Instruction, Policy & Practice in the Evolving Field of Social Work

The ever-evolving field of social work is rooted in the historical context of its early pioneers’ philanthropic efforts. Since the first social work class offered at Columbia University in 1898, trained social workers have served as government and nonprofit institutions’ soldiers of service, advocating on the ground for vulnerable populations. Because the field of social work encompasses many areas, Dr. Kenya C. Jones, Associate Professor in the Master of Social Work program at Clark Atlanta University, explains the various reasons she sees students entering the field. 

“There’s so many different ways you can look at social work,” Dr. Jones says. “I do think you have some people that come into social work because they want to help or because of trauma or struggling with mental health and wanting to help other people overcome it. Sometimes when I’m listening to the students, they’re coming from, ‘I was a client and this social worker may have helped me,’ or, ‘I want to be the person that I would have wanted to help me.’ I found that to be a little bit of a challenge because you really want to make sure that the client is at the forefront and you’re not transferring your issues or your lack of whatever you didn’t get onto somebody else. So, I really try to [ask], ‘Are we doing things that make us feel good, or is this something that the person is really asking for?’ I do see a wide range in my classroom.”

While social work students choose to enter the field for different reasons, there remains a great need for each to be dedicated to the evolution of the profession. More specifically, those working in child welfare have had to continually adapt to system changes as it moved from merely a philanthropic concern to an issue in which government involvement became paramount in protecting children from abuse and neglect. Dr. Linda Gordon of New York University explains, “It was only in the 1960s that government agencies began accepting responsibility for child abuse and neglect. In 1974 the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act provided funds and required certain professionals–doctors, social workers, teachers–to report suspected child abuse.” 

However, as the development of the federal foster care system continued to evolve, child welfare policies ignored the role of kinship caregivers. According to the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, as a result of more children needing out-of-home placements and staying in care for long periods of time, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 and the Child Welfare Act of 1980, both of which recognized the importance of kinship care and mandated states to consider placing children with kin as a viable option. 

A Second Chance, Inc.’s headquarters in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Established in 1994—a period of time in the U.S. when the number of children in the system was rapidly increasing—ASCI sought to prioritize kinship care in child welfare. Between 1986 and 1995, the number of children in foster care in the U.S. increased from 280,000 to close to 500,000 due to varying crises, such as the crack cocaine epidemic and high rates of female incarceration. Thus, the need for child welfare social workers and caseworkers increased with the need for more social work education programs. Today, Social Work Guide reports that there are over 500 Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredited bachelor of social work (BSW) programs and over 230 accredited master of social work (MSW) programs in the U.S. 

For the last 25 years, ASCI has continued to make kinship care a priority, serving over 31,000 children, 10,000 kinship caregivers and 30,000 birth parents. Starting with only four caseworkers, ASCI now employs over 100 caseworkers dedicated to fulfilling its mission. Furthermore, as more states begin to reform their systems to value kinship care, ASCI’s Kinship Insight Solutions works with various jurisdictions—Georgia, California, Virginia, and West Virginia, to name a few—across the U.S., using its extensive knowledge and research around kinship care to inform decision-making processes in systems outside its home state of Pennsylvania. 

With increasing numbers of children entering and staying in care, caseworkers are required to manage the growing number of caseloads. Because of this, it is essential for caseworkers to have a healthy work-life balance to prevent burnout. As such, self-care has become an essential aspect of social work instruction. Dr. Jones explains, “I find that developing self-care strategies and techniques are essential. If you’re burnt out or you don’t have a plan for your self-care, your client population is struggling as well.” 

She continues, “I give the content, then I emulate it. Quite often, students are going to see me coming from a walk, or I’m about to leave here and go workout, or I’m going to a yoga class … so, let’s practice some mindful breathing before. I think [students] can see where there is a balance in that you want to be mindful. I’d rather [they] be ahead of it than a doctor telling [them], ‘You have to do this now.’” 

Discussion of life in the field is a critical component of social work education, as it helps to prepare students for what to expect. More specifically, a form of burnout receiving greater attention in recent years is Secondary Traumatic Stress. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network explains, “For therapists, child welfare workers, case managers, and other helping professionals involved in the care of traumatized children and their families, the essential act of listening to trauma stories may take an emotional toll that compromises professional functioning and diminishes quality of life.” By teaching students the possible mental, physical and emotional impacts of working in the field, instructors are preparing students by giving them both knowledge and practical implications of social work; thus, providing them the best opportunities to serve their clients effectively.

The possibility of burnout is a cause for concern for social workers and their employers. Many social-work organizations and agencies help to support social workers through the field by providing opportunities for self-care. ASCI’s wellness program seeks to do just this providing staff with various resources and opportunities to practice self-care and nurture their overall wellness. The agency is dedicated to prioritizing wellness at an organizational level, so all staff, including caseworkers, are well-equipped to provide the best kinship care services possible. 

Dr. Jones mentions that it’s crucial that social work students use information learned in all classes to help mitigate some of the issues that may arise in the field: “Taking policy classes more seriously, hands-on work, and truly understanding the complexities of advocacy,” she says, will help emerging social workers tackle the intricacies of and be most effective in their essential roles.

“I would even say, try to make those interdisciplinary connections, because sometimes social workers are only seen as social workers at a Child and Family Services agency, when you have social workers who are administrators at school, taking law, in church. If we could make those kinds of connections, I think that could really help ensure that you’re representing your company. We have to lean in to those different pockets and maybe even attract other people. I’m always trying to attract as many men from Morehouse as possible because we don’t have a lot of men in social work, and they’re coming from such a great lineage. Why not capture some of those students, as well as the young ladies of Spelman? Just leaning into some of the strengths … we have to push them forward.”

As the field of social work continues to evolve, those who choose to work in the field must also evolve. However, social workers are special individuals who choose to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves and continue to accept the challenge. ASCI honors past, present and future generations of social workers who remain dedicated to ensuring all people have a voice in society. 

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of A Second Chance, Inc.

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