Social work in the child welfare system
The holiday season prompts people to give to charitable causes, with their choice of cause usually motivated by their personal interests or experiences. For instance, women who have survived breast cancer often make donations to breast cancer research. Other people prefer to give to charities, such as food banks or homeless shelters.
Personally, I belong to the first category of donors. My first job out of college was in child welfare so I tend to donate furniture or clothing to child welfare facilities. As a case manager, I frequently visited foster homes, group homes, and residential treatment centers. Vividly remembering the level of need of the people in these places is the impetus for me continuing my donations, even though I have been out of the child welfare arena for quite some time.
As a social worker in child welfare, my main priority was to provide these essential goods and services to children accommodated in the least restrictive environment available to them.
In my experiences with foster care, many families struggle to care and provide for the children they accept into their homes. They can be short on clothes or toys and, in some cases, food. Ironically, they often face the same precipice that led the children to be removed from their own families in the first place.
As a social worker in child welfare, my main priority was to provide these essential goods and services to children accommodated in the least restrictive environment available to them. In child welfare, a family goes through several stages of case management and social work. From the initial investigation where the worker comes into the home to the final stage of the child living safely, the priority is always the same – providing in the best interest of the child.
Case manager versus social worker
Laws and regulations for social workers or other professionals in child welfare, such as case managers, vary from state to state. The same is true for education requirements.
Case managers are different from social workers in the child welfare sector. Case managers typically require a bachelor’s degree in a human services field such as psychology, sociology, or social work. Case management incorporates an assessment of presenting problems and perceived needs, referrals to and coordination of services, and advocacy. Case managers, in a nutshell, work to develop service plans and find community resources to help families secure what they need to provide for the best interests of their children. These resources may be job placement, public housing, or mental health treatment.
Social workers are held to different standards than case managers, due to having different job responsibilities. For example, sexual abuse victims are best served by social workers who are certified in the treating sexual abuse. Families, where a member has a drug addiction that has led to an intervention, require the skills of a social worker experienced in working with addictions. In either scenario, social workers with experience working in their state’s child welfare system have the best chance of being successful in helping their clients.
Licensing and education requirements
Although standards differ by state, one commonality across state lines is the necessity of a social work license. Most states require both a license and a master’s degree in social work (MSW) to perform non-clinical tasks. A social worker who holds licensure as a Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW) manages caseworkers, works with community organizations, and executes organization policies.
An LMSW does not perform clinical duties, such as assessments or treatment. Clinical duties are easily identified because these tasks are billable to insurance companies, Medicaid, or state resources. These duties come under the realm of a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). An LCSW is a therapist who, due to accrued education and experience, is professionally qualified to autonomously practice, and provide direct diagnostic, preventive, and treatment services.
All licensed social workers in the U.S. need to pass the licensing exam required according to their level of education.
All licensed social workers in the U.S. need to pass the licensing exam required according to their level of education. A social worker with a bachelor’s in social work degree is required to take the LBSW exam, if this level of licensure is recognized by the state they practice in. Not every state recognizes a LBSW, and some states refer to a BSW by an entirely different name. In Louisiana, for example, someone with a BSW can be a registered social worker (RSW). An RSW can provide general social work services such as case management, supportive counseling, and advocacy.
In other states, like Texas and California, there is no license requirement for a bachelor’s level social worker. Licensing recognition begins at the master’s degree level. An LCSW requires some experience in a clinical setting after obtaining the MSW and passing the relative licensing examination.
Note: although all social workers take the same relative exam from a centralized licensing board, each state requires a different score on the unified test.
The good, bad, and frustrating nature of working in child welfare
First, the bad news
Those choosing to work in child welfare are, like most social workers, not in it for the money. It is not a lucrative field, and many child welfare agencies rely on grants or government contracts to maintain their existence.
Sandra Carr-Carrington recently retired after working as a LCSW for 30 years in the child welfare arena in the state of Virginia: “It is no secret that social workers don’t make a lot of money. For me, that wasn’t a factor that I considered, it was more about helping and meeting the needs of families that were in need. Also, how or where could I be most impactful in working with families.”
In addition to low salaries for employees in child welfare, added challenges are due to the lack of available resources, including a major shortage in foster families.
According to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, “The number of children without placement in the Texas foster care system per month has skyrocketed over the last 2 years, increasing by more than 1,100% since October 2019.”
Not surprisingly, this discrepancy in high need for foster care and low availability of resources have resulted in high employee turnover rates and burnout.
Houston’s Community Impact Newspaper reported that in August 2021, 395 children were in unlicensed placements due to a shortage in registered foster placements. These children were typically accommodated in office buildings or motels, under the supervision of a caseworker.
Lisa Johnson, executive director of Entrusted Houston, a nonprofit that assists DFPS has been working to fix this crisis. “We are definitely trying to handle the crisis,” she stated. “The caseworkers, supervisors- they’re trying to do everything they possibly can.”
Not surprisingly, this discrepancy in high need for foster care and low availability of resources have resulted in high employee turnover rates and burnout. As noted by Jaime Masters, Commissioner for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, in an interview with Community Impact Newspaper: “According to caseworker exit surveys submitted in 2021, 86% cited work-related stress as a reason for terminating their employment, up from 40% in 2020.”
Frustration and burnout – how to protect yourself from your work
Sandra Carr-Carrington extrapolated: “In social work, as in a lot of professional fields, burnout is real. We can not assist others if we are not emotionally, physically, and spiritually well, ourselves. You have to explore what your needs are and address them.”
She offers the following advice to combat burnout, “decompress with music, working out, baking, cooking, exercising, running, walking, reading, or whatever your thing is. Take breaks from work – either a mental health day or vacation to renew, rejuvenate, revive, and rest. This will provide you the new energy that you need to continue on. If you need additional help and support don’t be embarrassed or afraid to ask. Compassion fatigue is real and can happen to the best of us, if you aren’t being mindful.”
Maleeta Watson, a Houston-based LCSW, who spent 20 years in child welfare adds her own experience: “I became very self-aware. I monitored my joy. If I started viewing the majority of my interactions as negative, I knew I was starting to get burned out. I believe there are positive aspects to every situation and when I could not identify strengths or resiliency, it was time for me to do self-care…. I also encouraged my family and friends to give me feedback when they felt like I was working too much, or they noticed changes in my overall mood.”
In addition, Maleeta reported that she took vacations every 3 months, allowing her the opportunity to recharge.
The good news
Despite these pitfalls, working in child welfare can be very rewarding to those who truly want to help children and their families.
Maleeta Watson disclosed that through her work in child welfare she witnessed families providing support and love to one another, even as they struggled with unimaginably horrible circumstances. One her career high points came from working with her first family, from having a child removed to family reunification.
Sandra Carr-Carrington shared feeling similarly fulfilled: “When you have worked on committees and work groups for years and finally you see changes made that will help make social workers’ workload manageable.” She also commented that the comradery among social workers and clients added to her love for the job: “I have met some phenomenal social workers over my career, some of them being lifelong friends. I have learned a lot from colleagues and from clients.” She added, “When a client calls years later and shares that her family is still intact and that all 3 of her children have graduated college and are working, that is a high point in your career.”
Some people are born great, others have greatness thrusted upon them.
Working in child welfare can seem, at times, a strenuous and never-ending struggle. Nonetheless, social workers in this field are working for a greater good.
Sandra Carr-Carrington: “Clients are coming to you because they need help. Your first responsibility is to listen and not be judgmental. We all have problems in one way or another. So, you are there to listen and show empathy.”
She described being raised in a blended family and, even as a child, knowing that she wanted to help the community in some manner: “When I was in the eleventh grade and took a sociology class and decided I wanted to be a social worker. I found the class intriguing and it made me think about societal issues in my community and the world. I wanted to learn more about the origins of how we learn to treat people, and how some individuals have such compassion for others. My parents were foster parents, so I was exposed to social workers and felt that they knew and understood the institution of family. This was something that I too wanted to learn and do.”
“Picture yourself in the same set of circumstances as those you are interacting with. Treat them how you would want to be treated. Be respectful. Be honest. Understand being abused or neglected is not a choice anyone would make.”
Sandra felt that child welfare was her calling. Her reflection on this career choice now that she has retired supports this belief: “Believe it or not I have never regretted it or thought about any other career choice for myself, even after 3 decades. To this day when I meet a young person and they say that they are interested in social work, I immediately tell them that it is the most frustrating and the most rewarding work that you could ever do.”
Maleeta Watson related her own introduction to the field as: “I did not choose a career in child welfare. My friend filled out an application for me and just told me to sign it. She said it was CPS. I thought it was the water company, City Public Service. Once they called me, I interviewed for the position, and I became interested. So, the career chose me.”
Her advice to anyone planning on working in child welfare was to be open to unfamiliar lifestyles and experiences. “Picture yourself in the same set of circumstances as those you are interacting with. Treat them how you would want to be treated. Be respectful. Be honest. Understand being abused or neglected is not a choice anyone would make.”
Social work in child welfare is a career path chosen for various reasons. Yet, despite the reason, once in child welfare, it is nearly impossible to leave without learning about yourself and society. Many careers give you the chance to volunteer on a project today and go back to a cubicle tomorrow. Others allow you to donate from your paycheck to a cause. Social work in child welfare is one of the few causes where you can hands-on save a life, be a part of something bigger, and grow as an individual.