Where does a homeless family go for help? How do they feed themselves? Who helps seniors who can’t afford their medications, the unemployed with financial assistance, and the disabled with medical attention? Who cares for children who are sick, abused, or neglected?
Social workers labor tirelessly to ease those burdens. They address the challenges of helping people secure the basics of survival and regain their dignity, self-sufficiency, and security. These professionals require extraordinary compassion, integrity, resilience, and a resourceful attitude.
What is Social Work?
Social work is committed to helping people – all kinds of people – in all walks of life. According to The National Association of Social Workers'(NASW) code of ethics, social workers’ purpose is “to enhance human well being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.” This universal mandate is implemented in virtually every U.S. town and city.
To be effective, most social work must happen locally. Social workers find positions in many areas of society, from state-run agencies to health care, and community centers. Each day they work to resolve both their clients’ problems, and the social problems that plague their communities. Social workers’ extensive training in social science and psychology uniquely equips them to connect people in crisis with needed solutions.
Crises come in all shapes and sizes – a family who can’t pay the electric bill or afford daycare, a father who needs expensive medication in order to work, a single mother whose 6-year-old has been sent home from school because of disruptive behavior, or an impoverished family needing guidance on the burial of a parent. Social workers are trained to deal with the full range of clients’ problems.
Social Work Specializations
Social workers serve many different populations, developing competence in specific areas of specialization. In their graduate studies or through separate certificate programs, social workers often select areas of special interest, learning to work with populations such as children, families, elders, communities, or those with illnesses or addictions.
Take, for example, a social worker who works in a geriatric medical center. This type of social work offers many opportunities to address the needs of an entire family struggling with an aging parent. Oftentimes this means understanding the emotional, physical, and financial strains on a family struggling with illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease.
She has chosen geriatric work because she feels that the needs of older people are often overlooked, and she wants to help families provide compassionate options for caring for elderly parents.
Consider a middle-aged single, working mom whose aging mother has Alzheimer’s disease. The woman works full-time supporting both her mother and her 5-year-old child.
The woman’s mother is increasingly agitated, exhibiting violent outbursts. She breaks dishes, tries to jump out of the moving car on trips to the store, and says inappropriate and embarrassing things in public. She occasionally wanders out of the house partially dressed.
It’s clear the woman can’t leave her mother alone anymore, but she also can’t afford to hire a caregiver.
The geriatric social worker understands that this is a family in crisis, analyzing the situation and specific needs given the circumstances.
The woman needs medical information about the stages of Alzheimer’s and possibly anxiety medications. In addition, this woman needs information about inpatient and outpatient facilities that specialize in Alzheimer’s. The woman needs financial information about her mother’s Medicaid, as well as help filling out paperwork, and advice on obtaining legal and medical powers of attorney.
The social worker considers having a child psychologist examine the 5-year-old to determine if the child needs help dealing with her grandmother’s illness, and her mother’s stress. And, most importantly, the woman needs personal counseling to help her deal with the stresses of her job, her daughter, and the sadness, anger, and guilt she feels about her mother.
Being able to provide the specialized care each of these family members needs at this stressful juncture is gratifying for the social worker. But more importantly, helping the working mom become more self-sufficient and empowered will embolden her perspective on her future.
State Social Service Agencies Help Children and Families
Social work agencies are typically state-operated, such as social services agencies, or the health and human services agencies. Because family and child welfare are the largest areas of concern, state social service systems developed a wide safety net of resources, often partnering with other agencies, such as state workforce or public clinics to provide more resources.
Many social workers work in their state’s child welfare system, providing intervention and protection for at-risk minors. They are experienced with federal and state child abuse and neglect laws, criminal enforcement procedures, and with states’ foster-care and adoption programs.
These workers often provide out-of-home care, an array of foster services for children who have been placed in the custody of the state. They supervise and administer children’s progress and well-being.
To insure a higher quality of care, social service workers provide classes on parenting for foster and adoptive parents, including skills in the care of special needs children, such as those with HIV, or those with emotional conditions.
When working with families, social service workers counsel clients, providing them with food stamps and access to food distribution centers. They locate shelters and safe houses, and provide families with health care, bus passes, and counseling on school and career opportunities. Some help clients with rent, money for heat and electricity, and even furniture.
In an effort to help the unemployed prepare for better jobs, social service workers also provide job interview advice, computer classes, and stipends for professional work attire and glasses. The state agencies also often provide important mental health counseling for those struggling with mental health illnesses and disabilities.
Public Service Social Work
Public health social work (PHSW) is an epidemiological approach to identifying social problems. That is, public health social workers study the incidence, distribution, and control of social problems that affect the health and function of different population groups, such as those with diabetes or HIV.
Public health social workers fill a variety of roles, from providing direct services and patient education, to consulting, planning, evaluating, and administrating care systems, such as free city clinics. These workers actively administer programs that help with suicide prevention, drug and alcohol abuse, immigration care, aging issues, disease incidences, and the achievement of better hospital-and-patient outcomes. (for more info, see Public Health Social Work)
Community Social Workers
Community social workers organize resources to resolve community problems. The nature of any community – whether it is nurturing or threatening – has a profound effect on its inhabitants’ understanding of the world. In places where unemployment and homelessness is high, or where gangs are active, social scientists typically see a failure in social cohesion or social fiber.
Social cohesion refers to the relationships that bond individuals with families, families with larger groups such as churches and schools, and groups with their larger communities. Often these relationships are deteriorating. Economic uncertainty and predatory environments cause individuals to become isolated, fearful, and unwilling to participate in their communities.
Social workers understand that the cohesion of the surrounding community affects individuals’ interpersonal skills. Neighborhood programs developed by social workers are designed to engage locals in community centers where they can become acquainted, and combine their efforts to bring change.
Consider, a group of local businesses that meet with a community social worker to discuss an idea for engaging young teens after school. The objective is to teach teens the skills they will need to expand their sights beyond their immediate neighborhood.
The group outlines a program with the help of the social worker. A nearby video studio will teach students about television production, helping them create and write programs, and develop their on-camera presences. A local boutique will direct the teens in putting together a fashion show, and a dance coach will help them produce dance performances. All these elements will come together at a community event to raise scholarship money.
The social worker arranges the performance venue and organizes parent volunteers. He might solicit financial or in-kind support from other businesses, and he might write a grant, seeking financial support for the program’s continuation.
The neighborhood teen celebration coalesces neighborhood morale. Everyone has a great time. The pride felt by both parents and teens is palpable and the scholarship offering restores a measure of self-worth to people who may have lost hope. For the social worker, it is a sign of cohesion, a rebuilding of social fiber that strengthens the community’s sense of well-being.
And the well-being of both people and communities is a prime directive in social work. To accomplish this, social work operates on two levels. First, it helps individual clients resolve their survival problems and re-engage their lives. And secondly, it provides information and resources to fight the larger social problems that contribute to the disintegration of communities.
Social work is the ground zero of social change. And while most social workers spend their time helping people to merely survive, they all actively address the larger questions of social injustice, fighting to create systems that heal communities – albeit one family or individual at a time.