How to Become a Foster Care Social Worker (Got a Heart of Gold?)
March 10, 2021
Children in foster care need passionate, skillful advocates. They find them in their foster care social workers, who oversee their cases and help children, and their families, manage the challenges of the foster care system.
Author Ashley Rhodes-Courter, MSW, spent ten years of her childhood in foster care, bouncing from home to home before she was adopted. So when she beat the odds by attending college, then graduate school, her career path was obvious: She chose to become a social worker, advocating for the welfare of children living in situations like her own. Now the author of two books on her childhood and path forward, she's passionate about improving the foster care system and making children's' lives a little easier.
She's not alone in her quest. Foster care social workers fight tirelessly for the safety and success of children in the system, helping to place them in caring homes, ensuring that they are mentally healthy, and, in Rhodes-Courter's case, advocating for policy changes to improve the foster care system.
Looking for a passionate career of your own? Here's how to become a foster care social worker.
In this article, we'll cover:
- The pros and cons of becoming a foster care social worker
- The kinds of foster care social worker careers
- The educational commitment to become a foster care social worker
- Licensure and accreditation for becoming a foster care social worker
- Resources for becoming a foster care social worker
- Further accreditation or education for a foster care social worker
Pros and cons of becoming a foster care social worker
Foster care social workers are primarily concerned with the health and wellbeing of children in the foster care system. They work to place children in need of a temporary home in the care of supportive and capable families. Unlike employees of Child Protective Services or a similar government agency, foster care social workers are focused on supporting children and families through changes, rather than enforcing that change.
A foster care social worker might:
- Provide mental health counseling services
- Teach parenting skills
- Check in on children and their foster families
- Help all family members acclimate to the new situation
As with all jobs, there are pros and cons:
- You'll work with children. If that's something you enjoy, you'll get to do a lot of it. If it's not something you enjoy, this is likely not the career for you.
- You'll stay on the move. Foster care social workers make home visits, hod individual and group counseling sessions, and frequently change their client roster. It's a great opportunity for a peripatetic social worker.
- You'll have opportunities for job growth, both within the foster care field and in areas such as adoption social work or child and family social work.
- You'll operate in a high-stakes environment. Social workers are tasked with helping children manage extremely stressful situations, monitoring for issues such as mental illness, substance abuse, child abuse, and other difficult situations.
- It can be an emotionally overwhelming role and one that requires significant self-care and support from supervisors.
That said, it's also a crucial role and one that can make all the difference in the lives of children, their birth parents, and foster families.
Kinds of foster care social worker careers
Because foster care social work is such an established field, most foster care social workers work in one of a handful of roles. Many work at a foster care agency. The primary entry-level position at these agencies is caseworker. Caseworkers handle the logistics of placing foster children in families, securing social services, and ensuring everyone's health and wellbeing through methods such as pre-service training. Other agency jobs include working as a case manager, which requires more experience working within the foster care system; working as a counselor; or working in a supervisory role within a foster care agency.
According to Payscale, the average annual income of a foster care social worker is roughly $44,000 per year, with a range of approximately $33,000 to $49,000. There is rarely much room for earning growth within foster care agencies. Foster care social workers who leave agency work or who advance to director roles will have some potential to earn more.
Some foster care social workers switch to child welfare social work, school social work, or other similar roles. After years at an agency, a foster care social worker could also go on to work for an advocacy organization, as a clinical social worker in more of a mental health capacity, or in public affairs, working to advance support for foster care services. These positions may require a more advanced degree than a master's degree, such as a Doctor of Social Work or PhD in social work, though entrepreneurial MSWs may be able to carve out roles for themselves.
Educational commitment for becoming a foster care social worker
Foster care social workers must have at least a bachelor's degree. Many future social workers pursue a Bachelor of Social Work, or BSW, which prepares graduates to work within the social work field but does not enable them to perform social work interventions themselves. While BSW graduates may find employment at foster care agencies, those who wish to call themselves social workers typically must have a Master of Social Work degree, or MSW. The Master of Social Work teachers students how to make mental health assessments, provide the appropriate interventions, and navigate the foster care system.
While the BSW is clearly tailored to social workers, many future MSW students major in psychology, sociology, or other related areas for their bachelor's degree. MSW applicants are not required to have a BSW, and most master's programs accept students of all backgrounds who can demonstrate an understanding of the social work field and a willingness to work within it.
Master's degree students who wish to work in foster care should consider specializing in child and family social work. That could mean taking electives that focus on working with children and families (particularly foster parents) and children's services, interning at a foster care agency, and/or identifying faculty members who've worked in foster care and asking them for guidance and mentorship.
A Master of Social Work degree is typically a two-year degree, though there are advanced standing programs for students with a BSW, accelerated programs, and longer part-time programs for working professionals. The program typically requires about 60 credits of courses as well as two year-long internship, called a field placement. An MSW can be pursued full-time or part-time. Many online programs are especially accommodating to part-time students.
Most schools should have social work curriculums that allow for a focus on children and families. Top social work schools include:
- University of Michigan - Ann Arbor
- Washington University in St Louis
- Columbia University
- University of California - Berkeley
- University of Chicago
- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
- University of Washington
Licensure and accreditation for becoming a foster care social worker
After earning a bachelor's degree and Master of Social Work degree, social workers who wish to practice must take a licensure exam in the state in which they plan to work. The exam tests graduates' understanding of social work core competencies, ethics and more, ensuring that graduates are adequately prepared to serve as social workers. The exams are administered by each state's social work board, though the exam content is the same from state to state.
Those who wish to practice in a different state than the one in which they're licensed must transfer their licensure to the new state, a process that can require supplementary online classes. Graduates who pass their licensure exam become License Master Social Workers, or LMSWs. While it's possible to find a foster care job without licensure, most agencies require that their social workers be properly licensed.
Foster care social workers who wish to work in a clinical setting, providing mental health services to children and their birth and foster families, might go on to earn their clinical licensure, becoming Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs). This typically takes two to three years of supervised social work in a clinical setting after receiving a social work degree. This work could include counseling foster children and their foster families, leading groups to teach family communication skills in foster homes, or other interventions.
Resources for becoming a foster care social worker
Though foster care social work can be an incredibly rewarding career, it can also be emotionally draining. Social workers are deeply invested in the lives of the children and foster families they're supporting. Foster care social workers are typically unable to share stories from work due to ethical and confidentiality reasons. They need mental health support from supervisors and/or colleagues who have similar experiences. Most agencies will hold group check-ins with employees, which offer a chance to share any difficulties and seek support from others in similar roles. Agencies also provide regular team meetings and status updates at which social workers can share the challenges they encounter.
Social work students interested in a career in foster care can turn to their career centers for more information on possible jobs. Students at the start of their degree programs should consider interning with a foster care agency, which can help them to get a better understanding of what foster care social work entails, the work environment (including foster homes), the commitment required, and whether the career is the right fit. Students might also seek out professors with experience in the foster care system, who can advise them on potential career paths, provide networking opportunities, and paint a clearer picture of what the future might hold.
While the Master of Social Work degree isn't cheap, there are a handful of financial aid resources available. Most master's students are eligible for student loans, both federal and private. For a complete picture, students must submit a FAFSA form. Many social work schools also offer need- and merit-based funding. Students with high undergraduate GPAs and a proven commitment to the social work field will find themselves in a prime position for merit-based scholarships. Many schools also offer externally funded scholarships tailored to different specialties, including foster care. For more information on specialized scholarships, check with your target schools' financial aid offices.
Typical advancement path for a foster care social worker
Those without master's degrees might first work as assistants, handling paperwork and putting in some supervised face time with youth and families. Social workers with master's degrees will likely begin their careers as caseworkers or case managers, working to match children with foster parents and foster families, and supporting both children and adults through the foster care process by providing mental health support, parenting guidance and regular check-ins.
After working in foster homes, a foster care social worker might move into a supervisory position, managing more junior social workers as they carry out that same role. Senior foster care social workers might lead agencies, working in director-level roles managing the administrative side.
A foster care social worker may also go on to work in other areas of social work, becoming a clinical social worker, moving into specialized areas such as substance abuse or domestic violence, focusing exclusively on mental health services, etc.
While the roles may differ, they all require a commitment to child welfare and support services. Foster care social workers need a healthy amount of empathy, as well as an ability to cut through red tape and make things happen. They work both independently and within groups, and must be able to work with a variety of people of all ages, managing difficult personalities to keep the peace. It's a tall order, but it can be the right fit for the right person.
Further accreditation or education for a foster care social worker
After completing a master's degree social work program and gaining licensure, LMSWs must keep up by taking Continuing Education Units (CEUs), which help a social worker to develop and stay up-to-date on new interventions.
Earning clinical licensure can raise a social worker's salary and create options for further career moves. Foster care social workers who become clinical social workers might go on to become child and family therapists, child welfare social workers, or even school social workers, translating their experience with children into a different setting.
Those who wish to pursue school social work might seek out a Certified School Social Work Specialist, or C-SSW, credential. It's not always required for school social work positions, but it does demonstrate an understanding of the basics of school social work and social work ethics, an understanding of the school population, and familiarity with common interventions in a school setting. Earning the C-SSW is similar to earning clinical licensure: Eligible social workers must have a master's degree from an accredited social work program, at least two years of supervised experience as a school social worker in a school setting, and a valid social worker license.
A career in foster care social work can be a long, difficult journey. For those committed to improving the lives of vulnerable children, however, it's a challenge well worth undertaking.
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