How to Become a Child Social Worker (And Transform Lives for a Living)

How to Become a Child Social Worker (And Transform Lives for a Living)
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Christa Terry June 21, 2019

Childhood should be carefree, but in reality, it frequently isn't. Child social workers protect our most vulnerable population; the degree programs needed for a career in this field can be as intense as the dedication required to do the work.

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Every child deserves a stable home and loving caregivers, but abuse, neglect, poverty, substance abuse disorders, mental health challenges, and other issues affect children all over the United States.

Child welfare social workers exist first and foremost to ensure that children’s physical, intellectual, and emotional needs are met. As you might imagine, the types of people drawn to this gut-wrenching work are powerfully motivated to help others even though that means witnessing some pretty terrible things.

A degree in child and family social work won’t make you rich, but what the career lacks in earning potential it makes up for with the satisfaction changing the lives of children and their families every day.

In this article, you’ll find everything you need to know about the educational commitment required to become a child social worker, the pros and cons of child social work, and the typical career advancement path for a child social worker so you can decide whether this is the right vocation for you. This article also speaks to the emotional toll of social work — which is just as important a factor.

What does a child welfare social worker do?

Social work is a diverse profession, but the primary mission of all social workers is to help people who need it. That can mean the elderly, substance abusers, individuals in hospice, prisoners, soldiers, and of course, children and families. Children represent an especially vulnerable population because they have little to no control over their living situations.

Child welfare work has been an important part of social work since at least 1980 when the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act was passed.

Child welfare social workers do so much more than investigate allegations of neglect and abuse and (when necessary) remove youths from dangerous situations. They also:

  • Support parents who want to give their children the best possible care but aren’t sure how or don’t have the resources – Refer struggling parents to government assistance, educational, medical, and therapeutic programs
  • Arrange short-term care for children whose parents simply need time to get back on their feet
  • Work closely with families, laughing and crying alongside them, offering them the compassion they may not receive from anyone else in their lives


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Types of child social workers

There are several types of child welfare social workers, from emergency response social workers who typically work for Child Protective Services to school social workers. They include:

  • Family case managers, who oversee the process of putting children into safe, healthy, and happy homes
  • Child abuse prevention specialists, who teach parents about positive parenting
  • Foster care specialists, who support families who have made the decision to foster
  • Juvenile counselors, who work directly with children in the legal system

Depending on the needs of their employer, child social workers may move among roles or serve in multiple capacities simultaneously. In general, however, the social workers who work with children and families fall into two categories:

Front-End Child Welfare Social Workers

Also called emergency social workers or first-responder social workers, these are the social workers who respond to allegations of child abuse and neglect. They travel to homes and schools to evaluate living and care situations and are usually the ones to open a child welfare case when mistreatment or dangerous conditions are discovered. Emergency social workers are typically also the ones who remove children from their homes when necessary.

Back-End Child Welfare Social Workers

Also known as continuing-services social workers, these are the child social workers who take over cases after a child’s removal from the home. They are responsible for arranging alternative living situations, often relocating a child to a relative’s home or finding a foster care placement. They also set goals and deadlines parents must meet to have their children returned to them (e.g., completion of a substance abuse program, cessation of verbal or physical abuse, or verifiable assurance that children will receive proper supervision). Back-end child social workers also work with adoptive parents, foster families, and community organizations to create support systems for children and parents.

In both cases, a social worker’s number one priority is always the well-being of the child.

Pros and cons of becoming a child social worker

Some people become social work students and specialize in helping children and families because they can’t imagine doing anything else. Others choose this profession because they want to work in a field where they can have an immediate impact on someone’s life. All careers have their pros and cons, but social work — especially child welfare work — can be intense.


  • You will transform the lives of children and families
  • You’ll get to know some amazing kids
  • Every day will bring new challenges
  • U.S. News and World Report ranks child welfare social work among the 10 best social services jobs
  • There is a 1.7% unemployment rate for child social workers, much lower than the U.S. average for all jobs


  • The pay isn’t as high as other mission-driven fields (such as medicine)
  • You will encounter heartbreaking cases without tidy resolutions
  • The hours can be long and you may frequently feel driven to go above and beyond the call of duty
  • Even your day-to-day responsibilities may be stressful, draining, and sad
  • It can be hard to maintain work-life balance and work-life separation

The educational commitment to become a child social worker

A bachelor’s degree or a master’s in social work will give you the tools you need to make a career out of helping children and families. How far you want to take your social work education is up to you. At the very least, child social workers must obtain a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) from a school approved by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), and many also go on to earn a child welfare certification through the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). The next step is earning a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree (either online or on campus) from a CSWE-accredited institution along with graduate-level certifications in child welfare social work, which may be focused on specific age groups or interventions.

In both cases, coursework will include classes in psychology, sociology, child abuse and neglect, law, family dynamics, child development, child development, clinical social work methods, and poverty. Social work MSW programs (like the online program offered byFordham University) may also offer additional areas of focus. Programs at both levels typically require that students complete fieldwork hours.

Licensure and accreditation for becoming a child social worker

Specific social work license requirements differ by state, but in general, any BSW program or MSW program will include elements that satisfy state licensing requirements. To become a Licensed Bachelor of Social Work (abbreviated as LBSW, CSW, or LSW), you must obtain your bachelor’s degree and pass the Association of Social Work Board’s (ASWB) Bachelor’s Exam. Many states do not require additional fieldwork beyond that required by a bachelor’s program (which can be hundreds of hours) to become a licensed social worker.

Once you’ve completed a master’s in social work, you can become a Licensed Master of Social Work (often abbreviated as LMSW, LGSW, or LSW) by passing the Association of Social Work Board’s Master’s Exam. In some states, this is the highest level of licensure, while in others, social workers can become a Licensed Master Social Worker-Advanced Generalist (known as an LMSW-AP, LMSW-AG, LISW, or LMSW-M) or obtain a clinical social work license (abbreviated as LCSW, LICSW, or LMSW-C). The clinical license requires two years of post-master’s supervised work experience.

Keep in mind that as a social worker, your education will be ongoing. Many states require all social workers to participate in continuing education courses to maintain their social work licensure. Additionally, individual agencies — especially in the child welfare space — often require social workers to participate in regular training sessions related to working with children and families to ensure everyone at the agency is up to date on developments in the field.

How long does it take to become a child social worker?

Earning a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) typically takes four years for students who are attending university full time. Students attending online programs like those offered by Troy University and the University of North Dakota may need five to seven years to earn all the required credits.

That said, there are accelerated programs for students who want to get into the field faster. At the University of Alabama, for instance, students can complete a BSW degree in as little as two years.

Students enrolled in a full-time Master of Social Work (MSW) program like those found at the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago will usually earn their degrees in two years, though there are part-time MSW programs for graduate social work students that can take three years or longer.

There are also accelerated courses like the one offered at the University of Denver that take just 18 months.

Advanced standing master’s in social work programs also exist; these allow qualified students to skip the general requirements and move directly into focused upper-level MSW coursework dealing specifically with children and family issues. Boston University and the University at Buffalo (SUNY) both offer advanced standing online MSW programs.

Is a child social work career your calling?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has predicted that employment opportunities in child and family school social work will grow more quickly than in other occupations, with overall employment projected to grow 14 percent by 2026. There will be more children in schools, so more school social workers will be needed, and unfortunately, chances are the demand for child welfare social workers will grow, too.

The returns are probably more important than the opportunities (or the pay), however. Social work can be joyful, scary, frustrating, uplifting, and shocking — sometimes all in a single day. If you can handle the ups and downs and do great work in an imperfect system, you can spend your career helping to give kids the best possible start in life.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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