. You may be asked to respond to the complaint in writing at this time.

If a complaint is received that is clearly frivolous or vexatious, you may be notified. Such complaints are dismissed without investigation, although the complainant has a right to appeal. The social worker normally receives a copy of the letter dismissing the complaint. When a complaint is submitted anonymously, it is most often ignored and the social worker is not notified.

If you are being investigated, you have the right to know the case against you, to be heard in your own defense, to be represented by counsel, to notice of a hearing if there is one, to cross-examine witnesses at a hearing, and the right to know the reasons for a decision of the Discipline Committee. Other rights of due process are granted as well.
Some people like to have a support person with them and in most cases there is no problem. You should ask the investigator beforehand to ensure there are no conflicts. A person who may be a witness in the matter should not be present while you are being interviewed.
Social workers are obliged by the Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice to respond professionally during any complaint investigation. The Health Professions Act also authorizes the College to apply to the Court of Queen’s Bench for an order directing a person to answer questions and provide information to the investigator if the person is refusing to cooperate.
In most cases there is no action during an investigation and the social worker may continue in their normal practice. The Health Professions Act does authorize the College to suspend or limit practice if there is concern that the public remains at risk due to actions of the social worker.
No. The ACSW is the regulatory body and thus would be in a conflict of interest if both roles were fulfilled. We can, however, put you in touch with another social worker who has been through the discipline process who has offered to provide support to colleagues. Let us know if this is something you would like access to.
This is entirely up to you. Some social workers chose to engage legal counsel as soon as a complaint is received. Others prefer to wait to see if the matter is going to a hearing before taking such action. In hearings as well, some social workers chose to be represented by legal counsel while others prefer to respond on their own.

There are two alternatives specified in the Health Professions Act. Under section 70, you may submit a “written admission of unprofessional conduct” which would go directly to a hearings tribunal. If the admission is accepted in whole or in part, the tribunal can choose to go directly to hearing without an investigation. In such cases, there is generally a Consent Agreement developed jointly by the social worker and the College acknowledging agreed facts about the complaint and proposing sanctions.

The Health Professions Act also includes the option of Alternative Complaint Resolution if both the complainant and the regulated professional are willing to participate in a process together. This is intended to be a non-adversarial process leading to a joint decision. A resolution resulting from this process must be ratified by a Complaint Review Committee when it is developed. Alternative processes may include mediation, sentencing circles, or other processes appropriate to the issues being addressed.

Each case is examined on its own merits and sanctions can range from a letter of reprimand to cancellation of registration. If an investigation leads to a finding of unskilled practice, the Hearing Tribunal may attempt to identify what skills need to be improved and make an order requiring the social worker to undertake a course of studies or to work under supervision until the appropriate skills have been demonstrated. The seriousness of an offense will be reflected in the orders made by the Hearing Tribunal. Some actions, such as sexual misconduct with a client, fraud involving a client, or violence toward a client, will have more severe repercussions than the more typical cases which may include bias in treatment or rude or offensive behaviour.
Yes. The appeal procedures are defined in the Health Professions Act
The discipline process is not structured to identify “innocence” but if there are no or insufficient facts to validate a complaint it is dismissed. The complainant may appeal the decision to dismiss within 30 days, citing reasons for the appeal. When a matter is dismissed none of the information is available to the public, but the complaint and the investigator’s report if there is one are retained for 10 years following the complaint.
The only time an investigator’s report is released is when it is entered as an exhibit in a hearing. If that happens, you or your lawyer will receive a copy. It also becomes a part of the public record at that time.
Hearings and records of hearings are open to the public. The Health Professions Act stipulates that all hearings are open to the public unless there is a potential harm by holding it in public. The Hearings Tribunal will consider a request to have all or part of a hearing held in private. If the hearing is private, the record of the hearing is also private. If you have any further questions about the discipline process, please contact the ACSW.