How Can “Applied Law” Help in the Resolution of Ethical Dilemmas and Legal Problems?

What is the difference between ethics and applied law? Applied law means law that is usable and applicable to the solving of daily problems in the behavioral health professions. Law that is simply explained and practical to apply is more likely to be used by the decision maker as a primary source of reference in addressing common practice dilemmas.

Consider, for example, the case of a child protective social worker investigating the possibility of medical neglect within a Hispanic family in northern New Mexico. The professional fears that a child is being denied appropriate conventional medical treatment for asthma in favor of a faith based remedy that employs the use of curanderos (traditional healers) and herbal therapy. Is this a ground for removing the child from the home? In order to address this question, the professional may consider legal principles (including the law governing the professional’s responsibility to protect vulnerable children), ethical standards (the right of the family to make its own choices concerning health care), regional and cultural standards (the long-standing acceptability of traditional forms of medical treatment within some communities), and personal standards (for example, how the professional’s own ideology views the treatment provided to this child).

The decision maker considering the preceding problem may look to a number of reference sources, including law and ethics textbooks, professional ethical codes, and public agency policies, in order to make a choice about what action to take. The professional is likely to discover quickly that a variety of scholarly textbooks and manuals exist on the market today, with each tending to focus singularly on the subjects of “law” and “ethics” as separate disciplines. Moreover, the professional may find a significant amount of overlap or even contradiction among each of the principles presented in these reference sources. At this point, the professional may be overwhelmed both by the contradictory answers suggested by these textbooks and by their failure to address the “big picture”—what is the best resolution to this problem for all of the parties involved?

In reality, making a decision concerning the above dilemma depends on the professional’s ability to integrate and apply legal, ethical, cultural, and regional considerations in a specific order that maximizes the likelihood that both the professional’s and client’s obligations and interests are addressed fully and simultaneously.

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