Misuse of Term “Social Worker” Perpetuates Misunderstanding

The Associated Press published an article entitled: “Social Worker: dad overwhelmed.”  This article detailed information related to the recent, abhorrent murder of five children.  The writers of this article referred to the social service workers as social workers and case workers.  These terms are not interchangeable.  Individuals, who work for state run social service agencies are not always, trained professional social workers.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) summarizes the requirements to practice social work.  One must have a degree in social work from an accredited college or university social work program.  That accrediting body is the Council on Social Work Education. A graduate from an accredited program may have earned a Bachelor of Social Work, Master of Social Work, Doctorate or PhD in Social Work.

State run social service agencies do not require case management staff or supervisors to be trained, professional social workers.  Requirements for hire are Bachelor Degrees in human services such as psychology, criminal justice, sociology or social work.  Social work degree programs involve classroom work and practical field experience for each degree level.  This field experience, while absent from the other aforementioned degrees, is a required aspect of a social work degree program.  It helps to prepare the graduate for actual work in the field of study.  The practical field experience requires that the social work student is directly supervised by an experienced social worker.     

Many states have a licensing and certification process for social workers to ensure standards for safe professional practice.  Social workers must obtain licensure or certification to practice depending on the law and monitoring boards in their particular state.  According to the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB,) states may legally regulate social work practice.  Most states regulate based on the following levels of practice.

Bachelors – Holder of a Baccalaureate social work degree upon graduation.

Masters – An individual with a Master’s degree in social work (MSW) with no post degree experience.

Advanced Generalist – An MSW with two years of supervised post-master’s experience.

Clinical – An MSW with at least two years of post-master’s direct clinical social work experience.

State run social service agencies recognize the benefit of having trained, professional social workers on staff; however, not all caseworkers or social service staff are social workers.  To use the term as a blanket statement for those who work in social services does a disservice to the professional social workers whose work is governed by state law, standards of practice and code of ethics.

This article is not a criticism of state run social service agencies, it is an attempt to educate the Associated Press and other media outlets to use accurate terms when reporting.  Reporters would never refer to someone as a doctor just because the person worked in a hospital or health care setting.  They would also not interchange the terms Registered Nurse (RN) with Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) or with Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA.)  Social Workers spend years earning the title through education, supervision and experience and the social work profession deserves the respect it is due.

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