What Does a Social Worker Do? Licensing Requirements and Social Work Careers
The True Mission of Social Work (songs by Carole King)
What is a Social Worker?
Having been in and out of the social work profession for over twenty years, I have often been asked, "What does a social worker do?"
Social workers get a bad rap, largely in part to the images from television dramas of self-righteous social workers coming in to take screaming children from their parents. Many people can't think what a social worker would do besides take kids away from their parents and put them into foster care. That idea is so far from the truth, as social workers are useful--and utilized--in so many fields.
Contrary to popular opinion, social workers are not around to give hand-outs, either. The goal of social work is to empower people to have better lives, not enable them to continue as they are. Social workers work in a number of fields in an effort to improve lives and communities as a whole. Social workers work to make the world a better place for everyone.
Social Workers Must Be Licensed to Call Themselves Social Workers!
My Social Work Experiences
My undergraduate degree was in social work. Even before graduating, the social work student gets experience in a variety of fields. The entire senior year, besides a few classes, consists of two semester long internships. Prior to this field experience, social work students take practical classes on such topics as childhood and adolescence, juvenile delinquency, aging, death and dying, client and community. Research, statistics, and policy courses are a must, too.
One of my classes took field trips to area agencies. When volunteer work was required, I chose the Battered Women's Shelter, helping out there mostly with watching the children. Later, I volunteered at the Youth Shelter as a mentor to runaways.
My main interests were working with the elderly or with children--opposite ends of the spectrum with amazing similarities. My first internship was at a retirement facility and my second at a therapeutic preschool for abused and neglected children. Ironically, I was hired on after college at the preschool as a protective service worker, where I worked five years and later at the retirement facility, where I worked as a social worker in the skilled nursing facility for another five years.
Housed at the children's facility was tough, as I got close to the children while working with their families.Contrary to popular belief, the goal of protective services is to keep families together, not separate them. To this end, I wrote case plans, progress notes, and court reports. I testified in court when necessary, making appropriate recommendations. I made regular home visits, helped with transportation, food, and other resources. I co-led a parenting class and helped take children to doctor's appointments. It felt good when a family improved their circumstances and the case could be closed.
Working with the elderly was emotional, too, at times. Working in family systems is always challenging, dealing with the different perspectives from patient, family, and the professionals involved. Continual paperwork for admissions and discharges, assessments, resource referrals, family and professional meetings, support at end-of-life, adhering to state and federal regulations--all of this makes for a highly stressful job.
Social Work Education and Licensing Requirements
I would bet that the majority of people do not know how much education is required of a social worker. While not all states require the same, many are similar in their requirements. My state requires a four year degree in social work from an accredited college. Still, that person cannot be called a social worker until passing the state licensing exam and becoming a licensed social worker (LSW).
With a master's in social work, the candidate now has experience with mental illness and intervention and can go on to study for a licensure exam to become an LCSW (licensed clinical social worker). With this degree, the social worker is competent to provide counseling and is often given preference to positions in mental health settings.
Ongoing continuing education requirements must be met in order to keep one's license. In Arkansas, social workers are required to obtain 48 hours over a two-year period. This time requirement can be a challenge, but the education required keeps social workers on top of the latest information, research, trends, and resources in order to best advocate for clients.
Social Work Jobs with Children & Teens
Many settings that work with children employ social workers. Social workers work with families in an effort to provide better homes. Social workers are the best in finding resources such as aid to single parents, food assistance, child care vouchers, parenting classes, job training, and other services to help families get back on their feet.
In many settings, social workers work as a liason between kids, their families, and professionals, such as school personnel and court officials. They deal with issues such as truancy and family issues, working with schools to help them better deal with troubled youth and get them back in school.
Here are settings that employ social workers:
- family service departments
- foster care services
- adoption agencies
- therapeutic preschools
- Head Start programs
- youth shelters
- programs for runaways
- doctors' offices
- school systems
- court system (as child advocate)
Social Work Jobs with the Elderly
Social workers are utilized in settings with the elderly in various roles. They complete lots of paperwork, much of it governmental, with admissions and discharges. They work with families and professionals involved in patients' care. They (if licensed for) offer counseling, or at least support services. They conduct depression and memory tests and make referrals based on the results.
From conducting assessments and referring to needed resources, to providing services and support (not just for the elderly) during end-of-life Hospice care, social workers can be an invaluable resource for patients and their families.
Here are some of the agencies for the aged that utilize social workers:
- nursing homes
- assisted living
- retirement facilities
- Area Agencies on Aging
- Adult Protective Services
- medical (geriatric) clinics and doctor's offices
- senior centers
- Alzheimer's associations
Social Workers in Rehabilitation Settings
Social workers are used in rehab settings to assess patients all of all ages and obtain services for them, coordinating their discharge home or to another facility. With the correct licensing, social workers can offer counseling in these settings.
- rehabilitation hospital for physical, occupational, and speech therapy
- rehabilitation for drug and alcohol abuse
- mental health center, whether in-patient or out-patient
- centers for those with disabilities
Social workers, depending on the state and level of licensure required, may also open their own private practice to provide counseling to clients.
Social Workers in Various Other Settings
Social workers help people of all ages, race, religion, gender, or social status. Another misconception is that social workers only help the poor. However, many problems in society such as child and spousal abuse, and rehabilitation needs are not isolated to one socio-economic group.
Other places where social workers work:
- battered women's shelters
- rape crisis
- suicide intervention
- disability and special needs programs
- homeless shelters
- research and policy-making positions
Social Work Value in Society
This article just begins to touch on the value of social workers. There is so much involved in what the profession involves that separate articles could be written on each of the fields that utilize social workers.
By nature of the social worker's job, problems will always exist. Problems and issues are what a social worker is there to help solve. Social work jobs are hectic and stressful, resulting in a high turnover rate in social work positions.
Remember that all employees of social service agencies are not necessarily licensed social workers and should not call themselves by the name of "social worker." Social workers are well-educated, duly licensed, and follow state as well as a stringent National Code of Ethics. Their licenses can be suspended if these codes are violated.
Social workers are a tough breed. Between society's vague knowledge of their role and the low (often pitifully low) pay they take in, becoming a social worker is a pull of the heart. A true social worker strives to empower people and to right what is wrong in the world.
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© 2012 Vicki L Hodges
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