In the 2018 movie Instant Family, Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne play a married couple who, by happenstance more than desire, find themselves adopting a teen and her two younger siblings. Hijinks ensue as the five come to know and love one another. One kid runs away, another breaks down, a third will only eat potato chips. It’s a bumpy start, but a glimpse into the kinds of situations an adoption social worker might face over the course of a career—though, ideally, not all at once.
Becoming an adoption social worker, also known as an adoption specialist, takes both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, an understanding of social services and social work, and a love of children and families. But most of all, it takes commitment—commitment to the work, and commitment to moving forward in the face of challenges.
Adoption social workers are tasked with finding loving, supportive homes for babies and children in need of a family, then making sure that everything goes smoothly. If you relish the ability to get out into the world and make things happen, adoption social work may be the move for you.
In good news, the pros of becoming an adoption social worker include plenty of upsides, like:
Of course, that same deep commitment to the work can have downsides. As an adoption specialist, your job isn’t be taken lightly, and it’s not all happiness, all the time. The everyday challenges of the job require the skills for navigating tricky situations and the occasional red tape. Which could make the last of these downsides seem less like an obstacle, and more an opportunity:
A career in adoption social work is focused solely on placing children in need of a home with loving adoptive families, and facilitating the process. While that may entail communicating with birth parents, securing social services, and other actions, the priority is on pairing children with families, and making sure it’s a healthy fit.
Some adoption social workers work for the government, while others work for private agencies, handling both domestic and intercountry adoption. That variety means that salaries can vary as well. Payscale reports the average adoption specialist salary as just under $40,000, dependant on factors such as location, experience, and agency size. On the social worker salary scale, this is lower than most since higher-paying social work jobs tend to be more clinical and mental health oriented.
Because adoption social work is such a specialized field, there isn’t much room for career growth. Most adoption social workers continue working with children and family for years, though there is potential to move into management positions, teach in social work programs, or work on adoption policy.
Some social workers do not specialize in adoption social work, but rather work in adjacent fields which deal with many of the same issues:
While those with a bachelor’s degree may find employment as caseworkers in adoption agencies, working as an adoption social worker requires a master’s degree in social work (MSW).
MSW programs typically include courses like:
Those hoping to become adoption social workers may want to specialize by taking courses in human development and family structures. Many programs will also have classes that focus specifically on the adoption process, which can help students to familiarize themselves with the field.
A master’s degree typically takes two years to complete, though shorter advanced programs and longer part-time graduate school programs are available. The traditional MSW route includes a full course load of classes, as well as multiple internships, called field placements, which provide students with hands-on experience working within the community.
If you’re interested in providing adoption services, it’s worth looking for a program that offers field placements in which you’d be working with adopted children and/or their families.
After completing a master’s degree, social workers need to take additional classes, called Continuing Education Units, every few years to maintain social worker status. The exact requirements vary state by state.
After completing a master’s degree, graduates take a licensure test to become Licensed Master Social Workers (LMSWs). This credential ensures that you’re prepared for a career in social work, and recognize the core competencies of your role and the significance of client health and well-being to your practice.
While there’s no accreditation for adoption social workers specifically, those interested in the field might consider becoming a certificated advanced Child, Youth & Family Social Worker. The accreditation requires three years of supervised work in the field, after which point you earn the C-ACYFSW credential.
More generally, LMSWs might consider working toward becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. LCSWs can practice independently, and are often able to accept more types of insurance for their work. While it’s not typically required for adoption social work, it can help a social worker to further develop their skills, and leave potential for a future career move.
Since licensing and accreditation vary state by state, it’s important to check on the specifics for your location. Some states require a certain number of supervisor hours worked in two years, while others require those hours to be spread out over three years. In some states, such as Rhode Island, recent graduates are called LCSWs, while those who’ve racked up 3,000 hours of clinical work are called Licensed Independent Clinical Social Workers, or LICSWs. You can check the website of the National Association of Social Workers, or NASW, for your state’s guidelines.
A career spent supporting children and their families means you need support, too. Consider seeking out mentors for guidance, or even speaking with adult adoptees to learn more about your work from their perspective.
Remember to take time to put yourself first every once in a while. Since adoption social work can be an all-consuming career, it’s important to prioritize your own mental health, as well as the health of the children and families you serve.
Wondering which classes to take and internships to apply for? Consider checking with employees of a local adoption agency, and looking to alumni who’ve followed a similar path. Look for opportunities to learn more about the adoption process, as well as post-adoption services. An advisor should be able to point you in the right path, though the self-advocacy needed to specialize in adoption social work is a good sign of what’s to come.
Getting a master’s degree can be financially draining as well. As you apply for programs, look for schools that offer scholarships and other forms of financial aid. Want to hold down a job while you study? Consider a part-time program or an online degree. Your local NASW chapter may have more information on financial resources for students.
Many adoption social workers begin their careers as case workers or assistants, handling paperwork and coordinating care. Those with a master’s degree, and particularly those licensed as clinical social workers may start a little higher up, managing caseworkers or providing counseling and other treatments to children, adoptive families, and biological parents alike.
Many adoption social workers stay in their jobs for years, gaining experience and using their skills to make a difference in families’ lives. Others might move on to managerial roles, or into adjacent fields such as school social work, mental health social work, or marriage and family therapy.
A career in adoption social work can also serve as a springboard for other areas of work as a child advocate, potentially as a lawyer or guidance counselor.
While there’s no formal accreditation for adoption social workers as there is for other social work specialties, those who make a career of it can take continuing education classes, and seek out supervisors who’ve worked in the field for years.
After completing a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, you might consider looking into doctoral programs. This is where MSW rankings come into play when considering how your program may look to admissions, but only to a certain extent, since schools move up and down the ladder quickly—and sometimes randomly. If you’re interested in continuing your social work education, one of these two options could be the move for you:
A Doctor of Social Work (or DSW) is often a stepping stone to a higher position in the social work field
A Ph.D. in social work, which is geared for students who are interested in performing research or seeking out university teaching jobs
Since adoption policy is constantly changing, it’s essential to stay up-to-date on the latest news. Continuing to enroll in social work classes can keep you in the loop, as can membership in organizations such as the National Association of Social Workers, or NASW.
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