It's a popular theme in movies, TV, and other media: a child removed from his/her home (often wrongly) by a social worker. Not only do such portrayals often cast child welfare in a negative light, but they create confusion in people's minds about the real life roles of social workers.
Child welfare and social work are two separate, though often overlapping disciplines. In a movie, a single individual, or character, may manage child welfare caseloads and perform therapy. In reality, the roles are often separated. Social work is a broader discipline than what the media might lead one to believe; at the same time, individuals often have narrower roles.
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A social worker is someone with a bachelor's or graduate degree in social work, usually from a program accredited by the CSWE. S/he is generally state licensed. (Some states license all individuals who call themselves social workers; others license only those at the highest levels of practice.)
A BSW qualifies an individual for direct service roles, including child welfare. Master's educated social workers have additional options, including clinical social work. Some train for work as therapists; some even go into private practice, providing therapy and counseling. A child who was severely traumatized might receive psychotherapy from a social worker, but it would be a highly trained clinical social worker.
Other master’s educated social workers work in hospital settings. A common duty is planning discharge: connecting individuals with serious mental or physical illnesses – who may have new disabilities or life changing diagnoses -- with the resources they need for life outside. Again, this could involve finding support for children and families. But in many instances, clients are at the end of life.
Social workers assist individuals across the lifespan with a variety of tasks. These professionals don't all have the same education or training. At the master's level, there are a wide variety of educational programs to choose from.
Now what of child welfare workers? A social worker in child welfare typically manages a caseload of families and children. His/her job does include making visits and reporting on his/her findings. However, his or her employer isn’t necessarily Child Protective Services. Families and children don’t always come to the attention of child welfare workers because of reports of abuse. Child welfare workers work for a variety of agencies: supporting foster families and kinship care, providing education to teen parents, giving families resources.
What is required to manage a caseload of families in crisis or transition? It varies a good deal from state to state. Child welfare services may be carried out by social workers and by individuals without social work education. The job, and the level of service, are not always the same, though it's not necessarily the professional who is to blame when things do fall apart. Questions to ask: What are workers being asked to do -- and how much training and support are they getting to help them?
The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) conducted a survey of their Child Welfare Specialty Practice Section in October of 2003. They compared their findings with then recent data about the child welfare profession as a whole. Social workers within the child welfare industry reported smaller caseloads, more training, and greater access to supervision and consultation.
The social workers also tended to have higher salaries. When asked to report what was most challenging about their job, the greatest number of respondents (28%) cited the issues that actually faced families. 21% cited the caseload, 10% cited the salary, and only 5% cited the working conditions.
A more recent survey of research literature, by the Southern Area Consortium of Human Services, also found evidence that high levels of education, and adequate supervision (something one is more likely to find in a licensed discipline), supported a child welfare workforce with less turnover.