Licensing Investigations: Suggestions from Social Workers Who Received Sanctions

Jun 6, 2023

social work research journal

When clients have concerns about licensed social workers, they may file complaints with their state licensing boards. Although prior research has explored the types of complaints made against social workers, there has been little research on the experiences of social workers who are being investigated.

Social Work Research is a journal co-published by NASW and Oxford University Press, and in a recent issue, researchers revealed their findings in a study of these social worker experiences.

This phenomenological study was based on in-depth interviews designed to gain a better understanding of the lived experiences of 13 licensed social workers who participated in licensing investigations and received sanctions by a state licensing board for violating state laws, rules, or ethical standards. The researchers used an interpretive approach to analyze the interviews and identify common themes surrounding participant suggestions for improvement for licensing boards when investigating complaints and issuing sanctions.

Research participants suggested that being investigated for licensing violations can cause significant levels of anxiety, stress, and embarrassment. Although some participants felt that the investigation process was fair, others expressed deep concerns about how they were treated.

The participants’ suggestions for improving the investigation process centered around five primary themes:

  • ensuring the process is fair;
  • treating licensees with kindness and respect;
  • using a collaborative approach;
  • using a corrective approach; and
  • hiring professional social workers as investigators.

The researchers concluded their article with this observation:


Research participants noted that some violations may be related to stresses within their families and social environments. Social workers are coping with increasing stresses related to ethical dilemmas, including stresses raised during the COVID-19 epidemic…. Regulatory boards can play an important role, not only in enforcing regulatory laws, but by promoting ethical and effective practice through education, support, and collaboration. Within the process of investigating complaints, there are bound to be situations in which licensees disagree with the findings of investigators. Still, licensing boards are primarily responsible for protecting the public. Given that regulatory boards represent the social work profession, it also seems fitting that regulatory processes support social work values and principles such as human relationships, access to needed services, and respect for the dignity and worth of all people….



  • Allan Edward Barsky, PhD, JD, MSW, professor, Phyllis and Harvey Sandler School of Social Work, College of Social Work and Criminal Justice, Florida Atlantic University
  • Christine Elizabeth Spadola, PhD, LMHC, assistant professor, School of Social Work, University of Texas at Arlington

NASW journals are co-published by NASW Press and Oxford University Press. The journal Social Work is a benefit of NASW membership. It is available online or, at a member’s request, in print. Children & SchoolsHealth & Social Work and Social Work Research are available by subscription at a discounted rate for NASW members, either online or in print. Find out more about the journals and subscriptions.