How to Become a Child Welfare Social Worker

How to Become a Child Welfare Social Worker
Child welfare social workers handle cases in which children's physical health, mental health, and safety are at stake. Image from Unsplash
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Katie Marcus November 6, 2019

Child welfare social workers fill an unfortunately sizeable need in the United States. They serve and protect children and families in poverty, peril, and suboptimal home situations.

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The need for child welfare social workers in the United States, sadly, is great. According to the National Association of Social Workers, each year nearly 700,000 children in the US experience maltreatment, including at least 1,500 who die of abuse and neglect. Additionally, approximately 400,000 children and youth in foster care require the attention of a social worker to monitor their placements. Then there are children in struggling households whose families need assistance in obtaining essential services and support.

Child welfare social workers represent an indispensable lifeline to these and other children in need. Theirs is not a glamorous or lucrative job, but it is undoubtedly a necessary one. If you want to be one of the intrepid social workers who fill this need, you’ll want to know what you need to do to become a child welfare social worker. In this article, we’ll cover:

  • Social work at a glance
  • Kinds of child welfare social worker careers
  • The pros and cons of becoming a child welfare social worker
  • Educational commitment to become a child welfare social worker
  • Licensure and accreditation for becoming a child welfare social worker

Social work at a glance

Social work is a practice-based, scientific discipline focused on improving lives. Its end goal is to promote empowerment and greater well-being of both individuals and the communities they inhabit. According to the International Federation of Social Workers, “principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities” are central to all social work practice.

Professional social work is regulated by a national accrediting agency, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). If you want to practice as a social worker, you must graduate from a CSWE-accredited institution. All CSWE-accredited schools teach the ten core competencies of social work.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in social work should grow at an 11 percent rate from 2018 to 2028, a rate the BLS classifies as “much faster than average” for the entire economy. Over that same period, jobs for child, family, and school social workers should grow at a 7 percent rate (from 339,800 jobs to 364,400).


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Kinds of child welfare social work careers

Child welfare social workers handle cases in which children’s physical health, mental health, happiness, and safety are at stake. When life events necessitate intervention from a third-party—such as a local government agency or a public school system—into a child’s life, a child welfare social worker is often the agent of that intervention. The causes include parental neglect, child maltreatment, poverty, law enforcement events, or family death.

Child welfare social workers:

  • Provide a sense of stability and oversight to children with troubled behavior or with higher risk factors
  • Safeguard the well-being of the next generation of adults by working to mitigate the physical and emotional wounds of the youth
  • Meet with a child’s guardians to understand their family environment, and may conduct home visits to ensure their living conditions are suitable and healthy
  • Testify in court, when required to do so

Child welfare workers are employed most frequently by:

  • Healthcare and social assistance agencies (134,800)
  • The government (131,600)
  • State, local, and private schools (49,200)
  • Religious, civil, and professional organizations (11,300)

A child welfare social worker’s central duty is to advocate for resources that benefit children, through both policy reform and community outreach.

The pros and cons of becoming a child welfare social worker

There are few professions as emotionally demanding (and, at times, devastating) as those that require working face-to-face with troubled and disadvantaged children. On the upside, there are few professions as rewarding as those in which you can make a profound and long-lasting positive change in a child’s life. Here are some of the other pros and cons of becoming a child welfare social worker:

Pros of becoming a child welfare social worker

  • Child welfare social workers get to work with children every day.
  • As a child welfare social worker, you will help people receive services and support they might not otherwise have received.
  • Some of your clients will substantially benefit from your interventions into situations of abuse, undiagnosed illnesses or conditions, legal problems, etc.
  • Master of Social Work (MSW) programs are increasingly available via part-time online formats, so students can keep working while obtaining a degree.
  • Licensed clinical social workers can open up a private practice to enhance earning potential.

Cons of becoming a child welfare social worker

  • You will see misery regularly. Social workers are needed the most in underprivileged communities, where resources for children are lacking and risk factors are high. You need to practice self-care to prevent it from impacting your own mental health.
  • While it is possible to open a private practice with a state clinical license, the majority of child welfare social work jobs are in the lower-paying public sector.
  • Not great pay (according to US News & World Report, child and family social workers earn $44,380 annually), especially for the type of work you are doing.

Educational commitment to become a child welfare social worker

To become a child welfare social worker, you must earn at least a bachelor’s degree. All Bachelor of Science in Social Work (BSW) programs have a required fieldwork or internship component of at least 400 hours. An undergraduate degree in sociology or psychology can also help you get your foot in the door.

A bachelor’s degree in social work is the best first step for anyone interested in becoming a clinical social worker, but is not required for entry into a Master of Social Work (MSW) program. A full-time MSW student can earn a master’s degree in two years or less and will learn the specialized skill set necessary to launch a full-time career as a clinical child welfare social worker. All MSWs must complete a field placement (number of hours varies by program and specialization).

Clinical social workers work with patients (in this case, children) to identify risk factors, diagnose mental illnesses, and treat dysfunctional behaviors and emotional disorders. To become a clinical social worker, you must complete a CSWE-accredited master’s degree program and some additional field hours and courses.

Licensure and accreditation for becoming a child welfare social worker

Those interested in becoming a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) must be approved by their state licensing board. Each state has slightly different requirements, but they all require passing exams and completing field hours. The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) national clinical exam is required by most states.

In New York state, for example, licensed clinical social workers must be at least 21 years old and:

  • Complete an MSW program with at least twelve semester hours of clinical coursework
  • Have at least three years of supervised post-MSW clinical experience
  • Pass the ASWB exam
  • Complete state-accredited coursework in the identification and reporting of child abuse

Should I become a child welfare social worker?

Those considering becoming child welfare social workers should take into account how willing they are to advocate for others, and how interested they are in impacting public policy to benefit children. They should also consider their tolerance for others’ misery because they will be exposed to quite a bit of it.

Cultural competency is a central theme of social work, which essentially means having a rich understanding of the cultural context in which your young patients exist. Social workers often go on to serve the communities in which they grew up and thus can have deep ties to their communities. Social workers provide a source of stability and safety for millions of at-risk children; if you are compassionate and love kids, this might be the perfect social work career fit for you.

(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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