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Child and Family Social Work

January 30, 2024
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In an ideal world, all children would live in loving and safe home environments. Unfortunately, child welfare is a significant concern in the United States. According to the latest data from the Department of Health & Human Services, approximately 600,000 children experienced abuse and neglect in 2021. That year, state child welfare agencies also investigated or responded to concerns about three million children.1

Luckily, there are thousands of trained professionals in organizations that focus on preventing, responding to, and treating children after trauma. The main examples of this are child and family social workers, who provide resources and support for vulnerable youth. They offer counseling and advocacy services for victims of child abuse and neglect. They also help families access services and improve their relationships.2

This article explores the vital role that social workers play in improving and advocating for children’s welfare.

Promoting Child Welfare in Social Work

Child and family social workers nurture the well-being of youth and their families through robust care services. They connect clients in need with resources, such as food stamps and housing, and other social services.2 They use many approaches and techniques to handle complex situations, some of which are listed below.

Identifying Signs of Child Abuse and Neglect

Neglect occurs when caregivers provide inadequate care that fails to meet a child’s basic needs. Neglect can be difficult to navigate because it is not always intentional, but it is still significantly harmful. Abuse, on the other hand, refers to physical, psychological or sexual harm.3 This is usually more targeted, intentional and noticeable to other parties.

Social workers monitor youth for signs of neglect and abuse. Common symptoms of neglect include:3

  • Delayed growth
  • Malnutrition
  • Poor oral hygiene
  • Untreated diaper rash
  • Untreated injuries

The symptoms of abuse vary depending on the type of mistreatment the child experiences, but may include:3

  • Head trauma
  • Immersion burns
  • Inappropriate sexual behaviors, such as undressing in public
  • Multiple injuries
  • Suspicious fractures
  • Unexplained delay in the caregiver seeking treatment for the child

When traumatic events occur, school social workers might notice a sudden decline in a child's performance (e.g., social and psychological functioning) or see visible evidence of abuse. Other social workers may recognize these signs while gathering statements from children or may receive reports from healthcare providers, who are required to report symptoms of neglect and abuse to child welfare services.3

Reporting To Child Protective Services

To help protect against these kinds of harm, many local and state agencies offer child protective services (CPS). Licensed social worker may be employed by these organizations or collaborate with them to protect abused children.1

CPS supports children and families by offering pre-response and post-response services. Pre-response services aim to prevent child abuse and neglect by educating caregivers and providing resources. Post-response services help youth who have already experienced mistreatment and may include removing children from unsafe environments.1

Family Social Work Practices

Family social work practices focus on strengthening parenting skills and helping strengthen familial bonds. Social workers provide many different types of training for caregivers. For example, parent management training teaches caregivers methods for reinforcing positive behaviors and responding to challenging situations. Social workers can also provide consultations to help parents improve their interactions with their teenagers.4

Adoption and Foster Care Social Work

Many professionals specialize in adoption and foster care social work. These social workers assess potential foster families, help them obtain licensing and provide ongoing caregiver training. They communicate with foster parents regularly and provide support as needed.5

Foster and adoption workers also assist children as they transition into their new foster homes. They oversee court cases, medical appointments, parent visits and other important events. Once a foster child is placed in a new home, the social worker will conduct placement visits to monitor the child’s welfare.5

Child Advocacy in Social Work

Child advocacy in social work involves promoting the rights and interests of children. Social workers collaborate with children’s advocacy centers or law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute abuse and neglect cases.6

Child and family social work professionals also influence legislative changes and public policies related to children’s welfare. In the 1970s, for example, social worker Edi Adams helped create the Indian Child Welfare Act. Today, Adams serves as an expert witness for court cases involving Indigenous children removed from their homes.7

Child and Family Counseling

Social workers provide child and family counseling for clients who experience emotional and psychological challenges. This counseling may involve psychoeducation to help families understand their children’s mental health disorders or to adopt tactics like behavioral management, conflict resolution and planning for the future.8

Family Therapy Techniques

Family therapy is group talk therapy that aims to strengthen family relationships. This treatment can help families dealing with challenging situations, such as aging, death, moving or sibling conflicts.9

Child welfare social workers use a broad range of family therapy techniques to improve home life for children and help family members have positive interactions. For example, functional family therapy teaches caregivers strategies to address their children’s problematic behavior in healthy ways, instead of only with punishment.9

Family Intervention Strategies

Families may experience crises that endanger their children’s welfare, such as domestic violence or job loss. Social workers use family intervention strategies to assess risk and teach families coping methods.10 Problem-solving skills training is one intervention that helps families develop resilience and handle challenges.

Unilateral family therapy is another family intervention strategy that assists people with loved ones who have substance use disorders.10 This strategy teaches family members how to change their own responses to their loved one’s destructive behaviors in hopes of encouraging more positive behavior going forward.11

Cultural Sensitivity and Diversity

Child and family social workers often interact with people from diverse cultural backgrounds. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) emphasizes the importance of cross-cultural knowledge. Social workers should continually strive to improve their understanding of different cultures and family systems. The NASW also encourages social workers to tailor their interventions to meet their clients’ diverse needs and promote social justice.12

Multidisciplinary Strategies in Child Social Work

Multidisciplinary collaborations and strategies in child social work improve the quality of care for clients. Many social workers collaborate with community agencies, healthcare providers and legal professionals to provide holistic support for children and families.13

Multidisciplinary law offices help families navigate the child welfare system. These teams typically include an attorney who represents the parents and a social worker who connects families with services. Similarly, family treatment drug courts bring together social workers, substance use disorder counselors and other professionals to treat the entire family.13

Change Lives With the Yeshiva University Family Social Work Program

Gain the skills and expertise needed to make a difference in Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work online Master of Social Work (MSW) program. Knowing that many social workers need to balance work and school, our flexible program offers full- and part-time options so you can study at your own pace. The immediately applicable coursework can make a profound impact on the lives of vulnerable youth and advance your career in social work.

The online MSW program allows you to grow by expanding your knowledge of social work interventions and theoretical frameworks. For more nuance, experienced practitioners teach multidisciplinary classes and share insights from the field. You’ll also gain hands-on experience as you complete 30 hours of supervised fieldwork.

Schedule a call with an admissions outreach advisor to discover how the online MSW can help you achieve your professional goals and become a leader in social work.