Whenever children are in trouble in the movies, a benevolent adult sweeps in to save the day. Annie is rescued by Daddy Warbucks and his singing, dancing household staff. In The BFG, the titular character springs Sophie from her lonely orphanage life.
In the real world, it’s not wealthy benefactors or Big Friendly Giants who come to the rescue—it’s child and family social workers. Armed with communication skills and social services know-how, child and family social workers protect the well-being of kids and parents, helping families to navigate dangerous or stressful home environments. It’s pretty much never glamorous, but child and family social work can make a critical difference in young lives.
For many, child and family social work is a calling—an urge to repay the help that was given to their families or to ensure that others have the same guidance and social welfare they had as children. For others, it’s a chance to flex valuable people skills.
There are many reasons to consider a career in child and family social work, but taking the plunge requires planning, dedication, and a master’s degree. Here’s what you need to know.
Pros: Child and family social workers make a lasting, positive impact on those they’re serving, working directly with children and their families to improve quality of life and facilitate access to social services. If you find fulfillment from helping others make progress, it just might be the career for you. Child and family social work can also be incredibly stimulating, since the work is immersive and varied.
Cons: Stress can be a concern for child and family social workers, as your efforts have a direct impact on the well-being of children and their families. While you may have avoided mental health issues in college, the kind of pressure you’ll face in this profession can lead to burnout, so it’s essential to learn how to care for your own mental and emotional well-being, as well as your clients’. Child and social workers also deal with intense situations, such as child abuse, substance abuse, disabilities, extreme poverty, and malnutrition. While that means room to create positive change, it can also be an overwhelming workplace environment.
A career as a child and family social worker is similar to other social work paths but focuses specifically on the health and wellbeing of children and their parents. Child and family social workers may:
Child and family social work boasts a quickly growing job market—the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that jobs will increase roughly 14% by 2026, creating plenty of opportunities for new graduates. A child and family social worker can expect to make a median of just over $46,000 per year, depending on location, experience, and the type of social work being performed. Case workers earn salaries on the lower end, while family and child psychotherapists tend to earn more.
While bachelor’s degree program graduates can find employment as case workers or assistants, becoming a child and family social worker requires a master’s degree. A Master’s in Social Work, or MSW, typically takes two years to complete, plus a licensure test after graduation.
There are a few variations on the two-year programs: Students with a bachelor’s degree in social work, or BSW, are often able to complete a year-long advanced standing program to earn their master’s. Other programs offer part-time pathways that last three to four years, and allow students to maintain a full-time job. While most programs require in-person fieldwork, online MSW programs are available, and many allow for specialization in child and family therapy. Social work programs should be accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).
A strong MSW program will offer training in evidence-based practice, classes that focus on treating children and families, and field placements that allow students to intern in the child and family social work field. Some child and family social workers will go on to become licensed as clinical social workers as well.
Some child and family social workers pair an MSW program with a degree in early childhood education, mental health, or human development, which allows for extra specialization in treating children in cases such as abuse, physical or mental illness, or lack of resources or welfare. These degrees aren’t required for licensure or most jobs, but they can help expand a student’s understanding of the field, and offer them an edge when finding a job as a children’s social worker.
Most child and family social work jobs require applicants to have a master’s degree and be licensed—which typically comes with the credential of Licensed Master Social Worker, or LMSW—or be prepared to take the licensure test. Child and family social workers who wish to work independently will likely need two to three years of supervised experience before applying for clinical licensure, to practice independently as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, or LCSW, though accreditation varies state to state.
Some states require more hours of direct supervision than others, and some allow for the supervised hours to be completed in less time than others. If you’re interested in working in a specific state or region, it’s worth checking its licensure requirements before committing to a social work degree program. The guidelines can be found on government websites, or through the National Association of Social Workers, or NASW.
The extra years of supervised training after a social work education often lead to salary increases and can help a social worker gain confidence in their skills. They can also allow for further specialization, such as managing situations involving substance abuse or long-term care.
Anyone considering a career as a child and family social worker should familiarize themselves with the resources available to those in the field:
Students and recent graduates may find this job more difficult than expected, since working with children can be both exhausting and demanding. Dealing with situations such as substance abuse and child abuse can be emotionally taxing. Since an MSW is a fairly flexible degree, specializing in child and family social work does not necessarily restrict a student to a future in the field.
Earning a master’s degree and applying for licensure isn’t inexpensive, though financial aid resources are available.
Most child and family social workers begin their careers by interning in the field while studying for a master’s degree. Internships are supervised, which allows for hands-on learning of techniques as well as the opportunity to ask plenty of questions to experienced clinical social workers. Internships, often called field placements, can provide the perfect opportunity to gain skills and decide if the path is right for you.
After graduating with an MSW, most child and family social workers seek employment at agencies that work with low-income families, schools, or child-oriented therapy practices. From there, child and family social workers can continue to build skills and hone a specialty within the specialization. Some social workers treat immigrant families, for example, while others specialize in adoption services, or work with children who’ve experienced parent loss. There are countless paths a child and family social worker can take.
After obtaining a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and social work licensure, child and family social workers will need to continue to take classes called Continuing Education Units, over the course of their social work practice. The number of classes and regularity varies state to state—more information can be found through the Council on Social Work Education. Ongoing education is essential, as it helps social workers to stay up-to-date on the latest research and practices, and allows child and family social workers to continue honing and advancing their skills.
Once in possession of an MSW, students may consider working toward a Certified Advanced Children, Youth and Family Social Worker credential, or C-ACYFSW. This distinction requires an MSW, 3,000 hours of supervised, paid experience in child and family social work, and 20 contact hours of continued education specific to the field. This credential demonstrates a social worker’s understanding of the field, and commitment to improving the lives of children and families.
Those interested in working in a school might consider becoming certified as a school social worker. Requirements vary state to state, but a master’s degree and social work licensure is typically required.
Some child and family social workers are drawn to family therapy, help children and families talk through issues they’re facing. A social worker hoping to gain more education on the therapy side of things might pursue a second master’s program in marriage and family therapy, to become a licensed marriage and family therapist, or LMFT. That path would require another several years of schooling and supervision but can help a therapist to further their skills.
A career in child and family social work can seem daunting, but supervision requirements and the intensity of an MSW program means you’ll be guided along the way. And for the children and families you’ll be serving, the career choice makes all the difference.
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