What Does a Social Work Case Manager Do?
June 29, 2022
A social work case manager helps individuals and groups manage the challeges of dealing with institutions like social services, healthcare systems, and the government.
A social work case manager handles many complex responsibilities, including assessing client needs, providing care coordination and support services, and developing and maintaining a supportive, therapeutic relationship with clients. It's an important, hands-on job that impacts individual clients, families, communities, and organizations.
What does the role entail? Do all social workers have the same responsibilities? Here's what you need to know about this fast-growing career field.
A career as a social work case manager blends social work and case management, two similar fields the differ primarily in the services delivered. Case managers generally evaluate a client's needs, provide a plan of action, and monitor the effectiveness. Social workers offer a more direct approach to clients through emotional support and intervention strategies. Blending the two fields forges an interdisciplinary role bridging plan development and its execution.
Social work case managers deal with client-sensitive information. Vital competencies required to succeed in this role include ethics, professionalism, advocacy, knowledge of public policy, and intervention techniques.
According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), social workers typically:
- Advocate for resources and social services (e.g., affordable healthcare, housing, child care, food stamps)
- Assess needs and provide applicable resources
- Deliver psychotherapeutic "talk therapy" services
- Maintain accurate case records
- Provide follow-up to monitor client progress and well-being
- Respond to mental health emergencies or child abuse and neglect
- Work with individuals or communities in need
Although the tasks above outline social worker duties in a "generalist" capacity, no single role encompasses the same skill set. Instead, there are distinctive roles based on licensures, certifications, and specializations. Some examples of occupation-specific professions and brief descriptions include:
- _Child, family, and school social workers_ seek to improve the social and psychological functioning of children and families, contributing to overall well-being and safety.
- _Healthcare social workers_ advise family caregivers and provide psychosocial support, discharge planning, and resource referrals to individuals coping with chronic or terminal illnesses.
- _Mental health and substance abuse social workers_ evaluate and treat clients with mental, emotional, or substance abuse issues through intervention or group therapy sessions.
- _Rehabilitation counselors_ develop rehabilitation and care plans, monitor and track progress, and help reduce barriers to employability and independence upon recovery.
- _Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors_ counsel individuals and advise prevention programs for alcohol, drug, or tobacco use and other conditions such as eating disorders or gambling addictions.
No matter the role, all categories must uphold a The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Standards for Social Work Case Management. With the varied roles within the profession, some social work providers deliver client-level interventions, while others mediate and facilitate interactions on a system level. Because of these distinctions, the ten NASW standards subdivide to three areas: the client, the system, and the social work case manager.
Case managers: client-level interventions
Social work is divided into three care levels: micro, mezzo, and macro. Micro (individual level) and mezzo (group level) fall under client-level interventions, which involve direct interaction between a social work case manager and a client or group. Micro interventions include addressing homelessness and providing medical assistance, healthcare, child care, adoption or foster care services, food assistance, and other social and human services that contribute to overall well-being.
Mezzo interventions occur at the group level. They include supporting neighborhoods, schools, religious organizations, or communities in need. Although at a group level, mezzo social workers interact directly with the clients or communities they serve. Examples include setting up mobile clinics or health fairs to provide free screenings and information about proper health and nutrition and assisting unemployed individuals through job skills training, resume workshops, and career fairs.
According to the NASW, the following standards pertain to client-level interventions:
- Using professional skills and competencies to serve client needs
- Ensuring clients' involvement in decisions that have a direct impact
- Assuring the client's right to privacy and confidentiality
- Coordinating care and services to clients and families
The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the salience of these standards by revealing the existing inequities and disparities in available care and community resources. Client-level interventions during the pandemic helped families and communities in need by combating food insecurity, organizing testing sites and vaccination drives, and delivering counseling services through telehealth due to isolation, job loss, or grieving from family members and loved ones lost to the pandemic. School social workers were in demand during the pandemic as student mental health became a growing concern.
Social work case managers make positive impacts and empower disadvantaged or underserved populations. The job requires the drive and endurance to advocate for individuals or vulnerable communities affected by poverty and systemic racism to ensure access to adequate resources. This direct impact can lead to rewarding experiences for those within the social work profession at the client level.
Case managers: system-level interventions
Macro interventions, like mezzo interventions, impact at a group or community level. However, macro social workers do not necessarily interact with individual clients or groups. Instead, they engage in public policy, activism, and advocacy to get to the root of societal issues that affect vulnerable and underserved populations. This type of intervention falls within the system level.
The following NASW standards pertain to system-level interventions:
- Intervening at the service system level to support, expand, and improve access to resources
- Maintaining "gatekeeper" knowledge of available resources and monitoring budget allocations
- Evaluating the quality and efficacy of the services delivered and holding one's self to personal accountability
Macro social workers may work with clients or groups to conduct interviews and gather information to identify a need. From there, they advocate on behalf of communities or create programs that address social problems and inadequate resources. Macro social work case managers also assess and modify the systems (as needed) to ensure their effectiveness.
How to become a case manager
The role of a social work case manager is not for the faint of heart. Case manager responsibilities can be overwhelming if unequipped with the skills to provide social and emotional support and the drive to advocate for clients by identifying and accessing resources on their behalf. Due to the detailed and skill-driven nature of their work, case managers typically need a bachelor's degree in an accredited program by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).
In addition to a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW), the requirements to become a certified social work case manager or C-SWCM include:
- A current license or passing score on a BSW-level exam
- At least three years and 4,500 hours of professional experience (both paid and supervised)
- An oath to abide by the NASW code of ethics
- A commitment to lifelong learning for ongoing professional development
Many roles and specializations exist within the social work case manager profession. Depending on the state, case managers must also obtain specific licensures and credentials based on the type of social work practice. Such positions can place social workers in a school or healthcare setting, a one-on-one or group setting, an organizational setting advocating at the client or system level, or the private or public sector. A BSW can help lay the foundation for your career. What options can take your career to the next level?
Do I need a Master of Social Work to become a case manager?
In many states, you can become a case manager with a bachelor's degree in social work. However, no matter where you live, a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree can help you advance your career to more impactful, responsible, higher-paying roles. The BLS projects that the number of jobs in social work will increase by 12 percent from 2020 to 2030, growing signficantly faster than the job market as a whole. In 2021, the median annual income for social workers was $50,390.
A master's degree in social work is required to assume higher-paying clinical roles. A master's degree is also necessary for many senior-level case manager roles.
Online master's degree programs offer flexibility for individuals pursuing an MSW. For example, Tulane University School of Social Work's Master of Social Work program offer a full-time 16-month or a part-time 32-month option. If you're looking for an accelerated online MSW program, Virginia Commonwealth University offers a one-year advanced standing program. Online programs allow students to choose the pace that works for them while applying real-world learning to real-time situations in their professional lives.
As the importance and awareness of mental health services continue to evolve (especially during the COVID-19 pandemic), social workers should remain in high demand. An MSW can equip you with the knowledge to deliver adequate patient care, build support systems, and advocate for equitable resources, whether at the client or system level, to create a lasting impact.
Questions or feedback? Email firstname.lastname@example.org