Child welfare social workers protect children who are at risk or experiencing abuse, mistreatment, and neglect. They also support the health and well-being of families. Pursuing a career that comes with such responsibility requires careful consideration. Learning how to become a child welfare social worker begins with a passion to preserve families and an understanding of duties and responsibilities required to achieve that goal.
Child welfare social workers assess the social, psychological, physical, and emotional needs of children and their families. Building those skills requires a solid educational foundation and advanced training from accredited programs such as Tulane University’s Online Master of Social Work.
What Is Child Welfare Social Work?
Examining child welfare social work provides a deeper understanding of what child welfare is and how social workers approach it. Child welfare social workers make sure children have food, shelter, and clothing, as well as access to education and medical care. They evaluate families to assess whether children have enough stability and emotional support. These social workers are also trained to recognize when a child is experiencing abuse or other mistreatment.
A child welfare social worker’s goal is to provide a safe and caring environment for children. Achieving that goal often requires social workers to address challenges facing entire families and communities, such as unemployment,poverty, substance use, mental health, food insecurity, and homelessness.
What Does a Child Welfare Social Worker Do?
Child welfare social workers’ duties require them to develop broad expertise in areas ranging from child development and family dynamics to parenting methods and trauma assessment. Because they often work in partnership with other agencies and organizations, they need extensive knowledge of community resources and the ability to work cooperatively.
Site visits are at the core of what child welfare social workers do. Standard duties include:
- Assessing family dynamics and evaluating risk factors
- Interviewing and counseling children and their families
- Arranging or making referrals to services such as food assistance and housing programs
- Educating and assessing potential adoptive and foster families, as well as opportunities for kinship care, which sees a child placed in the care of relatives
Social workers interact closely with families to develop plans and set goals that improve home environments. They also perform follow-up visits and assess progress. Their responsibilities include evaluating whether a child needs to be removed temporarily or permanently from a home, but much of their work focuses on strengthening families. Ensuring that no harm comes to a child is paramount, and their overarching goal is to help families be stable and successful.
Overcoming Challenges in Child Welfare Social Work
Child welfare social work can be deeply gratifying, but it also comes with many challenges. Child welfare social workers need training — including fieldwork experience — to learn the skills that allow them to address these challenges.
Deescalating High-Stress Environments
Social workers sometimes interact with people and stressful situations. In some cases, they may need to provide immediate assistance for those in crisis. Learning to assess and avoid personal safety risks is critical.
Managing Heavy Caseloads
Workloads can be substantial for many child welfare professionals. Skills in organization and planning, time management, and prioritization are necessary. Maintaining a healthy work-life balance and practicing self-care are also crucial for avoiding burnout.
Navigating Limited Resources
Social services organizations sometimes face challenges in funding and resources. This requires social workers to be creative and adaptable. The ability to work independently is also important, as supervision may be limited in some settings.
Understanding Administrative Burdens
Social services programs typically have extensive administrative procedures and associated paperwork. Social workers need to have a thorough understanding of laws and policies related to child welfare protection, as well as the ability to explain those policies to their clients and the public.
Current Child Welfare Issues
Child welfare social workers are responsible for combating a wide range of issues impacting children and their families. In fact, any event or issue that affects adult parents or guardians has the potential to affect children.
For example, the COVID-19 pandemic has created new challenges for child welfare workers. Issues related to the health and safety of children, families, and social workers are the greatest concern. However, a disease outbreak’s social and economic impact can also affect family dynamics, household incomes, and access to food, shelter, and education.
Tens of millions of Americans have lost their jobs during the pandemic, creating financial and healthcare challenges. The pandemic has also taken more than 56 million K-12 students out of school in the U.S., and disparities in access to online resources are significant. Human Rights Watch warns that stresses on families living under quarantines and lockdowns are increasing the incidence of intimate partner violence.
The most far-reaching issues affecting society — climate change, immigration policy, racism, substance use, and homelessness, among others — all have a profound impact on families. As a result, any issue currently affecting society is by definition a current child welfare issue. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics notes that children are at particularly high risk for climate change-related threats to health, safety, and security.
Addressing systemic racism is imperative for social workers because structural injustices directly affect the health and well-being of families. Issues such as inequalities in the criminal justice system, residential segregation, food insecurity, and educational disparities that disproportionately affect people of color strike at a core ethic of empowering those who are vulnerable and oppressed. Social workers’ efforts to confront and address institutional racism also includes acknowledging racism within child protective service systems and creating more equitable policies and practices.
How to Become a Child Welfare Social Worker
No simple set of instructions describes how to become a child welfare social worker, but all jobs in the field have educational requirements and may require advanced training.
A bachelor’s degree is a minimum requirement in the field of child welfare social work. Most child welfare roles require a master’s degree, and some leadership positions require a doctorate. In addition to social work, prospective child welfare specialists often study psychology or sociology as undergraduates.
A social work curriculum provides students with the necessary skills to handle casework, from recognizing child abuse and neglect to interviewing techniques and policy training. Students gain an understanding that social work supports families by examining people within their environments and helping them to acknowledge and leverage their strengths. Students also learn about the history and development of child welfare social work and social work in general.
Social work degree holders with training in child welfare have multiple career options. Every state has an agency dedicated to child protection. Although department names vary, generally they are known as child protective services (CPS).
Child protection services are not limited to public child welfare groups, however. CPS agencies work with nonprofit organizations, foster care and adoption agencies, and community-based organizations, and they commonly partner with other government agencies. Together, these various groups form the child welfare system.
Licensure requirements for social work positions vary according to the level of service to be provided and state guidelines. Prospective social workers should review the licensing requirements for the location where they want to practice and look for academic programs with high pass rates on Association of Social Work Boards licensure examinations.
Child Welfare Social Worker Salary
The median annual salary for social workers in the U.S. is $50,470, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). While child, family, and school social workers generally make slightly less than the median, compensation in the field varies depending on job location and worker experience. The BLS projects 11% job growth for social workers between 2018 and 2028, which is much faster than the average for all occupations (5%).
Preparing for a Career in Child Welfare Social Work
Whether you are a prospective social work student or a current professional looking for career advancement and new challenges, Tulane University’s Online Master of Social Work offers relevant training. Emphasizing advocacy and social justice, the program gives students the opportunity to specialize the degree with the Certificate in Mental Health, Addictions, and the Family. It also emphasizes field-based education with opportunities to gain valuable on-the-ground experience.
Visit Tulane University’s Online Master of Social Work program page to learn more about opportunities to build or advance a career in social work. With high pass rates for licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) and licensed master social worker (LMSW) exams, Tulane’s program is uniquely positioned to take your social work career to the next level.
American Academy of Pediatrics, Climate Change and Children’s Health
Houston Chronicle, “College Requirements for a Child Welfare Social Worker”
Houston Chronicle, “The Job Description of a Child Welfare Social Worker”
Human Rights Watch, “COVID-19’s Devastating Impact on Children”
National Association of Social Workers, Child Welfare
National Association of Social Workers, NASW Standards for Social Work Practice in Child Welfare
The New York Times, “After June Job Gains, Still a ‘Deep Hole,’ and New Worries”
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau, COVID-19 Resources
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “What Is Child Welfare? A Guide for Educators”
The Washington Post, “With Coronavirus Science Still Iffy, U.S. Schools Hope to Reopen for 56.6 Million K-12 Students”