Examining the significant role of a child welfare social worker
Social workers of all kinds are vital to building safe and healthy families and communities. Child welfare social workers specifically focus on protecting the most vulnerable in our society and supporting children and families in need of assistance. Within the child welfare system, social workers are lifelines for children dealing with difficult situations outside of their control.
If you’re interested in a stable career that allows you to make a positive contribution to society each and every day, becoming a social worker is a promising option. Employment of social workers in general is projected to grow much faster than average through the next decade. Approximately 16 percent of the 500,000 social workers in the United States work in child services, and 12 percent work in family services, according to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).
Read along for a deep dive into the challenging and rewarding job of a child welfare social worker.
What does a child welfare social worker do?
Social workers in the child welfare system are primarily responsible for protecting children and adolescents who are at risk for neglect or abuse. Often this involves working with families that are struggling with systemic challenges like poverty, racism, addiction, homelessness and generational cycles of trauma.
Some common services provided by child and family social workers include:
- Assessments: Conducting home visits and meetings with family, caregivers and other important people in the child’s life to determine whether their needs are being met.
- Resource consultation: Connecting a child and their family with resources like housing, food assistance, counseling, public benefits, career services and medical care.
- Case plan development and referrals: In the event of confirmed neglect or abuse, social workers refer clients to resources like anger management courses; parenting classes; support groups for domestic violence; individual, family or couples counseling; and inpatient or outpatient drug addiction programs.
- Foster care resource: Providing a child that comes into custody with a supportive and stable resource or foster family to care for them while the birth family works with social workers to build a reunification plan.
- Adoption: Although family reunification is always the goal, some children are unable to return home and are adopted.
- Independent living: For youth who age out of care at age 18, social workers support them by setting up an independent living plan.
- Advocacy: Working with the community to advocate for change regarding issues that impact children and families by shaping public policies, also known as “macro social work.”
Where do child welfare social workers work?
The majority of these professionals are employed by various government social work agencies at the local, state and federal levels. Child Protective Services (CPS) is most often associated with child welfare social workers, but this is only one of the many agencies that work with children and families. Other types of agencies include foster care, adoption, independent living, refugee and migrant services and juvenile justice.
Schools and community health centers also employ child welfare social workers, who benefit from working closely with teachers and healthcare professionals. Educators have daily contact with their students and are often the first to notice changes in a child’s behavior or other signs that indicate potential abuse.
What are the education requirements for a job in social work?
A social worker in the child welfare system must earn at least a bachelor’s degree in social work. You’ll also likely need to obtain a license in order to begin practicing in your state. An entry-level social worker should be knowledgeable about systems of care, human behavior, child development, trauma, parenting and family dynamics to be able to advocate for their clients. This type of degree includes field practicum experience hours plus core classes, such as:
- Foundations of Social Work Practice
- Human Behavior in the Social Environment
- Diversity and Social Justice
- Social Welfare and Social Policy
- Interviewing and Assessment Skills
- Social Work Practice with Individuals, Families, and Groups
Nearly half of all social workers go on to earn a master of social work (MSW) degree, especially those in therapeutic, clinical and supervisory roles. A typical MSW curriculum varies depending on the school and the student’s concentration. In the second year of the program, students can choose to specialize in things like:
- Micro, mezzo, or macro social work practice with individuals, families, and communities
- Child welfare
- Domestic violence
- Community development
- International social work
What traits and skills do child welfare social workers have?
Anita González, MSSW, LMSW, is an assistant director of field education and assistant professor of social work at University of Massachusetts Global. As an educator, González has trained many new social workers and foster parents. She also spent years working in the field and has extensive insight about what it takes to succeed in this role.
A successful social worker must be…
Passionate about children and families and committed to honoring the importance of those attachments. One misconception about social workers is that their job is to take kids away. “We work hard to keep families together and honor those relationships,” González says. “Sometimes it is necessary for a child to go into care while parents work through issues, but the goal is always unification.”
A clear communicator in more ways than one. Social workers must use their voices to speak for those who don’t have one and advocate for change and more resources for underserved communities.
Attentive and a good listener. In this work, you have to listen very closely to what is being said but also pay attention to what is NOT being shared. “With children, their body language and nonverbal communication is so important because they can’t always express themselves with words,” González explains.
A team player. Social workers collaborate with so many other professionals — teachers, doctors, therapists, counselors, psychologists, guardians, lawyers, foster parents, birth parents, etc. It’s exciting to learn new things, but it can also be challenging as you have to consider everyone’s contributions and collaborate effectively.
Empathetic and open-minded. Providing services to children and families requires someone who yearns to know others and can set aside biases and judgments to understand the client’s perspective. “You have to be able to view their situations through their cultural lens — acknowledge and validate their experience in order to support them,” González shares.
Able to set boundaries. It’s no secret that working with youth and families in crisis is emotionally challenging. Children are uniquely vulnerable in that they have limited control over their life circumstances, and their trauma can be difficult to process vicariously. Knowing how to set boundaries and make time for self-care is crucial, according to González. It’s necessary and rewarding work, but you face a real risk of burnout if you never take a step back to care for yourself.
Start a rewarding career in social work
Not everyone is cut out to be a child welfare social worker. It takes a special kind of person to work with children and families in times of crisis. For more insight into the profession, read “8 Signs a social work career is your calling.”
If you’re already set on a career in social work, your next step is to research degree programs. Learn more in our article “5 Things the best social work programs have in common.”
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