Principle of self determination

Principle of self determination

One of the firmest convictions of social work profession is that a person has an innate ability for self determination. A conscious willful violation of the client’s freedom by a case  worker is considered unprofessional as it transgresses the client’s natural right and impairs  he case work treatment. The principle of self determination is defined by Biestek (1957) as follows:

“The principle of self determination is the practical recognition of the right and need of clients to freedom in making their own choices and decisions in the case work process.
Case Workers have a corresponding duty to respect that right, recognize that need, stimulate and help to activate that potential for self direction by helping the client to see
and use the available and appropriate resources of the community and of his/her own
personality. The client’s right to self determination is however, limited by the client’s
capacity for positive and constructive decision making, by the framework of civil and
moral law, and by the function of the agency”.

Client as a human being has the responsibility of living his/her life in such a manner that
he/she is able to work towards achieving life’s goals. The client also has the right to decide the course of action to achieve. However, the client seeks professional help from social case worker to know the various alternatives and objectively evaluate each alternative. Following are the ways by which principle of self determination can be demonstrated:

a) Communicating the problem: The case worker’s acceptance of the client and the diagnosis after the study phase has to be communicated to the client. The case worker has to enable the client work through the emotional disturbance and clearly see the problem

b) Enabling identification of resources: Case Worker must help the client identify available resources that may be used for problem resolution. Case Worker and the client work together to carry out cost benefit analysis of the alternatives available to the client. The role of the worker is to delicately balance activity as well as passivity. The passivity consists of doing things for and to the client, thus helping the client to express fully and freely. The case worker is however active in observing and evaluating the words, actions and emotions of the client, analyzing client’s strengths as well as limitations, enriching outer and inner resources of the client and stimulating the client towards his/her activity (Biestek).
c) Activating client’s resources: Worker has to help the client to get free from stress,
fears and provide support to grow through the worker client relationship. The ultimate goal is to capacitate the client to be self reliant.
d) Facilitative relationship environment: Case Worker has to create a relationship environment in order to enable the client grow and work out the problems. With active listening, the case worker facilitates client participation in deeper realization of own problems, identify resources to work out own problems.
In application of the principle of Self Determination, the case worker however must not assume the principle responsibility for problem resolution for the client. The client must be helped to take an active role while case worker’s role is more of a facilitator and supporter. Case Worker should not in any way manipulate or persuade the client in choosing the course of action or in decision making.


Limitations of Principle of Self Determination


  • Client’s capacity for positive and constructive decision making: Each client’s physical and mental capacity to take personal decisions varies. For example, a mentally retarded child would not be able to take decisions related to career/ vocational activity to be taken up. Similarly, persons suffering from mental illnesses (schizophrenia, cases of acute depression or those having suicidal or homicidal tendencies) may not be emotionally stable to take objective independent decisions.
    In such cases, the case worker would have to assume a lead role in order to
    protect the client from taking inappropriate decisions.
  • Limitations related to civil law: Authority and law are realities of an organized society. The general purpose of law is to prevent individuals from abusing or misusing liberty and to protect the society from such an abuse. While Principle of self determination encourages the client to take his/her own decisions, case worker has to help the client accept and adjust to the limitations of personal freedom arising from law and authority.
  • Limitation related to moral law: The natural right to make choices and decisions about one’s own life does not extend to moral evil; a person might have the physical power to make such a choice but he/she has no real right to do so (Biestek: 1957). Commonly accepted moral laws may relate to inappropriate behaviours such as stealing, kidnapping, murder etc. In India, the moral laws widen due to the existence of multiple religions where each religion prescribes its own moral behaviour- food habits, marriage, divorce, adoption etc. The case worker has to accept the conscience of the client and help the client make choices and decisions that are within the boundaries of that conscience.
  • Limitation related to agency function: Each agency has its own ethos, goals,
    functions, eligibility criteria, networks and areas of concern/action. The client has
    a duty to respect this and is obliged to remain within the framework of the agency