Home Visitor's Handbook

Ethical Considerations for Home Visiting

A man and a woman in business attire talking at a table"When it comes to ethical decisions, there are no answers, there are only decisions." – Mel Gray and Jill Gibbons

There are a number of ethical issues and dilemmas that can arise during home visiting. The very intimacy of having an ongoing relationship within someone's home, with no other professionals present, can lead to confusing situations.

Ethical dilemmas are those gray areas where there is no legal mandate. These issues are best handled by having agency policies in place, in anticipation of their possibly coming up, and through the creation of additional policies when new situations arise.

Confidentiality

During an initial meeting, it is important to establish what information (if any) will be kept confidential between you and the family and what will be shared with others in your agency and under what circumstances. You must be very clear that you are required to report child abuse or neglect, including domestic violence or use of illegal drugs by anyone in the home. It is also important to discuss the agency's policy on keeping family health information confidential and only disclosing personally identifiable health information with written parental permission.

Boundaries

The term boundary refers to the differences between a professional and personal relationship with someone. Boundaries are frequently discussed within home-based programs, because the very nature of being in someone's home every week brings an intimacy that can be more like friendship than if the parent and child come to a center. Reflective supervision can be extremely helpful as you explore your relationship with individual families. However, this is such a pervasive issue in home-based programs that staff and Policy Councils often work together to establish guidelines that a home visitor can refer to in the moment.

In any home visiting situation, you may become genuinely fond of a family, live in the same community, and find yourself disclosing information about yourself on more of a friendship level than a professional one. In small communities, you may have known the family all their lives or even be related to them, as happens in some very small, rural programs. Your behavior may be determined to some extent by your desire to be liked by the family. Your agency should consider the community it serves and then set policies about self-disclosure or about maintaining your professional role during the home visits.

There may be times of crisis when a family member needs transportation to an emergency room, when there is no food in the house and the food banks are closed, or when some other emergency may occur that will tempt you to provide cash or services that are completely outside of your regular services. Again, your agency needs to develop protocols for these kinds of events.

You may also be tempted to give a family your private phone number. Your agency should have a policy to give you direction.

The family may invite you to dinner or a birthday party. You may run into each other at elementary school events or at the grocery store. Reflective supervision and agency policies can help you know how to respond in these situations.

A man and a woman in business attire talking at a conference tableCross-Cultural Conflicts

Many differences of values, beliefs, and customs may emerge when the home visitor and the family are from different cultures. Ideally, these may lead to mutual learning, discussion, and negotiation of differences with an eye toward a shared goal, such as supporting the child's learning. Some cultural differences, however, present ethical dilemmas.

A common example is the American, individualistic emphasis on autonomy, which contradicts the more common collectivist emphasis on valuing the group over the individual. One culture's etiquette may require them to offer something to eat or drink—and that the guest accept. An EHS home visitor often brings the snack and uses it to share nutrition information. The home visitor may resist accepting tea or coffee out of a concern for hot drinks near little children. These differences can be discussed, and home visiting services can be delivered in a culturally competent and respectful manner. Perhaps the home visitor could accept a glass of water.

An ongoing challenge for home visitors is how to address varying cultural beliefs on the use of spanking as a discipline measure. There is increasing and overwhelming evidence that harsh emotional and physical discipline methods (e.g., verbal shaming, spanking) are harmful to children's social, emotional, and cognitive development. While it may appear to work in the moment—stopping a behavior out of fear—it is not effective in teaching self-control in the long-term. It's a very delicate line for the home visitor to walk as they develop a relationship with parents based on respect, including respect for a family's cultural beliefs, while at the same time sharing information on what we know about harsh punishment. This is a good topic for staff training and meetings. Home visitors may particularly benefit from opportunities to role play this difficult topic.

Last Updated: July 18, 2019