Social workers have the responsibility of helping patients, families, and groups cope with challenges in their lives. Their role is to assist clients who have issues caused by abuse, mental health, neglect, domestic violence, and parental substance abuse. Social workers often work with different institutions and other health professionals to ensure patient wellness. When a social worker sexually abuses a client, they harm the very people they aim to help.

Sexual abuse by a social worker takes various forms. It may include sexually suggestive behavior, such as making suggesting suggestive remarks or using sexual humor, or overt sexual behavior, such as oral sex, sexual intercourse, or fondling. When helping professionals take the Hippocratic Oath, they have prohibited sexual relationships with clients. Social workers and physicians are obliged to keep far from all seduction and all intentional ill-doing, especially from the pleasures of sexual relationships with clients. Also, the National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics prohibits social workers from engaging in sexual contact or sexual activities with current clients, regardless of whether such contact is consensual or forced. The current Code of Ethics even goes further to prohibit sexual relationships between social workers and former clients because of the potential for harm to the client.

Dual Relationships and Boundary Crossings

The relationship between a social worker and their client is a professional one and centered around providing and receiving care. This is known as a therapeutic relationship. The National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics prohibits social workers from engaging in dual relation with a current or former client. Boundaries in this profession define the set of roles and expectations for the social worker and their client. The Code of Ethics makes it clear that social workers should not engage in sexual contact or sexual activity with clients because of the potential for harm to the client. Boundary violations occur when the social worker fails to keep their relationship with the client with the set roles and expectations, allowing the relationship to become less professional and more personal and intimate.

Professional misconduct involving worker-client boundary violations harms the very clients they vow to help. In most cases, it’s usually the end result of a series of indiscretion in the client-worker relationship. The situations start with the erosion of the social worker’s neutrality to the client; the social worker takes a special interest in the client and starts to discuss personal issues that are not part of therapy. The social worker may disclose confidential information to the client, spend an unusually long period of time with the clients, or touch the client casually. With time, the social worker begins making sexual comments or touching the client in a sexual manner. This may lead to a secondary relation and social worker-client sex.

Social workers in secondary relationships with clients hold positions of power and can subordinate the client’s needs to their own. There is no true informed consent in dual relationships. Clients are likely not aware of the imbalance of power and do not understand that professional power is not checked by rules or professional conduct. This creates room for harm to potentially occur. If a therapeutic relationship becomes intimate, the role of the worker becomes blurred and allows for the exploitation of the client. 

Patterns of Sexual Misconduct

Most of the data collected on sexual abuse involving social workers suggest that the majority of victims are female clients, although there are many exceptions. Some studies offer diverse theories about possible causes of social worker sexual abuse. Some social workers appear to struggle with their own mental illness, which can be in the form of antisocial personality disorders, impulse control, and narcissistic. Other social workers are “situational offenders,” while others do not have basic competence and insight around boundaries. Situational offenders understand the code of ethics and that they’re violating professional judgment, but choose to sexually assault a client because of some personal crisis, troubling legal and financial problems, or intense workplace frustration.

On any social work credentialing board, you’ll see frequent cases in which clients have filed complaints against social workers, resulting in penalties, fines, license suspension, and revocation. In hospitals, government, and community mental health agencies, immediate supervisors must play a role in coaching, modeling, and engaging social workers on issues of rapport-building, client engagement, and assurance of proper boundaries. If they fail, the agency can also be held liable for the abuse.

If you have been victimized by a social worker, regardless of what they were going through, you need to take action and hold them accountable.

Sexual Abuse in the Context of a Social Worker and a Client

The social worker-client relationship creates a power imbalance. In a healthy and appropriate situation, you know very little about the social worker, but they may know things about that no other person does. This power imbalance does not allow for meaningful consent to any form of sexual activity. A social worker can lull their victim into a false sense of security or use flattery to get the victim to lower his/her guard. A social worker’s job is to look out for the needs and concerns of the client, not to serve their own interests. As such, sexual abuse is never a client’s fault; the responsibility falls on the social worker.

Sexual abuse involves a sexual act with or without physical contact, committed by a social worker without the consent of the client. It is an act that subjects the victim to the perpetrator’s desires through the abuse of power, the use of implicit and explicit threats, or the use of force or coercion. Sexual abuse violates the victim’s rights, including the right to psychological and physical integrity and security of the person.

Sexual abuse by a social worker can include:

  • Behavior of a sexual nature, such as displaying sexualized materials for no clinical purposes or touching a client’s hand in a manner that indicates sexual interest.
  • Touching or threatening to touch a client in a sexual manner.
  • Remarks of a sexual nature towards a client, for example, by making comments and jokes on the size of a client’s breasts or buttocks.
  • Engaging in a sexual activity with a client who cannot give consent, particularly if he or she is a minor, is in a relationship of dependency, is incapable of expressing consent (e.g., because of intoxication or disability), is in a situation where a position of power, trust, or authority is being abused.
  • Engaging in sexual intercourse or oral-genital contact.
  • Sexual kissing or hugging.
  • Penetrating a client’s genitals using a part of the body or an object.
  • Using force, coercion, or physical violence to sexually assault a client.

Effects of Sexual Abuse by a Social Worker

 Sexual abuse and molestation can significantly affect the victim. While physical injuries are visible on the surface, the psychological aspects of the abuse leave victims tormented in many ways, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Guilt
  • Withdrawal
  • Low self-esteem
  • Anti-social behavior, making it hard to work or attend school
  • Loss of hope
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Self-injury and suicidal thoughts
  • Difficulty developing the trust needed to establish solid relationships
  • Disturbances and disorders relating to sleep, food, and relationships
  • Propensity to become a victim again

The mental and emotional injuries of sexual abuse can be life-long and very disabling. Victims are entitled to recover damages from all forms of injuries sustained. Hospitalization and long and intensive therapy are sometimes required, which can prove to be very expensive if it takes several years or a lifetime to heal.

What to Do After a Sexual Assault

Becoming a victim of sexual abuse can be confusing, and individuals may wonder what to do after the assault. One of the most important steps to take in this situation is to report the abuse immediately. It’s normal to feel scared to speak about your experience out of fear of retaliation or the belief that you’ll overcome the abuse. These are dangerous lines of thinking. While speaking out about a sexual crime and seeking medical treatment can be an extremely difficult thing to do, making the move will increase the chances of the offender facing prosecution and being held accountable for their actions. Also, reporting the sexual abuse incident to the police as soon as it happens helps prevent the offender from victimizing others in the future.

Time is also a crucial factor when it comes to collecting important pieces of evidence. Biologicals evidence from your clothing, body, personal belongings, or the scene of the incident can accelerate investigation and help bring the perpetrator to justice. You can also file a complaint with your local board or college of social work. After receiving medical treatment and reporting a sexual abuse incident to law enforcement, the next step should be contacting a reliable California sexual abuse lawyer. The team at Stop Sexual Abuse Law Firm is here to help. We can arrange for support services you need in addition to handling your legal case. Whether your case is clear-cut and abuse can be easily proven, or there are complex issues in play, we take a detailed approach and take advantage of all effective legal remedies.

Suing a Social Worker for Sexual Abuse in California: The Civil Lawsuit Process

While a sexual abuse incident can give rise to a criminal prosecution, which can result in the offender being convicted and punished, there’s no guarantee that the court will order restitution to the victim. The only way to seek financial compensation for the damages caused by the abuse is by filing a civil lawsuit. This type of lawsuit is based on non-criminal statutes. It generally involves holding the individuals or related third parties accountable for the abuse and requiring them to compensate the victim for the damages resulting from the abuse. The standard of proof in civil lawsuits is lower than in criminal cases. The victim must only establish liability in a civil lawsuit, whereas the prosecutor must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in a criminal lawsuit.

Here are the steps to follow when filing a civil lawsuit in California:

Have Legal Standing

To sue a person or entity in California, you must first find out whether you have the right to file a lawsuit against them. In other words, you must have legal standing. You may also have legal standing even if you’re not the person who was sexually abused if you’re a caregiver who is suing on behalf of a child or an adult who is mentally disabled. In addition, you must be a natural legal person for you to initiate a lawsuit. This means that you must have certain rights and responsibilities under the law. Finally, you must have the legal capacity to take part in a lawsuit. People who do not have the legal capacity to file a lawsuit include minor children and those with mental incapacities.

Choose Proper Venue

The next step is determining where you should file your suit. In California, civil claims are typically filed within the county where the abuse occurred, where the defendant lives, or where you live. In some cases, there may be multiple permissible venues in which you can bring your suit. For instance, if you were assaulted within one county, but the perpetrator lives in another county. The attorneys at Stop Sexual Abuse Now can help you understand counties of proper venue and which one offers a strategic advantage to your case.

Fulfill the Jurisdiction Requirements

California has two types of trial courts: superior courts and small claims courts. You must file a lawsuit in a court that has the jurisdiction to hear your case, or your case will be immediately dismissed. For a court to have jurisdiction, the defendant must live in California, and the court must have the power to legally review your claim. A location will then be finalized for the court that will hear your case.

File a Complaint and Provide Legal Notice to the Defendant

A complaint is a formal, legal document that gives a detailed explanation of your legal dispute and requests compensation for damages. The complaint must include a statement that sets out your cause of action. Once you have drafted the complaint, you must pay the required legal fees and file it with the clerk of the court. The next step involves serving the defendant with a copy of your complaint by delivering it to the defendant’s place of residence or sending the notice by certified mail to another person that has the legal authority to receive such notices. Once your complaint is properly served, your lawsuit has been legally filed.

The defendant has 30 days from the time of service to respond to your lawsuit. An answer or demurrer is a motion filed by the defendant to dismiss or stroke a complaint. It may also contain a cross-complaint against the plaintiff.

Discovery, Trial, And Appeals

The parties may conduct discovery, which can include requests for admission, interrogatories, and requests for production. Discovery allows both parties to obtain information to strengthen their arguments. Both parties will exchange the information they plan on using during the trial.  The parties must respond to written discovery within 30 days, failure to which the other party may file a motion to have the court to force a response.

After discovery has ended, the civil lawsuit will move to trial. Both parties will submit a brief to the judge, outlining their arguments as any evidence they will present during the trial. Once the trial begins, each party will have the opportunity to put on their case and present evidence to prove their arguments. The judge or jury will then take time to deliberate as to the verdict. If liability is determined in favor of the defendant, then the case is dismissed. But if determined in favor of the plaintiff, the court will determine the amount of compensation, and a judgment will be issued.

After a judgment, either side may appeal or make a post-trial motion to amend or vacate the judgment. This may or may not sway the final decision. Also, the plaintiff must undertake efforts to obtain the money or take a debtor’s examination to find where the defendant’s assets are hidden.

Compensation in Social Worker Sexual Abuse Cases

Whether your perpetrator was convicted or not, you may be eligible to file a civil claim for damages. While monetary compensation cannot undo the experience of suffering sexual abuse, it can help bring closure to you and your loved ones. You may be eligible for compensation for:

Medical expenses: The victim can sue for the cost of medical treatment resulting from sexual abuse. This can also include the cost of necessary ongoing psychological therapy, prescription medication, and other forms of treatment.

Pain and suffering: The experience of sexual abuse is traumatic and usually causes long-term psychological and emotional suffering. California law allows victims to sue for their physical pain, mental anguish, and emotional distress caused by the assault.

Lost income: If the victim is unable to go to work for an extended or is forced to leave a job due to the sexual assault, the victim can sue for lost wages and loss of employment.

In proving the sexual assault happened, factors such as establishing the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator, showing the act was consensual, and establishing the plaintiff’s credibility are critical. Physical evidence and testimony of witnesses will be important for proving the severity of the abuse as well as the damages. At Stop Sexual Abuse Law Firm, we work with expert witnesses, including medical doctors, psychologists, and psychiatrists who understand the examinations of sexual abuse victims and establishing the value of the past, present, and future damages. We will fight relentlessly to secure the compensation you deserve.

Statute of Limitations for Sexual Abuse Cases

The time limit to file a civil lawsuit based on sexual abuse in California differs depending on if the victim was a child or an adult when the alleged crime was committed. On January 1, 2019, California sex crime law AB1619 was enacted. The law extends the time limit for survivors of sexual abuse to file a civil lawsuit in California. If the survivor is an adult, he/she has to bring a civil action within 10 years from the date of the last act or attempted act or within 3 years from when the plaintiff discovers that an illness or injury resulted from that act.

On October 13th, bill AB218 was signed into law and extended the time limit for childhood sexual abuse survivors to file a civil lawsuit. Childhood victims of sexual abuse have until their 40th birthday or up to 5 years from the discovery of the injury or illness resulting from the abuse. This new law will help many survivors who usually require more time to process and heal from their abuse.

If you’re suing a government agency that had employed the social worker, the time limit can be as shorty as 6 months from the abuse. This applies to children and adult survivors.

Find a Social Worker Sexual Abuse Attorney Near Me

At Stop Sexual Abuse Law Firm, our attorneys understand the effects of sexual abuse and aggressively pursue compensation for clients. We believe it’s important for survivors to receive representation from experienced attorneys who will serve the client's best interests and fight for their rights. This requires empathy for you and an appreciation of the difficulty involved in reporting the crime and filing a lawsuit against your abuser. We strive to prove how sexual abuse affected our clients. When a social worker violates the extraordinary trust and dependency place on them, the damages inflicted on victims are very difficult to heal. We work with medical professionals and expert witnesses to testify to this truth. What’s more, our attorneys will be available at every step of the process, from filing a claim to case resolution.

For many of our clients, it can be difficult to find the money to pay for legal services, especially because many of them end up being unemployed or unable to work due to the effects of their trauma. This is why we handle all cases on a contingency basis. What this means is that our clients don’t pay us legal fees unless we obtain a favorable settlement and compensation has been awarded.

To arrange a free and confidential consultation with an attorney at Stop Sexual Abuse Law Firm, please call us at 310-359-9451 or fill out our online contact form. We look forward to hearing from you.