When a person decides to become a social worker, that person is typically driven by a strong desire to make a difference in the world. The National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics states that a social worker's primary goal is to help people in need and to address social problems. The entire premise of the profession is to help the lost and forgotten, to treat people with dignity and respect, and to be on the front lines addressing social injustices. One of the greatest injustices in our world is that children don’t always have a safe environment, a place to sleep, or food to eat. This is why social work and child welfare go hand-in-hand. Becoming a child welfare social worker is one of the most difficult tasks in the field of social work.

What do child welfare social workers do?

Childhood is supposed to be a time for a young person to be curious about the world, play with friends, and be imaginative about the future. Sadly, this is not the case for every child. When children are being abused or neglected, it robs them of proper cognitive and psychological development and severely lessens their ability to handle stress. This is due to a constant release of stress hormones, which ultimately lead to altered mood, disturbed sleep, heightened anxiety, and irritability. However, there is hope in the amazing resilience children have. According to a study conducted by the RAND Corporation, it is possible to reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress and depression among students exposed to trauma.

Child Welfare Social Worker role and responsibilities

With this in mind, what is a child welfare social worker? A child welfare social worker is typically the first person to step-in and assess the situation when a child is suspected to be experiencing neglect or abuse. When a child has no one else fighting for her needs, a child welfare caseworker becomes that child's advocate. Before anything else, the child welfare caseworker keeps the child's best interests in mind. This may include helping a child who is living in poor conditions, or a child with special needs or behavioral problems. A child welfare case worker maintains a caseload of children that have been identified as being in need of some kind of services. The child welfare worker ensures that those needs are met and maintained. Once it seems that the child has achieved stability, the child welfare social worker will follow-up to make sure the situation remains predictable and stable in the long term.

Working in child welfare, a person must be empathetic and compassionate. These professionals are also organized, perceptive, and persistent. Child welfare social workers are cognizant of the effects of childhood abuse, and have often personally experienced abuse in their own lives. A great child welfare social worker does not accept things at face value; they ask questions and do research to determine the truth about children’s situations. Another important quality of child welfare social workers is that they are resilient and tenacious. Child welfare social workers are overworked, and are occasionally victims of violence because of their jobs. It is inevitable that child welfare social workers will come across some devastating cases in their careers, and maintaining a caseload of children in trauma can be very taxing workers’ emotional health. Therefore, if you want to take on social work with child welfare, you must accept this great responsibility and sacrifice in order to be successful in this profession.

Specializations and work environment

There are a several different careers in child welfare, including: Family case managers: oversee the process of successful placement Juvenile counselors: protect the wellbeing of youth in custody Child protective specialists: respond to mandated reports of abuse or neglect Foster care specialists: provide support for foster parents Child abuse prevention specialists: provide positive training workshops to at-risk families

Social service assistants: help guardians connect to resources

Whereas other types of social workers have more flexibility and can work for various nonprofit agencies, child welfare caseworkers typically work for local, state, or federal government, or for public hospitals. However, there are opportunities at other agencies for a child welfare and protection social worker who is not in a traditional caseworker position, and who provides education to families in need, supports families who foster children, or finds and distributes resources.

Child welfare social worker training & education

In order to pursue a child welfare career, you will need to obtain a bachelor's degree. Depending on the requirements in your state and region, you will probably be required to complete state-mandated supervised hours of fieldwork on top of obtaining your bachelor's degree in the field of social work. More than likely, you will also need to participate in ongoing continuing education. Finally, a large number of social workers go on to obtain a master's in social work. Many employers require a master’s degree, and some states require this level of education for licensure eligibility.

When deciding on a school for social work, be sure to research whether the school is accredited by the Council of Social Work Education. Most states require that you attend a CSWE accredited program to become licensed.

If you are you are considering a career as a social worker, it’s likely you are…

Thinking about where to go to college, or are currently in college. If you have not yet started school, but plan to go to college, and want to enter the field of child welfare social work, we recommend enrolling in a social work bachelor's program. This is the most relevant degree for entering the field of social work. If you are in college but have already started another program, it's still possible for you to become a social worker. Consider minoring in social work, or checking out your state's licensure process to make sure you are able to satisfy the requirements.

Not yet working in the profession, but have some education. If you have completed an associate's degree, you are in a really good place to begin your social work career. Completing your associate's degree often means that you have satisfied your general education requirements for a bachelor's degree, and can move on to the subject of your choosing at a 4-year university.

Not yet working in the profession, but have a bachelor's degree. It's possible you have already completed your bachelor's degree and are a professional in a field other than social work. Coming from another profession can give you a unique perspective into the system, which may be beneficial. If you have a bachelor’s degree, you can still become a social worker by completing your master's in social work. We recommend volunteering your time to an organization to see if this is something you really want to do. Once you have expanded your network in the social work field, you may be able to find a field that is a good fit for you.

Currently in the profession, but want to advance your career. If you are currently a licensed child welfare social worker and are interested in advancing in your career, we recommend looking at the minimum qualifications for the administrative directors in your area. Obtaining a master's in social work is usually the best way to move up in the ranks and take on an administrative role.

No matter where you currently find yourself, if you are interested in a child welfare career, you should follow this passion. Social workers in child welfare usually have a high turnover rate and are needed across the country. Your decision to become a child welfare social worker might be the difference between a good and bad outcome in a child's life.

Child welfare social worker licensing & certification

The child welfare social worker requirements are pretty straightforward. Regardless of the type of social worker you are, you must become licensed. However, the requirements for licensure vary by state. Some states will provide a license when you obtain your master's in social work, but others will license social workers with only a bachelor's degree. For example, to earn a child welfare certification as a licensed social worker in California, you must have your master's degree. However, it is possible to obtain a child welfare license in Illinois with just a bachelor's degree. If you are interested in getting licensed, check out this list of social work license requirements by state.

There are a number of associations and organizations that provide resources for those interested in becoming licensed social workers. Here are a few to consider:

  • National Association of Social Workers
  • Society for Social Work and Research
  • The Network for Social Work Management
  • Council on Social Work Education
  • American Case Management Association

Becoming associated with one of these entities will provide you with excellent networking opportunities, along with continuing education and professional development resources.

Child welfare social worker salaries

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS){target="blank"} does not specifically list a salary for child welfare social work or child welfare caseworkers, but it does include a child, family and school social worker field, which is the closest category. The BLS indicates that the average salary for this type of social worker averages $48,430 in the U.S..

We researched the following relevant regions on PayScale. Though, as with the BLS, child welfare worker salary is not listed on PayScale, we gathered average starting salaries for a child, family, or school social worker:

City Salary
San Francisco, CA $38,709
Austin, TX $35,958
Chicago, IL $38,000
New Orleans, LA $39,214
Miami, FL $37,821
New York City, NY $39,451
Boston, MA $39,828

Glassdoor lists a child welfare social worker’s annual average salary as $49,587, and Indeed does not list child welfare social worker salary specifically, but suggests a child welfare specialist makes $39,372 per year and a social worker makes $52,826.

Lizzie
Lizzie Perrin

Lizzie is a writer and content marketer, with experience in education, finance, public policy, and leadership. She earned a bachelor's degree in communication from UC Davis and a master's degree in public administration from CSU Bakersfield. Lizzie is also a musician and lives in California with her husband and son.