Understanding Duty to Warn


There are two parts: Law and Ethics: 

Part 1- Law: Social Worker’s Legal Duty to Warn or NO Duty to warn

States with “Mandatory” Duty to Warn

  • Most States have “Mandated Duty to Warn“, which means that mental health professionals ARE REQUIRED by the State Law to warn 3rd party of imminent danger, and the professionals are protected by the law from legal action by the clients whose confidentiality is breached.

States with “Permissive” Duty to Warn

  • Some States have “Permissive Duty to Warn”. It means that, mental-health professionals ARE PERMITTED but NOT REQUIRED by the State law to warn the 3rd party of imminent danger.“Permissive” gives social workers some protection as long as SW can cite the appropriate reasons to breach confidentiality. However, if SW chooses NOT to report/warn, he or she would not be hold liable by the State law. 

States with “No Duty to Warn”

  • Few states have “No Duty to Warn”, which means the mental health professionals are NOT PERMITTED by the State law to breach confidentiality to warn the 3rd party of potential threats.

Part 2: Ethics: Social Worker’s Duty to Protect

According to NASW Code of Ethics, 1.07 Privacy and Confidentiality, social workers’s duty to protect client’s confidentiality does NOT apply when disclosure is necessary to prevent imminent harm. We have ethical duty to protect the safety of the public and the client.

(c) Social workers should protect the confidentiality of all information obtained in the course of professional service, except for compelling professional reasons. The general expectation that social workers will keep information confidential does not apply when disclosure is necessary to prevent serious, foreseeable, and imminent harm to a client or other identifiable person.

What should you do if you encounter an exam question that requires you to choose between obeying State law and following SW code of ethics? 

The answer is, if the question stem specifies a State law, the Board wants its licensee to observe the law and act accordingly.

For example, if you are a social worker employed in a State with “No Duty to Warn”, then you have to follow the State Law, which means you are not legally permitted to breach the client’s confidentiality to warn. Remember, part of following the code of ethics is to not taking any action that is unlawful.

Again, read the stem carefully, if the State law is clearly stated, it’s there for a reason. Follow the sequence “1. lawful, 2. ethical, 3. sensible”. 

Hope it helps!





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Texas Licensed clinical social worker, Doctor of Social Work, clinical supervisor (LCSW-S), life-long learner. I grew up in Vietnam and came to the United States when I was 14. I am currently living and practicing clinical social work in Houston, Texas. My interests are maternal mental health, Asian American psychological wellness, language acquisition (English, Vietnamese), and very much in cognitive psychology. In my free time, I like to garden and do arts and crafts.


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