Families are the foundation of society. In every culture, families define their members’ identities. They have their own social systems, their own cultural values. They provide safety and security, support and authority. And when they break down, members are often set adrift without direction, without boundaries.
Family social work is founded on the premise that individuals need strong, functional families to not only provide emotional cohesion and structure, but also to model interpersonal relationships and parenting skills. When counseling a family in crisis, family social workers try to repair or create new family structures to help families regain their stability.
Family Systems Theory
Dr. Murray Bowen of Georgetown University Medical Center developed the family systems theory – the basis for family social work. Underscoring the importance of family interconnectedness, Bowen points out that a family is a living system of relationships – an emotional unit that provides its members with the strengths and skills they need to function.
In war zones, barrios, inner city neighborhoods, and places where the family social structure has broken down, pseudo family structures – such as gangs – develop to replace that sense of community. Gangs provide members with the companionship, the identities, the solidarity, and the authority they need to feel connected.
Families are important – in fact one could say they’re therapeutic. Research has shown that children who remain with their own families do better than those placed in foster homes. Family social workers’ first priority is to help families stabilize and rebuild.
What do Family Social Workers Do?
Family social workers’ mandate is to improve the quality of life for families by finding solutions to their problems. Clients are often families in crisis, who live at or below the poverty level, or are chronically unemployed. Many families have one or more members who are aging, disabled, or who are struggling with addictions or mental illness.
Typical Workday for a Family Social Worker:
- helping clients apply for food stamps
- helping clients register for financial assistance
- finding housing or helping with low cost rental arrangements
- locating counselors, therapists, or doctors
- arranging for specialized services, such as translators or physical therapists
- Administering the client’s care plan and interfacing with the client’s therapeutic care team
Family social workers are “there” for clients when no one else is. Because of the connections they make with their clients, they are able to provide individualized help. And because social workers are typically well-connected in their communities, they have lists of organizations that provide specialized services and support for their clients.
Family social workers are generally on the front lines, the first people clients encounter. They are found in state or federal government agencies, hospitals, schools, and private or community clinics and they are especially skilled at talking with – and listening to – people who need help.
Initially, family social workers must assess their clients’ needs. Their conversations with the family enables them to have a clear understanding of the family’s strengths and vulnerabilities, as well as the family dynamics. Interviewing individual family member frequently reveals other issues, such as possible learning disabilities, alcohol or drug addiction, or mental illness.
After the assessment, the family social worker develops a care plan that delineates the necessary resources, and determines the steps the family must take to resolve their problems. The social worker counsels the family and partners with them on many of their issues, such as finding daycare so they can work, helping them apply for food stamps so they can eat, or finding medical treatment for an aging family member.
Family social workers also provide information that enables clients to understand their options and make better decisions. Often family social workers help clients with applications or inform them about legal issues that might be important. For instance, many people don’t know their rights in issues like tenant disputes or racial equality concerns. Social workers know how to direct these clients, and often intervene and advocate on their behalf.
Dysfunctional families need special help. Educating families about healthy family interaction requires family social workers to understand family dynamics. They must be able to assess the contributions of various family members and counsel them on behaviors that maintain and support family needs, such as maintaining a job, or caring for siblings after school.
They are also concerned with the ways family members treat each other. Abusive or negligent behaviors must be identified and resolved. The whole family needs to be able to identify and correct disrespectful attitudes with the understanding that it’s important to their health and success.
The Goal of Alleviating Poverty
Trying to alleviate some the debilitating effects of poverty is daily work for family social workers. Poverty-related stress reduces positive outcomes for individuals and typically results in generational poverty. It carries with it symptoms of despair, frustration, anger, and hopelessness which often result in domestic violence, child-abuse, addictions, and mental and physical health issues.
Family social workers’ goals in fighting the stress of poverty center around providing the basics of survival and opportunities that bring hope. Specifically, they are instrumental in:
- Finding ways to provide increased access to income through job training, regular employment, and financial assistance programs
- Signing clients up for food stamps, informing them about food banks
- Providing access to mental health assistance and medical health care
- Encouraging parenting programs to help parents recognize the effects of their stress-related behaviors on their families
- Tutoring programs to resolve learning problems
- Providing access to good housing and reliable transportation
- Counseling on the roles family members assume in the family
- Providing therapy for mental problems, rehabilitation for disabled individuals, and treatment for addictions
These and other poverty-related issues are often complex and difficult to treat, but family social workers’ commitment to their clients and their communities provides the long term support families need to rebuild their lives. Family social workers work to keep families together, to prevent out-of-home placements of children, and to help struggling parents provide healthy, stable homes. In cases where parents are incapable of doing so because of mental illness or drug addiction, family social workers must be prepared to relocate children to insure their well-being.
In addition to working with clients and locating resources for them, family social workers are also the liaison between clients and their healthcare providers. Keeping track of medical updates, medications, treatments, and pertinent legal issues is a big part of family social workers’ jobs. And, because social workers are typically closest to their clients, they must notify other members of the therapeutic team when problems arise.
There are few jobs as challenging or as gratifying as helping families overcome problems and rebuilding their lives. It requires patience and compassion, and a real commitment to helping people. It also requires at least a bachelor’s degree in social work and a state license which typically includes several thousand hours of supervised fieldwork. A master’s degree in social work is normally required to advance in the field. To find out if this is a possible career path for you, try volunteering at local shelters or non-profit family assistance organizations to get a better understanding of the importance of helping people in need.
Education Requirements for a Family Social Worker
Most positions require at least a bachelor’s degree in social work from an accredited college of social work, and typically, a master’s degree in social work is required to be considered for management positions. For more information on acquiring the necessary educational qualifications get in touch with schools offering social work degree programs.
Individuals holding bachelor’s degrees in psychology or sociology often find entry-level positions, but have difficulty advancing until they finish an advanced degree in social work.
All states have laws regulating the licensing of social workers. Typically, these include up to 3,000 hours of supervised fieldwork. These regulations define the states’ professional requirements in order to sustain quality practice.
Expected Income for Family Social Workers
The family social work job market is predicted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to continue to grow faster than the general economy. The BLS listed listed the 2010 average yearly income of a family social worker as $43,850. Elementary and secondary school family social workers earned an average of $57,100 during the same period.
The BLS also points out that family social workers with master’s degrees earned between $ 60,000 and $85,000 a year, while those with bachelor’s degrees earned on average, less than $49,000 a year.