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Professional boundaries

Professional boundaries: contents

  • Is it OK... to accept a gift from a young person or their family?
  • Is it OK... to have contact with a young person outside of work?
  • Is it OK... to put up a young person in your own home?

Is it OK... to accept a gift from a young person or their family?

There is no relevant law regarding gifts (except local councils have rules on this). Ethical conduct would take into account these issues:

  • The offering of a gift may be emotionally or culturally significant to the young person or their family and so should be handled sensitively.

  • A gift might be stolen property.

  • The young person, and other young people, must not gain the impression that there is a special relationship between the young person and a staff member.

  • Most gifts which are accepted should become, and be seen to become, the property of the agency, not the staff member. (If it is food it can be shared among staff and/or young people).

A youth worker should not personally give a gift to a young person, except in exceptional circumstances and if approved by management.

An agency might give a gift to a young person in appropriate circumstances - it should be clear to the young person and everyone else that the gift is from the agency, not from the youth worker personally.


Is it OK... to have contact with a young person outside of work

Your youth work activities and your private life should normally be quite separate, eg:

  • Youth workers should not socialise with young people from their work.
  • Youth workers should not have romantic or sexual relations with young people from their work.
  • Young people should not visit or contact youth workers at their home (an exception: on-call - see below).

This is part of the well-accepted ethical principle of maintaining professional boundaries.


Blurred professional boundaries

This professional boundary, and therefore ethical conduct, is less clearcut in some situations.

You have private connections to young people. Eg:

  • you live and work in the same suburb or small town, or
  • you both belong to the same close ethnic community (eg. Aboriginal), or
  • you are related to a young person who uses the agency.

It is not clear whether you are a "youth worker" or not. So it is not clear what, if any, ethical principles, agency policies or codes of conduct apply to you. Eg:

  • you are being paid for a few hours work eg. as a tutor, or to help organise an event or project, (whether you are a young person or not)
  • you are an admin worker or some other "non-youth worker" (young person or not)
  • you are a volunteer (young person or not)
  • you are a young person who is a peer leader or peer researcher or involved in some other form of youth participation.

It is not clear if the young person should be thought of as a "client" or not. Eg:

  • they are an ex-client, or
  • they are a client of another project in your multi-project agency
  • their connection with your agency and your work is weak. (Eg. their only connection with the agency is that they attended an event you ran for a hundred young people).

Is it OK to have contact with a young person from the agency in one of these situations?

It is not fair or realistic to impose the same ethical rules in every one of these situations above. At the same time, it is potentially risky, for young people, youth workers and agencies, to leave these situations completely unregulated. In some cases the problem can be easily solved by devising an appropriate policy or code of conduct, eg. for volunteers or admin workers.

If you have had contact, or might have contact, with a young person outside of work in any of these situations of blurred professional boundaries, and your existing agreements and policies do not adequately protect young people, yourself and the agency, then you and your management should consider drawing up a specific agreement outlining how you will manage the situation. This agreement would make it clear what is acceptable and what is not, to protect everyone involved.

If the situation doesn't justify drawing up an agreement, it may be enough to simply report the situation to your manager, who should make a written record that they are aware of, and comfortable with, the situation.


It is OK for a child or young person to contact you away from work, such as at home, if you are on-call. Being on-call must be structured so that:

  • calls are preferably on a work mobile, or calls to the work landline are diverted to home (so your own phone number stays private)
  • you are paid appropriately
  • Workcover requirements are met
  • any face-to-face work at night or in clients' own homes is safe
  • being on-call does not create a risk of occupational stress and burnout.

Driving a client to their home



Is it OK... to put up a young person in your own home?

What would you do...

  • ... After a band night at your centre you are driving home when you see a 12 year old girl who was at the centre, hitchhiking along the highway by herself. She lives on a farm 35kms from town and says that her lift fell through. Her mum can't come and get her because she is out of petrol and stuck at home looking after a sick baby. You want to get home yourself and probably don't have enough petrol to take the girl home either. You think to yourself: Should I put her on my couch and sort out a lift in the morning...

  • ... A young guy from your program gets kicked out of home and turns up at the agency one evening with nowhere to go. The local refuge is full and he has no money...

  • ... An Aboriginal girl who hangs out at your youth centre, asks to stay at your place one night after fighting with her mother. Her mother is your cousin and you have known the girl since she was a baby...

No law absolutely prohibits a youth worker from accommodating a young person in their own home. It is a question involving ethics, safety (duty of care, and occupational health and safety), employment conditions, and in some cases child protection.

The basic ethical principle of maintaining professional boundaries means that a youth worker should not accommodate a young person in their own home. There are 2 possible exceptions:

  • blurred professional boundaries
  • unusually high risks to the young person's safety.

Blurred professional boundaries

Blurred professional boundaries is explained above in Is it OK... to have contact with a young person outside of work.

Where an agency agreement allows for the possibility of you accommodating a young person, you and the agency still need to address the other issues below.


A youth worker will sometimes experience pressure to take a young person to their own home for the young person's own safety, eg:

  • they are homeless and there are no other accommodation options, or
  • they are at risk of harm in their own home, or
  • they cannot get home safely that night because there is no transport.

At the same time, the young person, the youth worker or someone else in the youth worker's house could be at risk if the young person stays at the youth worker's home.

The young person's safety might be an acceptable exception to the ethical rule only if:
1.    the specific risk to this young person on this occasion is unusually high, and
2.    every possible alternative has been genuinely explored and exhausted.

Most homeless young people are probably at some level of risk. Homelessness is not sufficient to justify a youth worker accommodating a young person. There must be some unusually high level of risk.

Child protection

If you have child protection concerns, you must comply with child protection reporting requirements. As well as making a report of a child at risk of harm, if there are no safe alternatives you should insist that the authorities take immediate responsibility for finding the child somewhere to stay.

Agency policy

A youth worker faced with the possibility of accommodating a young person:

  • always has the right to say no. A youth workers' private home is not part of the welfare system and a youth worker should not feel pressure from their agency to make up for inadequacies in accommodation or transport for young people.

  • should contact their management that night if at all possible and notify them of the situation and their intention.

Agencies should have a policy in place so everyone is clear what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. The policy must take into account occupational health and safety issues.

Even if the situation is ethical in the circumstances, if an agency policy absolutely prohibits youth workers accommodating young people, the youth worker will be in breach of the agency policy and risks disciplinary action including dismissal.

Is it OK? Duty of care, law & ethics in NSW youth work:
A guide to common legal and ethical dilemmas

(2006) by Nick Manning


Introduction: Duty of care, law & ethics in NSW youth work

Sexuality dilemmas:

  • Is it OK... to give out condoms (to all ages)?
  • Underage sex - do you have to report it?


  • Is it OK... smoking
  • Is it OK... alcohol & illegal drugs
  • Is it OK... to provide coffee in youth services?

Is it OK... driving young people

Professional boundaries

  • Is it OK... to accept a gift from a young person or their family?
  • Is it OK... to have contact with a young person outside of work?
  • Is it OK... to put up a young person in your own home?

Is it OK... photos & video of young people


Privacy & confidentiality dilemmas:

  • Is it OK... to share information with other agencies
  • Is it OK... to report, or not report, a client's crime to police?
  • Is it OK... privacy, young people & families


Applicable to NSW youth services (non-government agencies & local councils) providing accommodation, welfare, social or recreation services. May not be consistent with laws and guidelines in schools, out-of-home care or health services. "young people" - aged approx. 12-25 years old (unless stated otherwise).

Be careful! YAPA and the author took reasonable care to ensure that this information is correct. However government regulations, laws and standards are complex and changing constantly. The author/s have no health, occupational health and safety, or legal qualifications (unless stated), and information provided is general - it is not specific legal or professional advice. Do not rely on it - check with other publications and authorities and if necessary get qualified legal or professional advice for your situation.

Copyright 2005 Nick Manning. You can: a) quote small amounts of text if you acknowledge the author, publisher, web address & date; b) print out multiple copies of this web page but only if you print the whole web page. No other use permitted without prior consent. Do not put large amounts or all of the text in any other document, including: a policy & procedure manual; a presentation (eg. Powerpoint); a training/learning resource book (eg. for TAFE); a web page. Copyright and training enquiries: info@yapa.org.au

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