Careers in Social Work, Part 1
Choices: Careers in Social Work
Substance Misuse and Addictions
Susan has been clean from heroin and sober for three years. She now has the confidence to pursue her degree in higher education, and moves to a new city to do just that. However, the stress of the move, the isolation from her support group, and the struggle to succeed in school are too much. She begins to shoot heroin again and hang out with other addicts. Her grades and attendance plummet. She drops out and becomes more desperate every day to support her habit.

Finally Susan agrees to go with a clean and sober friend to the Methadone Maintenance Outpatient clinic for help. A social worker, trained in substance misuse and addictions, helps her understand her condition and her current options. With the social worker's support, Susan decides to go on methadone for several months to stabilize her situation. The social worker meets with her regularly to help Susan identify the areas she wants to work on, such as finding employment and attending mutual-help groups in the area. Susan begins to pick up the threads of her life.

Social workers are likely to meet many Susans in a variety of social work settings. Substance misuse and addiction is a prominent theme in child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, poverty, oppression of all kinds, veterans services, elderly services, juvenile delinquency, mental health, and many other arenas where social workers practice. In addition, social workers are increasingly found in settings that were once dominated by addiction specialists certified in alcohol and drug counseling. Social workers trained in substance misuse and addictions now practice in methadone maintenance clinics, inpatient and outpatient treatment settings, residential treatment, and in government policy-making positions.

Social workers bring a much needed ecological perspective to the work in this field. Instead of only focusing on the individual client's addiction or substance misuse problem, social workers see the client in relation to the family, the neighborhood, the support system from the community, the prevailing dominant cultural attitudes and policies, and the cosmic or spiritual level. Consequently, social workers trained in addictions can be found doing case management, group and individual therapy, family counseling, advocacy for jobs and housing needs, community development of resources, educating, policymaking, and sometimes doing this all at the same time!

Social workers trained in substance misuse and addiction often work as part of a team of other professionals, especially certified alcohol and drug counselors, physicians, and nurses. Many states require alcohol and drug certification in order to work in specialized addiction treatment settings.

Social workers in this field report the deep satisfaction of watching clients who have been completely hopeless and beaten down by addiction (their own, or someone's they love), go on to recover their humanity, sense of purpose in life, and ability to make positive choices for themselves.

Related Areas

  • mental health
  • individual, group, family counseling
  • victim services
  • corrections
  • child welfare
  • aging


  • inpatient and outpatient treatment centers
  • methadone maintenance clinics
  • residential treatment
  • community development settings
  • child welfare
  • community mental health centers
  • family service agencies
  • schools

For years, Mr. and Mrs. Gonzalez had been regulars at the Hispanic Senior Center, enthusiastically joining in many center activities. But since his wife’s death, Mr. Gonzalez has stopped coming. His neighbors voice their concern to the center’s social worker. They say he rarely leaves his apartment, refuses their offers of help, and seems disoriented.

Concerned that he may be suffering from depression, the social worker arranges to visit Mr. Gonzalez. She talks with him about his loss, fear of his own death, and life alone. She finds he feels that he is unwelcome as a single person. As he recognizes his feelings, she is able to convince him to come to the center. Slowly, Mr. Gonzalez begins again to take part in center activities and find companions.

The U.S. population is aging. We live in a country where people over 65 outnumber teenagers. This translates into a tremendous need - and a variety of opportunities - for social work with older persons and their families.

Working with older adults can mean involvement with active, healthy clients as well as those who are ill in settings that range from adult day care centers and nursing homes to hospitals, public agencies, and private corporations. Social workers form an important link between seniors and the services designed to help them.

Often, social workers will have direct contact with elderly people, providing counseling; helping them maintain their independence at home; arranging income assistance, transportation, and medical treatment; organizing recreational activities and support groups; and generally improving their quality of life. Social workers may also work with family members caring for elderly members and may help them obtain services and make plans for future care.

Many who work with seniors find that they profit from the depth and breadth of their experience, one of the more rewarding aspects of this important career.

Related Areas

  • Advocacy and intervention
  • Home health care
  • Geriatric case management
  • Public policy
  • Adult day care
  • Family services
  • Information and referral


  • Hospitals and medical centers
  • Banks, insurance companies, and investment firms
  • Nursing homes
  • Senior centers
  • Area agencies on aging
  • Senior volunteer programs
  • Senior housing facilities
  • Mental health centers
  • Family service agencies
  • Employee assistance programs
Child Welfare

Narcotics officers have raided a house, arresting a husband and wife. A social worker is called to arrange care for their two young girls. when she arrives, she gently explains to the children their parent’s situation. "We’ll find you a good place to stay ‘til mom and dad come home," she assures them. She helps each find a favorite toy and bundles them into the car.

Back at the office, the social worker first tries to locate relatives, then searches a list of approved foster homes. Most are at capacity, but one can take both. Again, she gathers up the sisters and takes them to their foster home. On the way she talks to them about their fears, explains what the foster family is like, and tells them when she will come back.

At the court hearing, the mother is released. But the judge must decide whether the children may go home or remain in foster care. The social worker testifies, describing drug paraphernalia lying about the house within reach, the empty refrigerator, the children’s dirty clothes. Later, she helps the girls understand the court’s decision that their mom must complete a drug treatment program before they can go home to her.

Child welfare social workers are advocates for America’s most silent minority: our nation’s youths.

The social worker’s job is to help ensure the health and well-being of children, primarily by supporting and strengthening their families. Often, timely services to a family can forestall a crisis.

When Child Protective Services receives a report of a neglected or abused child, social workers investigate, attempting to determine if it is safe for the child to remain in the home. If so, they may provide support services to the family in their home and link parents with community services such as child care, temporary income maintenance, job training, substance abuse treatment, counseling, or parenting classes.

In cases where families can’t or won’t protect their children, social workers may recommend temporary foster care. When longer term arrangements are needed, the social worker will work with lawyers and the courts and may give testimony in the child’s behalf. Child welfare agencies provide services to these children and their families to reunite them if possible. If a child cannot return to the parents, the social worker seeks another permanent home, placing the child with relatives or recommending the child’s release for adoption.

Intervening when children are abused or neglected, when a family is in trouble, or when parents have problems is difficult and challenging, requiring training, skill, and sensitivity. Often a social worker’s intervention makes a critical difference at a key moment in a child’s life.

Related fields

  • Family preservation
  • Child day care
  • Child protection
  • Family foster care
  • Group care
  • Adoption
  • Public welfare
  • Advocacy and intervention


  • Adoption agencies
  • Child day care
  • Foster care agencies
  • Family preservation agencies
  • Public child welfare organizations
  • Private child welfare organizations
Public Welfare

A young woman in her late 20s is suddenly deserted by her husband, leaving her with three young children. Left without income, she moves in with her recently widowed father. The move solves her immediate need for shelter, but her father’s social security check is not enough to support four more people. Because she doesn’t know where her husband is, she is unable to file for child support. A friend suggests that she apply for public assistance. At the welfare office, she finds she qualifies for Aid to Families with Dependent Children, food stamps, medical coverage, and housing assistance. Her children will get free breakfasts and lunches at school. She will qualify for education and job training so that eventually she will be able to support her family without help.

For more than four decades, public welfare has provided income and support services to society’s most vulnerable people—children, the ill, the elderly, the disabled. Although some of these people will always need services, traditional thinking about how to help is changing as the nation debates welfare reform. How to foster self-sufficiency and move people into the mainstream is today’s challenge, complicated by an increase in social problems and a general decrease in funds.

Social workers are primarily the administrators, managers, and program evaluators of the public welfare system. Some supervise intake workers and case workers who provide direct services. Social work in public welfare entails planning, administering, and financing programs; training and supervising staff; and setting and evaluating standards and criteria for service delivery.

There is no shortage of challenges in public welfare waiting for creative thinking and leadership from social workers.

Related Areas

  • Income maintenance
  • Adult protective service
  • Housing services
  • Supervision
  • Management
  • Administration
  • Public Policy
  • Research


  • Public welfare agencies
  • Private social service agencies
School Social Work

Although 9-year-old Robert has been a good student, his third-grade teacher notices a marked change in his work—and his attitude. The teacher contacts the school social worker, who meets with Robert and his mother. The social worker discovers that Robert’s father has abandoned the family, leaving his mother depressed and in financial difficulty.

The social worker suggests extra help and counseling for Robert and invites him to join a support group in school for children of divorced parents. The social worker also refers Robert’s mother to a mental health clinic, finds a neighborhood mothers’ support group for her, and helps her apply for child support. With extra help and support, Robert’s grades and outlook begin to improve.

Every child needs to be free from troubles that interfere with learning. Many school systems employ social workers to help children with emotional, developmental, or educational needs.

Working with teams of other school personnel, social workers help children with physical or learning disabilities or emotional problems or who face child abuse, neglect, domestic violence, poverty, or other problems.

Often the social worker’ s job includes interviewing the child and family to determine what if action is called for. Another function is to facilitate communication between parents and school staff. Social workers may also intervene hi problem situations or mobilize parental support for students’ needs.

Social workers may assess student needs, assist in discipline hearings, serve on policymaking committees, or help develop alternative programs. Other functions include facilitating school–community relations and providing a variety of services to students in special education programs.

School social workers may be the first to spot difficulties a child is confronting at home or in the community and the first to intervene. They often provide services or find services in the areas that prevent more serious problems from developing.

Related Areas

  • Clinical social work
  • Pupil personnel services


  • Elementary and secondary schools
  • Special education placement offices
  • Head start centers
  • Counseling centers
  • Early intervention programs

Joan, a woman in her mid-20s, has a history of drug addiction and writing bad checks. During a four-year stay in prison, social work services including therapy and workshops on drug abuse and depression help her handle her addiction and make significant progress. But her children are in foster care, and she has lost touch with her mother and sisters.

As the time for her release approaches, Joan needs a job, housing, a continuing addiction recovery program, and reunification with her family. She meets with a prison social worker who arranges for placement in a halfway house and helps her find a job and transportation. After eight months drug-free and holding her job, the halfway house social worker helps Joan find an apartment, arranges for the return of her children, locates her family, and helps her reunite with them.

In courts, rape crisis centers, police departments, and correctional facilities, you’ll find social workers.

In correctional facilities, the focus is on rehabilitation. Social workers may plan and provide drug and alcohol addiction treatment, life skills and basic competency training, and therapy to help offenders function once released into the community.

Social workers can be probation and parole officers, arranging for services after an offender is released, as in Joan’s case, finding a group home residence, remedial classes, job training, addiction treatment, counseling, child care, and transportation. These activities generally help raise a client’s independence and self-esteem.

Social workers may also be involved in restitution programs, or victim assistance services. They may serve the court as expert witnesses or work in partnership with attorneys. In police departments, social workers may help with domestic disputes or provide trauma and critical incident services to enforcement officers.

Social work activities in corrections are diverse, as are the clients, affording the chance to develop and use a broad range of skills. Corrections and justice is a field where a social worker can focus on rehabilitation and the constructive use of authority.

Related Areas

  • Corrections
  • Probation
  • Forensics
  • Youth services
  • Parole


  • Prisons
  • Courts
  • Police departments
  • Victim services programs
Developmental Disabilities

At a developmental disabilities center, the social worker receives a call from a school assessment office. Tests and evaluation have shown that a new kindergartner is moderately retarded as well as hearing impaired. The boy needs special services, and his parents need help understanding the assessment.

The social worker meets with the family to help them explore options. She brings them a list of recommended books that may be helpful. She arranges for additional developmental testing at the center to determine the child’s level and help determine what services the boy may need as he matures. She arranges for them to join a support group for parents whose children have developmental disabilities. Once these initial arrangements are made, the social worker provides supportive therapy to the parents to help them deal with their feelings.

People with developmental disabilities, which can include mental retardation, cerebral palsy, autism, epilepsy, and other conditions, may at some time seek out social services. The goal of the social worker is to assist such people in improving their functioning and social adjustment. Usually this is accomplished through teams that include other professionals.

Social workers help parents of children with disabilities understand their legal rights, learn to be advocates for their children, and help them find special services.

Social workers may work with individuals or groups as well as provide counseling for families. The social worker helps find the right services to enable each individual to be as independent as possible.

For the clients of social workers who serve people with disabilities those services can mean the difference between merely surviving and leading a productive and joyful life.

Related Areas

  • Case management
  • Planning
  • Research
  • Policy
  • Program evaluation
  • Management


  • Community-based living arrangements
  • State and local agencies
  • Medical facilities
  • Schools
Employment/Occupational Social Work

Richard has been having difficulty concentrating at work and is frequently absent. His supervisor suggests he visit the employee assistance program social worker. Richard doesn’t want to go, but the program is a company benefit and he knows that improving his productivity will give him a chance at a promotion, so he agrees.

At the first appointment, the social worker takes a social history and explores what seems to be affecting Richard’s performance. He says that his son is not doing well in school and his wife recently lost her job. The stress has led to family fights.

The social worker discusses school services that may help his son and community services to help his wife find a new job and suggests counseling for the whole family.

At a follow-up appointment, Richard reports that his son is getting remedial help at school and that his wife has enrolled in a job retraining program. They are beginning to feel more optimistic as they talk things through in family therapy. And Richard’s supervisor reports that his productivity has returned.

With the ever-increasing competitiveness of our economy, the quality of the workforce often determines an enterprise’s success or failure. Occupational social workers are a boon to our nation’s businesses, helping workers with problems that affect their job performance and satisfaction. Social workers may help corporations reengineer their structure and methods to improve efficiency, creativity, productivity, and morale. Or social workers in this field may work for a union and might be involved in job counseling or organizing.

A growing practice area for occupational social workers is in employee assistance programs (EAPs). The social worker may own the EAP or be employed by a business or a union, working onsite or off. The breadth and scope of their duties can be enormous - one minute helping an executive cope with the strain of an impending takeover, the next counseling an anorexic young trainee. EAP social workers may lead groups on stress reduction or coping with layoffs. Other situations the social worker may confront include substance abuse, domestic violence, single parenting, and vocational rehabilitation. Many employee assistance programs have extended their role for corporations to the management of mental health benefits.

In the vibrant domain of American work life, social workers provide the necessary human dimension.

Related Areas

  • Clinical social work
  • Alcohol and other drug abuse treatment
  • Health and wellness education
  • Grass roots organizing


  • Corporations
  • Businesses
  • Employee assistance programs
  • Labor unions
  • Organizational development
Health Care

Mr. Proctor has recovered from his heart attack, and his doctor wants to discharge him from the hospital. But his elderly wife is just recovering from a broken leg and cannot provide the care he needs at home. The social worker, in collaboration with the doctor, nurse, and physical therapist, makes arrangements for home health care, meals-on-wheels, nursing services, and other assistance. Establishing Mr. and Mrs. Proctor at home allows the couple to recover together and more happily than they would have been in separate, and more expensive, institutions.

Social workers are needed in hospitals, clinics, and other medical and health care settings to facilitate medical and emotional treatment. These social workers assess a patient’s needs, manage the many services a patient may require for recovery, plan for care after hospitalization, educate patients and their families, and help them cope with the personal and emotional problems related to the illness.

Social workers are vital members of the health care team, working in concert with doctors, nurses, and other health and mental health professionals. They sensitize other health care providers to the social and emotional aspects of illness.

In health settings social workers also conduct research, develop programs, administer social work departments, lead support groups, and coordinate community resources. The health care field offers a variety of employment opportunities in homes, community health centers, outpatient clinics, and public health program, as well as in hospitals.

Related Areas

  • Hospital social work
  • AIDS counseling/education
  • Public health
  • Hospice counseling/management
  • Home health care
  • Case management
  • Discharge planning
  • Maternal and child health
  • Physical rehabilitation
  • Chemical dependency
  • Disease prevention and health promotion


  • Health maintenance organizations
  • Nursing homes
  • Hospitals
  • Clinics
  • Hospice
  • Group homes
Social Work Careers

Part 2: Mental Health/Clinical Social Work; Community Organization; International Social Work; Management/Administration; Policy and Planning; Politics; Research
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