Questionable Practices: Arresting people “for their own good” violates social work ethics

Stephanie Wahab and Meg Panichelli provide a succinct analysis of the ethical considerations associated with diversion programs that arrest people in the sex trade in order to force them to accept services. Their commentary which appears in a 2013 edition of AFFILIA, a peer reviewed social work journal addressing the concerns of social workers and their clients from a feminist point of view, challenges the “assumption that arresting (or participating in the arrest of) people ‘for their own good’ constitutes good or ethical social work practice.” The authors conclude that, “targeting people for arrest under the guise of helping them violates numerous ethical standards as well as the humanity of people engaged in the sex industry” and express concerns that such an approach “constitutes an act of structural violence against individuals who already frequently report negative, discriminatory, and often violent encounters with law enforcement including people with precarious migratory or citizenship status, poor, youth, transgender, and people of color.”

The example that sparked the writing of the AFFILIA editorial is Project ROSE, a program in which social workers from Arizona State University  School of Social Work and some service providers collaborate with city wide raids orchestrated by the Phoenix Police Department. Project ROSE is found to violate ethical standards described in the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics, the Council on Social Work Education Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards, and the International Federation of Social Work Ethical Principles. Informed consent–an essential element of social work practice and the standard in many other professions–is violated because the services provided rely on recruitment via “massive police (in this case 125 officers) sting operations.” The authors explain that, ‘if targeted sex workers (and people profiled as sex workers) reject the ‘offer’ to enter the diversion program and/or if they fail to successfully complete a diversion program… they face criminal prosecution.”

Wahab and Panichelli provide the reader with clear guidance on how to avoid unethical practice from the perspectives of social workers. “Whether you believe that sex work = sex trafficking or whether you believe that there is no universal sex work experience and that sex workers can make their own decisions about what they need and when they need it,” they write. “Schools of Social Work and social work in general should not be in the business of arresting people for their own good.”

The full text for the commentary is available at: Ethical and Human Rights Issues in Coercive Interventions With Sex Workers Stéphanie Wahab and Meg Panichelli, Affilia 2013 28: 344.