A social worker is a person employed in the administration of charity, social service, welfare, and poverty agencies, advocacy, or religious outreach programs. Social workers may also work with community health agencies. In developed countries a large number of social workers are employed by the government. Other social workers work as psychotherapists, performing individual counselling, frequently working in coordination with psychiatrists, psychologists, or other physicians.
A social worker practicing in the United States usually requires a Master's degree (MSW) or a Bachelor's degree (BSW) in Social Work to receive a license in most states. In some areas, however, a social worker may be able to receive a license with a Bachelor's degree in any discipline.
At the time of massive immigrant influx, and consequent social and economic upheaval, the church was the only organized force with a mandate to provide services to the needy. Religious organizations, consequently stepped into the void, creating work forces and legal guidelines (such as the Elizabethan Poor Laws, in England). In some countries, Social Work has emerged as a recognized non-secular and professional endeavor to serve these needs. Governmental support for non-secular and non-political fulfilment of certain societal needs has promoted the field of social work. In many countries religious organizations continue to be prevalent in addressing these needs of society.
Typical social work may involve:
- Administering government welfare programs
- Food bank programs
- Needle exchanges, and drug addiction
- Support for homeless people, in the form of homeless shelters, medical support, counseling
- Family crisis intervention
- Child abuse
- Adoptions and foster care monitoring
- Battered women's shelters
- Helping the poor organize for better conditions - both economically (food banks, buying clubs) and politically - voting blocks during election campaigns, running candidates, organizing demonstrations
- Providing assistance to work through government red tape, including other social work agencies
- Tenants' rights
- Workers' compensation for on-the-job injuries (there are usually additional social workers whose jobs focus specifically on dealing with the bureaucracy of workers' compensation problems)
- Refugee assistance (refugee camps, relocation, political asylum help)
- AIDS awareness
- Birth control and family planning
- Program evaluation to determine if various programs are providing services as they should, or how a program may be improved.
- Administration and coordination of services for disabled infants, children, and adults
- Advocacy, community support, and counseling for adults and children with mental illness
- Providing short-term counseling and referrals to workers through employee assistance programs
The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) is the largest organization of professional social workers in the United States.
Certain types of social workers are more likely to suffer criticism than most other workers because they often work in scenarios which are highly emotionally charged. Examples include:
- taking a child away from parents who are regarded as unfit (this is even more controversial when it involves religious beliefs)
- failure to remove children from parents who subsequently hurt or kill them
- organizing demonstrations that turn into riots
- supporting activities that are highly controversial - abortion, needle exchanges
Criticism often centers around social workers acting unprofessionally. This would include methodological errors, bias with or against those whom they work with, failure to perform their jobs, or even witch hunts.
Social workers would respond that often problems with social workers can be traced to poor pay, inadequate training, excessive case loads, inadequate funding, and bad government policies. The reason social workers are singled out is because they are the ones who directly face and deal with the public.
Criticisms range from methodological errors to human rights abuses. When social workers do not remove children from homes in which children are abused by their parents, there is often public outcry about child welfare agencies not doing their job.
Also, social workers are often criticized because they are identified with the beaurocracy of their organizations. Through no choice of their own, social workers often have to ask clients to fill out time-consuming paperwork and sign large numbers of documents. Clients and others thus tend to think of social workers as paper-pushers.
Examples of Documented Abuses and Highly Controversial Behaviour
- Child welfare agency successfully sued. "Ontario Court of Appeal unequivocally found the Durham Children's Aid Society [Ontario, Canada] and its social workers guilty of the grossest negligence, gross incompetence and malicious prosecution." Rev. Dorian A. Baxter (http://www.canadacourtwatch.com/welcome.htm)
Also, there have been several scandals involving false testimony about alleged child sexual abuse. In these cases, often referred to as modern witchhunts, it is generally acknowledged that some social workers, not sufficiently trained and often overzealous, created false memories through suggestive questioning. Internationally, many courts are now rejecting this type of testimony.
- National Association of Social Workers (NASW) (http://www.naswdc.org/)
- Definition of Social Work (http://www.ifsw.org/Publications/4.6e.pub.html) Adopted July 2000 by the International Federation of Social Workers. German translation also available at: Austrian National Federation of Social Workers (http://sozialarbeit.at/def.htm)
- British Association of Social Workers (http://www.basw.co.uk/)
- International Federation of Social Workers (http://www.ifsw.org/)
- Social work careers (UK) (http://www.socialworkcareers.co.uk/)
- UK regulator for social workers (http://www.gscc.org.uk)