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Texas allows social workers to turn away clients who are LGBTQ or disabled

The move comes following a recommendation from Gov. Greg Abbott, who advised the State Board of Social Work Examiners that its nondiscrimination policy exceeded that put in place by Texas's Occupations Code.

Texas allows social workers to turn away clients who are LGBTQ or disabled
Cover Image Source: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center on May 4, 2018, in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Texas social workers can now turn away clients on the basis of their disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity. The highly-criticized change comes after the state Board of Social Work Examiners last week voted unanimously to eliminate language from its code of conduct that prohibited social work organizations in the state from turning away individuals based on their disability status, gender identity, or sexual orientation. According to The Associated Press, the board made the decision following a recommendation from Gov. Greg Abbott — a Republican — who advised the agency that its nondiscrimination policy exceeded that put in place by Texas's Occupations Code.



The decision was reportedly made last week during a joint meeting with the Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council, which oversees regulatory agencies for professions related to mental health. "It's not surprising that a board would align its rules with statutes passed by the Legislature," said Renae Eze, a spokeswoman for Abbott's office. However, some advocacy and professional organizations have heavily criticized the board's decision to follow the governor's recommendation rather than seek public comment saying that it could put already vulnerable disabled and LGBTQIAP+ people at a greater risk.



Will Francis, director of the National Association of Social Workers' Texas chapter, told the board during public comments that their decision was "incredibly disheartening." He stated that such a move creates the impression that disabled people can be discriminated against despite federal rules that are in place to protect them. "It's disturbing, even if it's unintentional," he said. "They created space for people to get the impression that this is allowed now. What the governor has done is put people with disabilities at risk for discrimination for no reason."



Advocacy groups including the likes of Equality Texas, Transgender Education Network of Texas, and Texas Freedom Network decried the board's move in a joint statement released Thursday. "This is cruel, cowardly politics at its worst. Pro-discrimination groups couldn't get this passed into law but Gov. Abbott has done their bidding by pushing it through administratively in an obscure meeting when he thought few people were watching," Texas Freedom Network President Kathy Miller said in the release. "Discrimination is shameful, even more so when you try to hide what you're doing."



"The social workers code of conduct previously helped ensure ethical treatment of all clients and prevented bias-motivated misconduct," said Ricardo Martinez, Chief Executive Officer of Equality Texas. "Now with the removal of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression from the code, LGBTQ+ folks who experience discrimination could face more obstacles to getting the help they need." Emmett Schelling — executive director of the Transgender Education Network of Texas — said this move in the midst of a pandemic is "abhorrent."



"Many LGBTQ+ Texans struggle to access competent, quality, and affordable health care as is," he said. "There is always a real possibility that trans-Texans specifically could be turned away or dissuaded from accessing the medical resources they need. At a time when many in our community require services to make it through an isolating pandemic, attempting to grant providers a license to discriminate is abhorrent." While it stripped out non-discrimination language on sexual orientation, disability, gender identity, or gender expression, the board reportedly left untouched most prohibitions against discrimination based on other characteristics, including a client’s age, gender, race, religion, or political affiliation.



These changes follow the US Supreme Court's ruling this summer that federal protections against employment discrimination based on gender also apply to discrimination against people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Moreover, Francis pointed out that professional conduct rules still bar social workers from discriminating. "Social workers already have the ability to decline to provide services to a client based on their competencies and training, but they cannot discriminate based on selective personal values," he said. "The language in the Code of Conduct was taken directly from the social work Code of Ethics, which was developed in 1960 and serves as the standard-bearer for defining the values and principles that guide social workers’ conduct in all practice areas."

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