There are many areas of child welfare social work students can consider working in. Social workers have a major influence on the child welfare system in the United States. They serve on the front lines as caseworkers in child protection, prevention services, foster care, and adoption services and they serve as supervisors and managers. Although not everyone employed to work in the child welfare system is a social worker by training, BSW and MSW social workers bring unique skills and approaches to the work. Some argue that a social work degree, at least a BSW, should be required to work in child welfare. This is not always possible, however, due to the low pay and turnover in many public child welfare agencies across the country.

Purpose of the Child Welfare System

The child welfare system is set up in the United States to prevent and protect children from child maltreatment which is essentially abuse and/or neglect. The vast majority of substantiated (i.e. proven) maltreatment cases, about 75%, are due to neglect. Neglect occurs when a parent or caregiver fails to meet a child’s basic needs; a child may be neglected if they do not have adequate nutrition, are not getting proper medical care, or are failing to attend school. Many neglect cases occur due to parents’ poverty, substance abuse, or mental or physical illnesses as well.

Child abuse may be physical, emotional, or sexual. Abuse may be at the hands of a parent, guardian, foster parent, or other caregiver. Severe emotional abuse may be harder to detect than bruises but it can be no less detrimental to a child’s health and development. Sexual abuse may involve not only inappropriate touching or assault, but also the use of a child in pornography or prostitution. Child protective workers are trained to detect all forms of abuse. Often a child will not admit to what a parent is doing for fear the parent will get angry and hurt them more, or because they fear being removed from their home. Many social workers and psychologists working in this field are trained in interviewing abused children to get an idea of what is going on in the home. Cases of severe abuse may warrant removal of a child from the home.

Prevention and Preservation

An important part of child welfare work is prevention. A family, especially in neglect cases, may simply need resources such as childcare, social services, treatment for substance abuse, or employment. Differential response (DR) enables these types of cases to be placed on a different track for investigation and resolution. Families receiving DR will be viewed as partners in the process of addressing their needs and keeping the family together. A child welfare professional will work with the family to get them the resources they need so the family can stay together.

In cases of less serious abuse or neglect, child welfare workers may specialize in keeping families together. This is called preservation work. Services a family may receive to help prevent removal of their children may include parent coaching and training, therapy, or in-home services. In-home services provided by a social worker or nurse have been found to benefit families that have already come to the attention of child protective services as well as families that are generally at risk for abuse or neglect. The home visitor may work with parents to help them adopt better disciplinary practices and to educate them about child development including the need for proper nutrition and intellectual stimulation. The home visitor will also help connect a family with needed services and resources.

Preservation and prevention of repeat child maltreatment are critical aspects of child welfare social work. Social workers may even work for agencies that aim to prevent child maltreatment in the general population. Sadly, sometimes prevention and preservation services are not enough to prevent maltreatment or keep families together. When abuse or neglect is substantiated and serious enough, a child may need to be removed from the home.

Foster Care and Adoption Services

Another important part of a child welfare social work is foster care and adoption services. When a child must be removed from the home for their safety, they will be placed in a foster family or group home. The government is discouraging the use of group homes and institutional settings for long-term care for children who have been removed from the home. The recently enacted Families First Prevention and Services Act  encourages and supports family preservation, and when it is not possible to keep families together, it emphasizes placement in family foster care rather than group care.

When children enter foster care, foster care specialists will seek to find the best home for the child based on their location, needs, and foster families available. Foster care specialists also prepare foster families to provide care to children and work to ensure foster parents are providing the best care they can once the child is placed in their home. Sadly, sometimes, children are moved from home to home, which is not how the system is supposed to work, but it does still happen. This is due to a shortage of foster families or because the child has needs that some families cannot meet. Often a foster care worker will try to place a child in a kinship foster home, which means the foster parents are family to the child (such as grandparents) or someone else the child knows and trusts such members of their church, neighbors, or friends of their parents.

When it appears a child’s original parents cannot meet the goals outlined in their “treatment plan,” which is a plan for them to address factors, such as substance abuse, which contributed to their child being removed, parental rights may be terminated. This means the parents no longer have legal rights to their children, as decided by a family course judge, and the children are legally free to be adopted. A child will remain in foster care until they are adopted or age out. Many foster parents will adopt their foster children, but some cannot because of their age, they have too many children, or they simply want to care for foster children but are unable to adopt all of the children who come into their care.

Adoptive services are another important part of child welfare social work. Adoption specialists will try to match children in need of a permanent home with prospective adoptive parents. They will try to make the best match based on a child’s location and connections to their community, their medical or emotional needs, whether prospective adoptive parents are willing to adopt a sibling group, and other factors that will increase the likelihood of a successful match. It is less likely for children over the age of eight to be adopted because many adoptive parents want a baby or toddler, therefore, adoption social workers also have to do the hard work of recruiting adoptive parents interested in adopting older children and teens. At any given time in this country, about 100,000 foster children need permanent loving homes, so adoption social workers have a lot of work to do.

Sadly, each year about 20,000 to 26,000 children age out of foster care at the age of 18 to 21 without ever having been adopted, so these youth need a lot of support. The outcomes for teens and young adults who have never been adopted are not good. They have higher rates of homelessness, criminal activity, substance abuse, unemployment, low rates of attending college and often become parents themselves at an early age. Some social workers specialize in helping former foster youth adapt to life on their own. Social workers may connect these youth with mentors, job training, help them get into community college, or provide them with government-funded shelter and housing.

The Challenges and Rewards of Child Welfare Social Work

Child welfare social work can be very difficult and stressful, especially when you have to remove children either temporarily or permanently from their families. It can be quite fulfilling as well to provide services that will help keep families intact or to help children find new permanent adoptive homes. An adoption social worker I once visited pointed to numerous pictures of children behind her and said “I do not have children of my own but these are all my children.” She had placed all of these former foster children into loving homes over the years and viewed all of them as very special to her.

Social workers wishing to work in child welfare can work either for the public child welfare agency administered at the state level, or in large states at the county level, or they may work for a private adoption agency that focuses on placing foster children into adoptive homes. In some states, child welfare workers are overburdened with cases and there is high turnover. In other states, working conditions are better and the pay is higher. Social workers working in child welfare must advocate for themselves and others who work in the system. They often play a key role as leaders and supervisors in agencies where their education and skills enable them to serve as mentors to other staff and to create a better system for all.

To learn more go to:

Child Welfare Information Gateway


Adopting Older Children

Careers in Psychology

Stephanie Bosco-Ruggiero

B.A. Political Science| Vassar College

M.A. Urban Affairs | University of Delaware

Social Policy | Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service Doctoral Program

September  2019

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