A Glimpse Into Child Welfare Social Work

Tavi Sookhoo, LCSW, is a social worker and career counselor who strives to empower students from diverse backgrounds as they build meaningful, well-paying careers for themselves. She currently helps college undergraduates find their professional paths in Boston, Massachusetts.  

The child welfare field is a traditional career path within the social work profession. While some people may hold an unfortunate stereotype about child protection workers — imagining child welfare social workers dramatically ripping children away from their families — this notion is far from the truth.

Social workers in child welfare use a restorative approach where the goal of intervention is to keep children united with their families as long as the child’s safety is ensured. Child welfare social workers provide valuable support in a variety of settings, including: government agencies, community-based family support programs, foster or kinship care organizations, residential group homes, adoption agencies, and independent living settings.

A Typical Day

Child welfare social workers intervene when a family is in crisis, so no two days are the same; however, there are aspects of the profession that are consistent.

When child welfare social workers meet a family for the first time, they carefully assess the safety of the child, work to understand the family dynamic, and identify needs within the household.

They provide a combination of therapeutic and case management support. Therapeutic services may include individual, couples, and family sessions that take place in the social worker’s office or in the family’s home. During these sessions, child welfare social workers may discuss concerns affecting the child’s well-being, such as trouble at school, parental conflict, and the mental health of either the child or the parent. The goal of each therapeutic session is always to make progress toward a united family where the needs of both the child and parent are being met. In terms of case management, child welfare social workers will often have to handle referrals for legal services, government benefits, employment assistance, and housing support. They will also travel to a child’s school to meet with teachers about their clients’ unique needs and accompany parents to court.  

When they are not in the field, child welfare social workers focus on updating case notes from recent meetings, meet with supervisors to get higher level insight into their current challenges, follow up on important referrals, and attend additional training to supplement their practice. They may be on call a few nights each month to respond to their clients during emergency situations.

Professional Requirements

Child welfare social workers must think quickly and remain calm in emotionally stressful situations. As professionals, they strive to understand the effects that poverty, limited social supports, and trauma have on family systems. They employ trust-building exercises while practicing empathy and patience with their clients.

Entry-level child welfare social work positions require a bachelor’s degree with a human services concentration and a few weeks of training. In order to take on greater clinical responsibilities, including child, family, or group therapy and to advance within the profession, social workers need to earn a Master of Social Work. Master’s level licensed social workers or licensed clinical social workers can work in a wider variety of child welfare settings. Each state’s licensure requirements are different, but social workers must complete an accredited MSW program (including field hours) and pass a state-licensing exam.

Course work related to direct practice with individuals, families, groups, and communities — clinical social work — provides a solid foundation for success in the field. Child welfare social workers need to understand evidenced-based practices in intervention and treatment to effectively support their clients. If you’d like to learn more about earning your MSW, SocialWork@Simmons offers an accredited, online Master of Social Work program that features both live, online classes and in-person clinical field placements. You can learn more about SocialWork@Simmons by visiting the academics overview page.

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 Image: Lucèlia Rebeiro, used under CC BY / Cropped from original.