Children trust the adults in their lives to care for and protect them. But when that trust is broken, and a child's health and well-being is at stake, the child social worker is often the only link between a child and a better life. Child social workers are the mainstay of family social work. They represent children's interests, helping not only to protect them, but also give them the attention and resources their families may not be able to afford.
Consider the situation of a middle school child – a bright but underachieving boy - whose parents are both addicts. A social worker at his school recognized the signs of neglect - malnourishment, inability to pay attention, disheveled appearance, disruptive behavior – and intervened.
The child became a ward of the state and was placed in a relative's home where he received the nurturing and direction he needed. While his transition wasn't easy for him, his new situation gradually resolved his issues. The social worker became the boy's friend and mentor, seeing and interacting with him every day at school. The social worker arranged for a therapist and drug counseling. He also visited him regularly in his relative's home, and worked with his school counselor to help the boy find a tutor to help him with his reading.
What is Child Social Work?
Child social work is the effort of insuring the health and well-being of all children, especially those who live in impoverished, negligent, or unsafe conditions. It provides protection and care for children who are at risk of abuse or neglect, who have special needs because of health issues, who are delinquents, or who do not have adult supervision.
Because children are the most vulnerable people in society, their protection is federally mandated. All states must abide by the precepts of The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), which sets standards and guidelines. State governments pass their own laws that further define neglect and abuse, and establish procedures for enforcement.
State agencies such as Child Protective Services receive reports alerting them to possible threatening situations. They conduct investigations to determine the degree of endangerment and assess family situations to determine if other methods of support -such as parenting classes or individual counseling - might be in order.
A family assessment is an ongoing analysis of the strengths, needs, resources, and potential risks of a family conducted by the social worker. It is the foundation of a case management plan that lays out steps for the family's successful transition out of social services. Key members of the family are interviewed and their interactions with other family members are observed. If the social worker feels there is a risk to a child, that child is removed from the family and placed in a safe haven.
State law enforcement and juvenile courts partner with agencies entrusted with the welfare of children. Social workers employed by these state agencies are resourceful case managers who receive special training in detecting maltreatment. They are adept at interviewing and observing people they question as they try to determine the safety of the household.
What do Child Social Workers Do?
Child social workers are committed to increasing the well-being of children under their care. Working as a caseload manager often requires an intense involvement in a difficult family situation. As social workers become acquainted with the children and their home life, they turn to resources that will help resolve family crises – other agencies or organizations found in surrounding schools and therapeutic centers. Social workers partner with dozens of groups that bring help to citizens of all descriptions. Immigrant associations help with shelter, jobs, daycare, translations, and paperwork. Churches and nonprofit groups give clothing, furniture, and often help with financial aid.
As the foundation of human services in a community, child social workers work in community centers, schools, medical facilities, rehabilitation centers, and juvenile courts. They are the center of the child protective and welfare agencies, often carrying the responsibility of many cases, updating each family case as it changes.
Community Nonprofit Social Services
A child social worker in a community social services facility interacts with children of all ages and their families. At the initial interview, or intake process, social workers ask questions that determine the needs of that family. Their purpose is to determine the family structure – single parent, step-parent, or couples – and how well it functions. Their goal is to resolve as many problems as they can so the family is able to stabilize.
Child social workers might arrange for counseling services for a young teen, daycare for low-income working parents, or special tutoring for a struggling student. They also might provide classes in adult living and parenting for teen mothers and fathers. Non-profit organizations might also provide apartments for the homeless and food banks for those who can't afford food.
A child social worker working in a school setting works closely with children and teens. Social workers mentor and advise students who live in difficult situations, providing them with support and encouragement. They may help counselors develop individualized learning plans, or help non-native speaking parents communicate with teachers.
School environments also allow social workers the opportunity to watch for signs of neglect or abuse. In concert with school counselors and psychologists, child social workers monitor the daily well-being of at-risk kids with the purpose of intervening as quickly at possible at the first sign of problems.
Clinics, Mental Health, and Substance Abuse Facilities
Along with medical doctors and psychologists, social workers in these settings provide a protected atmosphere. These facilities enable them to observe and care for kids' and teens’ physical and mental health as well as helping those who have substance addictions.
Teens apprehended while driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs often attend court-ordered alcohol and drug awareness classes in one of these facilities. Knowledgeable social workers help teens understand their decision-making processes, coach them on self-control, and enable them to work through their remediation.
State Social Service Agencies
States entrust their social service agencies with the job of investigating and intervening in situations where children are at-risk. In state agencies, child social workers are referred to as caseworkers. They may be responsible for many cases concerning abused or neglected children and their families.
Because of the dire consequences of child abuse and neglect, social workers watch their cases for signs indicating dangerous parental lifestyles. Situations where children are experiencing neglect or abuse aren't always obvious, so social workers often depend on neighbors, schools, clinics, or police to report suspected abuse or negligence.
Neglect of a Child
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines neglect as “the failure of a parent or other person with responsibility for the child to provide needed food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or supervision such that the child's health, safety, and well-being are threatened with harm.”
Of the 1.25 million nationally reported, child-endangerment incidents, almost half are due to neglect. If left undiscovered, extended negligence, such as prolonged malnourishment or lack of adequate medical care, results in death. Often, parents with drug or alcohol abuse problems, or mental health issues cannot adequately provide for their children, requiring state agency social workers to remove the children from the home.
Child abuse is the non-accidental injury of a child, and it is the prime mandate of child social workers to identify, intervene, and prevent child abuse. Most cases start with a report from schools, hospitals, neighbors, or the police. The family in question is then notified by Social Services to expect a visit from a child social worker. Depending on the severity of the concern, a police officer may accompany the worker.
In depth interviews with all members of the household help child social workers to get an idea of the family dynamics. Many additional factors are taken into consideration such as the living conditions, the health and cleanliness of the children, as well as the past criminal and welfare histories of the parents. These kinds of assessments help child social workers determine the relative safety of the children in the home. In 2008, 1,740 children died as a result of abuse. Each year this number increases and the federal government speculates that because of inaccuracies in reporting from hospitals and coroners, the real number is likely twice that amount.
Child abuse is a viral problem. Survivors of child abuse are more likely to abuse their children, and these children are likely to abuse their future children. The incidence of child abuse triples in low-socioeconomic homes, leading child social workers to feel it is associated with the stress of poverty.
Prevention is currently the best solution for child abuse, but an abusive situation is often difficult to spot. Certainly physical abuse is easily recognized by physical markings or damage, such as bruises or burns. Sexual and emotional abuse are more difficult to identify because the child is often too afraid or too young to speak about it.
Child social workers feel that intervention along with parent education helps with prevention. But because the problem is so pervasive and there are not enough child social workers, the efforts at prevention are often less effective.
Child social workers perform some of society's most important work. Their watchful intervention helps children deal with difficult life problems. By providing thoughtful mentoring, and access to programs that resolve problems for children and teens, child social workers make differences in the outcomes of at-risk kids.
Contact social work schools to learn more about your options to enter the field of child social work in a professional capacity.