Social Work vs Child Welfare Work

Social workers strive to help individuals overcome barriers to live healthy, happy, and productive lives. They may help low-income families apply for public assistance programs or help displaced workers find educational opportunities. Some social workers explore solutions to community-wide issues, such as obesity or poverty. A social work degree opens the door to general social work careers, but the field also offers a variety of specializations.

Child welfare social workers help children and their families resolve conflict or intervene in issues of abuse or neglect. Professionals with a bachelor’s degree are qualified for entry-level roles. These social workers may also seek child welfare certification through the National Association of Social Workers. Individuals may work for government agencies, nonprofits, or families. A master’s degree in social work allows professionals to provide a higher level of care, including diagnosis and treatment of mental health disease or emotional or behavioral disorders.

Social Work Degrees

Graduates holding a social work degree can work in a variety of fields, including human services, healthcare, criminal justice, and education. Many schools offer robust curriculum options that examine social work principles and ethics plus related fields of psychology or sociology. Internships provide hands-on experience in a practical setting. While a bachelors in social work degree may allow students to meet entry-level requirements for employment, a master’s in social work provides greater opportunity for career advancement and increased wages.

Individuals interested in clinical social work services such as diagnosing mental illness or providing one-on-one counseling must be licensed by their state. Most states require at least a master’s degree in social work, passing the Association of Social Work Boards exam, and completing a specified number of hours of supervised work. When evaluating educational programs, prospective students should seek social work degrees accredited by the Council on Social Work Education, which is a requirement for many jobs and state licensure. Some master’s degree programs offer advanced standing to students with an undergraduate degree in social work, though many programs accept related undergraduate degrees.

Many on-campus programs require students to attend school full time for two years to complete the curriculum and internships. Students seeking a master’s in social work online may be able to attend school part time while continuing to work. This may extend the time it takes to graduate. Students may study general social work, conduct research, or complete specialized curriculum tracks. Graduates of a master’s program may receive a starting median salary of about $50,000, with an entry-level salary of about $44,000. Wages can vary significantly depending on the region and employer.

Master’s in Social Work Curriculum

  • Science of Social Work: Students gain an understanding of the role of scientific research and inquiry in advancing professional social work practice. The course covers areas of quantitative and qualitative research, how to collect relevant data, and how to analyze that data.
  • Human Behavior and the Social Environment: This course explores the social, biological, and psychological perspectives of human behavior and interaction. Students evaluate the role of the environment on individuals and communities, from the air or water quality to economic and cultural factors.
  • Social Work and Law: Attorneys, correctional institutions, juvenile facilities, and judges often work with social workers in a collaborative effort to help clients overcome addiction, education, or socioeconomic barriers.
  • Policy and Advocacy in Professional Social Work: Social workers must navigate complex systems and policies to serve their clients effectively. This course helps students understand how those systems interconnect and how they can use available resources to help clients overcome barriers.
  • Applied Learning in Field Education: Field education allows students to apply their knowledge in practical situations while enjoying their instructor’s support and supervision. Field-based learning also helps students test drive specific specialties.

Child Welfare and Social Welfare Degrees

Child welfare social workers may assist families, protecting children and helping adults break destructive habits. As one of the specialized careers in social work, a child welfare social worker may need training beyond an undergraduate degree. Many universities offer concentrations or specialization within their undergraduate or graduate curriculum. Many also offer child welfare certificate programs online while several states offer their own training academies. Graduates who choose to pursue social work in child welfare often find employment in state agencies, such as the Department of Children’s Services. Duties may include investigating allegations of child abuse or neglect, inspecting homes, and talking to children about any problems they may be experiencing.

Those holding a child welfare social worker degree also develop plans to reunite families if children have been removed from a home. Some professionals work through the juvenile justice system and family courts, developing a rehabilitation plan or acting as the child’s advocate in legal proceedings. Other caseworkers connect families to physical or occupational therapy services and help coordinate complex care plans for children with serious illnesses or disabilities. Child welfare specialists can expect an entry-level salary of about $35,000, with wages growing to more than $60,000 for experienced employees. Continued education beyond a bachelor’s degree allows child welfare social workers to assume supervisory roles which also lead to higher pay.

Master’s in Child Welfare Curriculum

  • Child Welfare and Child Maltreatment: This course focuses on evidence-based practices for assessment and treatment of child maltreatment and the relevant policies and laws governing child welfare and protection. Students learn about different intervention strategies for working with children, adolescents, and families.
  • Interventions with Children and Youth: Students gain an introduction to standard techniques used to intervene with children and their families, including cognitive-behavioral therapy, social skills training, and parent management training, as well as adaptations for specific demographics.
  • Foster Care and Permanency Planning: When social workers must intervene to ensure a child’s safety, they strive to return that child to a safe and supportive environment as soon as possible.
  • Assessment of Mental Health in Children and Adolescents: The signs and symptoms of mental health disorders in children may vary from those of adults. While the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders offers a guide for mental health assessment, it may not adequately address the unique disorders of children and adolescents.
  • Behavioral Problems in Children and Youth: Children with behavioral health problems can strain family and support relationships. Children may struggle with severe anxiety or depression or engage in risky behavior such as drug use or high-risk sexual activity. Students study effective intervention programs that incorporate a collaborative effort among schools, families, and communities.

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Master’s in Social Work vs. Child Welfare

Social work generalists and child welfare professionals need a minimum of a bachelor’s degree to enter the profession, with online degrees available as well. Additional education provides opportunities to seek state licensure and offer clinical services to clients. Specialized social work curriculums prepare social workers to work with children and address their unique needs.

Quick FactsClinical Social WorkDirect Services Social Work
Minimum degree level needed to work in the fieldBachelor’sBachelor’s
Online degrees available?YesYes
Popular career pathsLicensed Clinical Social WorkerChild Welfare Specialist
Average annual salary$55,500$36,600
License required? YesNo

Which Degree is Right for You?

Social work careers attract individuals who have compassion for others, but a soft heart isn’t the only requirement when considering this career path. Social workers must be organized and able to communicate clearly. Individuals interested in social policy and research will find macro-level social work to be a good fit. Child welfare social workers work directly with children and their families. Many schools offer internship opportunities that allow students to gauge their ability to work in this specialty, and some communities or nonprofits offer financial assistance for individuals committed to a career in child welfare. All students considering social work careers should plan for continuing education beyond an undergraduate degree. A master’s degree often represents the minimum qualification for clinical work.

Salary Outlook for Social Workers and Child Welfare Workers

Social workers and child welfare workers typically collaborate with colleagues in an office setting. They often leave the office to meet with clients in their homes or institutions. Child social workers typically work directly with their clients while social workers may either provide direct services to individuals or work for government agencies or nonprofits.

  • Clinical Social Worker: Clinical social workers require at least a master’s degree and a state license to diagnose and treat mental or emotional disorders. Hospitals, residential nursing facilities, substance abuse treatment centers, and home healthcare companies all hire clinical social workers.
  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker: States require licensing for LCSW professionals, who provide counseling services as well as coordinate patient care or assistance. These professionals advocate on behalf of their patients with public assistance agencies, private insurance companies, caregivers, and employers. In some states, individuals may open a private practice with LCSW licensure.
  • Child Welfare Specialist: Child welfare workers often find employment in state agencies charged with the protection of children or within juvenile justice agencies and organizations. They do not need state licensure to provide direct intervention services, though they may not diagnose or treat clients for mental health conditions. Child welfare workers often maintain a caseload of clients and must document their intervention strategies and outcomes.
  • Mental Health Therapist: Mental health therapists often require state licensure to practice, though requirements vary according to the level of practice and type of therapy provided. Hospitals, substance abuse treatment facilities, and mental health agencies employ these professionals.
  • Social Worker (MSW): With a master’s in social work, individuals may focus their work on big-picture questions of policy implementation for a community or larger area. Others may specialize in working with students in a school setting or seeking licensure for clinical work.
Job TitleOverall Median SalaryMedian Salary for Entry-Level Employees (0-5 years)Median Salary for Mid-Career Employees (5-10 years)Median Salary for Late-Career Employees (>20 years)
Clinical Social Worker$52,200$48,000$57,000$64,000
Licensed Clinical Social Worker$55,500$50,000$56,000$64,000
Child Welfare Specialist$36,600$35,000$37,000$62,000
Mental Health Therapist$42,700$41,000$47,000$53,000
Social Worker (MSW)$45,500$44,000$49,000$60,000

Social Work and Child Welfare Work Resources

  • Student and Professional Association Directory: Student and professional organizations offer resources on state licensing, exam preparation, internship opportunities, and job openings. Many organizations also conduct research, analyze proposed policy changes, and lobby for professional standards. Some also provide networking opportunities for social workers assisting special populations.
  • Child Welfare League of America: The league represents a coalition of public and private agencies working to assist vulnerable children and their families through advocacy, training, and practice support. CWLA established standards for excellence in child welfare more than 70 years ago, and it continues to provide insight on best practices for child welfare workers.
  • Children and Family Research Center: A joint effort of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s School of Social Work and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, the center’s work impacts policy decisions across the country. Researchers focus their efforts on child welfare best practices.
  • National Center for Children in Poverty: The NCCP focuses on research related to poverty and its impact on children’s wellbeing. Its research projects inform policy decisions on issues such as early childhood education, affordable housing, family leave, mental health, and public benefits. The website includes up-to-date data from each state on low-income and poor children.
  • The Anne E. Casey Foundation: This private agency supports grant funding across the nation to create innovative responses to issues that negatively impact children, helping to identify best practices and inform policy changes at the local, state, and federal level. More than 700 grantees benefit from the organization’s philanthropy.