The guide will outline what a child social worker does and how to pursue this career, as well as information that potential child social workers will want to know, such as salary ranges, the required skills and knowledge, and the overall job outlook for social workers in this field.
Becoming a child social worker
Child social workers focus on assisting children, youth, and their families. Many child social workers are employed in child welfare positions. Other social workers in this field focus on providing mental health counseling to children, youth, and families.
In the child welfare context, social workers are employed in governments and nonprofits and play a critical role in protecting neglected, abused, or at-risk children. They may investigate and respond to children in need or provide support to particular groups of children, such as foster children or homeless youth.
According to the NASW, “child welfare social workers specialize in building upon the strengths within a family and their community to help provide a safe and loving environment for children.”
More broadly, child social workers also include many mental health professionals who focus on helping children, youth, and their families. These individuals often possess a masters in social work and focus on therapeutic support. This could include specialization in certain techniques for children, such as play therapy, or in a particular condition more common in children, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. These child social workers are employed in government agencies, nonprofits, hospitals, and private practice.
When considering this profession there is some important information to keep in mind.
How to become a child social worker
- Obtain a bachelor’s degree most child social workers possess a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) and child welfare workers should consider programs with Title IV-E funding opportunities. Some child social workers hold bachelor’s degrees in a related field, such as early childhood education, human development or psychology. Some entry level child welfare positions are available for those with bachelor’s degrees.
- Gain experience BSW and MSW students often gain experience working with children or in child welfare settings through internships or field placements. Many social work students also gain critical experience through coursework in areas such as social welfare and child development.
- Pursue a master’s degree to work in clinical settings or capacities, such as therapists, child social workers will need to possess a MSW. Even for child welfare positions in which a masters is not required, MSWs are paid more than BSWs and are qualified for a wider range of positions. Those considering child welfare positions may want to explore Title IV-E funding opportunities to defray MSW costs.
- Earn licensure To work in private practice and in many healthcare positions, licensure as a clinical social worker is required. The specific requirements for clinical licensure vary by state, but generally require at least two years post-MSW experience, passing the ASWB clinical examination, and a specified number of hours of supervision by a licensed social worker. Social workers with clinical licensure earn more and have greater job opportunities.
What is a child social worker?
Child social workers are found in a variety of employment settings and provide a critical service for children, youth, and their families. This field is often divided into two main groups — child welfare social work and child, youth and family social work. The duties of child social workers will vary depending on the type of work being performed.
Child welfare workers are often found in child protective services or child welfare agencies and play a critical role in intervening and protecting children from harm. In some instances, child welfare workers are called upon to investigate alleged abuse or neglect and remove children from unsafe situations. This can involve determining whether children are being physically or sexually abused, or neglected, and collaborating with courts, schools, and other agencies to design a case plan.
Child welfare workers also help ensure that at-risk or vulnerable children end up in safe homes. This includes reunification efforts that are centered around helping parents better care for their children, as well as foster or adoptive placements. Child welfare workers also coordinate support that the parents and children may need moving forward. This care can come in a variety of forms, including therapy, educational services, or financial resources.
As part of the US Department of Health and Human Services with responsibility for addressing the needs of America’s children, the Children’s Bureau is a good resource for those interested in child welfare.
Child social workers outside of the child welfare setting also focus on improving the quality of life for children. In addition to abused children or those in the foster system, these social workers assist children and youth with clinical mental health needs (such as PTSD, ADHD, anxiety, etc.). Child, youth and family social workers have an added focus on providing short-term and long-term individual or group therapy for children, youth and their families. These social workers are also found in a range of settings, from hospitals to schools to private practice.
Child, youth and family social workers have special expertise on the mental health needs and functioning of both children and families. Many will focus on specific treatment models that are adapted to help children, such as TFCBT for children with trauma. Others may focus on specific groups of children, such as those who have been adopted or lost a parent. To ensure the best outcomes, child social workers need to be able to effectively work with families.
Child social worker requirements and skills
- Bachelor’s degree in social work or a related field, such as counseling or psychology, may be sufficient for some entry-level child welfare positions
- Master’s degree in social work can be required for some positions
- Social service programs and resources available to children, such as Head Start or nutritional assistance programs
- Child abuse and neglect reporting laws and policies
- Child development milestones and impacts of childhood trauma
- Elements of family functioning, systems and dynamics
- Listening, empathy, and interpersonal skills
- Good organization skills, record-keeping and documentation
- Strong sense of ethics and professionalism
- Ability to engage children and families
- Counseling and clinical mental health skills, including assessment and interventions
- Time management and ability to respond to crises
- Written and oral communication, including advocacy
The NASW’s Standards for Social Work Practice in Child Welfare and Standards for the Practice of Social Work with Adolescents are helpful resources for those wanting to learn more.
What do child social workers do?
As this guide explores, child social workers perform different duties depending on specific job context. Those wanting to learn more about the experiences of child welfare social workers may want to review this NASW report detailing the experiences of social workers from the child welfare specialty practice section.
This hypothetical explores the work of a child, family and youth social worker in a community agency:
A youth has been referred by the juvenile justice system for mandatory treatment after getting into a fight at school. The client is only 11-years old but has already had a life filled with hardship and trauma. In addition to the fight that led to the referral for services, the youth is experimenting with drugs, failing at school, and experiencing mental health struggles.
The child social worker has experience helping prior clients with complex sets of problems. The very first step is engaging the youth in services. The social worker’s professional training has provided preparation for how to use empathy to forge connections with involuntary clients and the expertise necessary to work with children and youth.
Through the use of the social work person-in-environment perspective, the child therapist is able to understand the connections between the range of issues that are impacting this youth. The social worker recognizes that the physical altercation occurred in the context of a number of stressors related to the home, school and community environments. Ultimately, helping requires attention to these stressors in addition to the behavior that led to the encounter with the juvenile justice system.
The social worker chooses a therapeutic approach that takes into account the youth’s history of trauma, such as a trauma-focused intervention for youth in the juvenile justice system recommended by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. In addition to individual therapy, the social worker also forges connections with the youth’s teacher and family members. This broader approach allows for educational support and the youth’s parents receive assistance in improving their skills.
The child social worker is called upon when the youth is in crisis. By responding with the right therapeutic approach and an array of resources to address needs beyond the criminal incident, this youth is given an opportunity for a new future. This chance to make a positive change is part of the lasting reward for the child, youth and family social worker.
Child social worker job description
Child welfare social workers perform a vital role in protecting children, which can include:
- Responding to and participating in the investigation of reports of child abuse and neglect, including attending court hearings
- Providing counseling and therapeutic support to children and their families
- Arranging for children’s short-term and long-term care
- Connecting parents to support and resources for their or their children’s needs
- Creating case plans to address children’s future needs, such as reunification plans
- Responding to emergent needs of children and their families
- Completing documentation and maintaining case files
The Children’s Bureau’s guide for caseworkers is a good resource for those wanting more information about the duties and responsibilities of social workers in child protective services.
Child social workers more generally will provide a different scope of services that includes:
- Individual or group counseling for children and their families
- Assessing the social and psychological functioning of children and youths
- Helping parents and caregivers improve their parenting skills
- Identifying resources and services to assist children and their families
- Advocacy to ensure children or youth receive appropriate care, education and health services
- Maintaining case history records and preparing reports on treatment
- Assisting in the coordinating other needed services, such as medical appointments or educational accommodations
Additional child social worker special training and certifications
Child social workers can pursue different levels of certification through the NASW. Child social workers at the BSW level may apply through the NASW to become Certified Children, Youth and Family Social Worker (C-CYFSW). This certification requires 20 contact hours of post-degree continuing professional education on bio-psycho-social issues, interventions, or aspects of working with children and their families, along with 1,500 hours of paid, supervised professional work experience after receiving a BSW.
Social workers with a MSW can follow the NASW’s process to become a Certified Advanced Children, Youth & Family Social Worker (C-ACYFSW). This certification requires 20 or more contact hours of professional education specific to children, youth and families; at least 2 years and 3,000 hours of paid, supervised, post-MSW experience; and a masters-level license.
Some students pursue Child Welfare Certificates while completing their degree in social work. These certificates reflect that the student has built competences and in-depth knowledge specific to working with abused or neglected children. The coursework often includes topics such as child development, assessing abuse and neglect, and policies and laws pertaining to child services. Depending on the school, these certificates can be earned by students pursuing their BSW and/or MSW.
Child social worker career outlook
New social workers benefit from a rapidly expanding job market. According to data prepared by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job opportunities for child, family and school social workers are expected to increase by 7 percent between 2018-2028.
BLS highlights that job prospects are particularly good for child social workers with clinical licensure, although specific data for this group is not provided. This is the result of a larger pattern of growth in healthcare spending and clinical social workers are able to benefit because they offer treatment services.
Those considering child welfare positions may want to consider participating in a Title IV-E program. This program provides stipends to defray education costs for students who are already employed in public child welfare agencies or preparing for employment in this setting after graduation, and can help provide a direct career pathway. More information about Title IV-E programs can be found through the Children’s Bureau and the NASW title IV-E guide.
Child social worker salary
According to data compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual wage for child, family and school social workers in 2018 was $49,760. Social workers in individual and family services organizations earned less ($42,970) than their counterparts in state government ($49,650) and local government ($55,860).
A number of factors will significantly impact the salary child social workers can expect. Most prominently, a NASW study revealed that social workers with a MSW earn approximately $15,000 annually than those with a BSW.
Social workers in certain states (such as the District of Columbia, Connecticut or New Jersey) and metropolitan areas (such as metro New York City or Los Angeles, CA) also earn more. Those wanting to further explore the connections between geographic region and salary may want to reference this BLS report.