State Allows Social Workers To Refuse Clients With Disabilities
DALLAS — Gov. Greg Abbott’s office and a state regulatory board that oversees social work are facing backlash from social workers, state lawmakers and advocacy groups after the board stripped protections for LGBTQ people and people with disabilities in the social work code of conduct on last week after the governor’s office recommended it.
The Texas State Board of Social Work Examiners approved the decision unanimously during a joint meeting with the Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council, which oversees the social work board. The decision strikes disability, sexual orientation or gender identity from the nondiscrimination clause of the code of conduct.
Abbott’s office said the change was done simply to align the rules with the state’s Occupations Code that determines what discriminatory actions social workers can be disciplined for.
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“It’s not surprising that a board would align its rules with statutes passed by the legislature,” said Renae Eze, spokeswoman for Abbott’s office.
The National Association of Social Workers, the largest professional organization of social workers in the country, called the change unnecessary and criticized the board’s decision to rely entirely on the governor’s recommendation rather than seeking public comment. Will Francis, director of NAWS’s Texas chapter, said it was “incredibly disheartening” during public comments to the board following the decision.
JaeHee “Melanie” Chung-Sherman, a clinical social worker in Dallas and member of NASW, said the board’s decision to not seek public comment has created “confusion and outrage” among social workers in the state.
“It has significant impact,” Chung-Sherman said. “It’s confusing for licensed social workers who are providing services here in Texas. Not notifying social workers and doing this being done in basically secrecy has undermined the normal procedure.”
The change “reflected the council’s obligation to reflect statutory language,” said Gloria Canseco, the BHEC presiding officer. But she added that “gender and gender identity” would be revisited during the council’s Oct. 27 meeting in order to determine the best course of action. She did not say if the decision to strike protections for people with disabilities would be revisited.
Darrel Spinks, the council’s executive director, said during the meeting last week that he had sought an opinion from Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office, which agreed with Abbott’s position.
The nondiscrimination clause in the code of conduct was taken directly from the social work Code of Ethics, Francis said. The rules protecting clients from discrimination based on sexual orientation have been on the books since 2010 and the protections for gender identity and protection were added in 2012.
Protections for people with disabilities have also been in place in Texas since the code was last opened up for public comment in 2010, Francis said, and it’s removal creates the impression that people with disabilities can be discriminated against despite there being federal protections already in place.
“It’s disturbing, even if it’s unintentional,” Francis said. “They created space for people to get the impression that this is allowed now. What the governor has done is put people with disabilities at risk for discrimination for no reason.”
The governor’s office said the review of the social work code of conduct and decision to align it with underlying state law was done only now because the BHEC was just established last year during the 86th session of the Texas legislature and the review of rules is part of its purview.
State lawmakers and advocacy groups are calling on the board to reverse the decision, citing possible violations of state law and increased discrimination toward vulnerable groups.
State Rep. Sarah Davis, R-Houston, said the vote was “ill-informed.” She raised concerns that the board violated the Texas Open Meetings Act because the posted agenda for the meeting did not include notice of the rule change.
“Removing these protections from the code of conduct will increase stigma for vulnerable groups, which will only serve to discourage them from seeking care,” Davis wrote in a letter to Canseco. “The process for adopting these changes lacked transparency and may violate state law. I urge BHEC to reinstate these protections in a revised rule draft and to post the draft rules for public comment.”
Spinks defended the legality of the decision.
“These changes were then adopted in an open meeting in accordance with the governing law,” he said in an email.
Rep. Mary González, D-Clint and chair of the legislature’s LGBTQ caucus, said changes of this magnitude deserved to have input from the people it would affect.
“There was no outcry that this had to be changed, there was nobody begging for it to be changed,” González said. “The governor, who is not a social worker, made these changes without consulting the social workers.”
The word “disability” covers people diagnosed with a mental illness, a group that makes up a huge portion of the clients that social workers assist, said Dennis Borel, executive director of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities.
“The governor’s office directive adopted by this board simply undermines the social work professionals in our state, and it’s totally unconscionable,” Borel said. “The state board and the governor’s office need to answer why they chose this time to offer something that they had to know would be extremely controversial and essentially ram through it with no public awareness and no public comment.”
A joint statement condemning the board’s decision was released late last week by seven advocacy groups: Equality Texas, Transgender Education Network of Texas, National Association for Social Workers-Texas Chapter, Texas Freedom Network, ACLU of Texas, Lambda Legal and the Human Rights Campaign.
The groups said Abbott’s decision was an attempt to circumvent the legislature after it failed to pass bills in recent sessions that would exempt social workers and mental health professionals from following nondiscrimination requirements on the basis of religious beliefs.
“Pro-discrimination groups couldn’t get this passed into law, but Gov. Abbott has done their bidding by pushing it through administratively in an obscure meeting when he thought few people were watching,” Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, said in the release.
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