Fields of social work and how they differ from one another


Fields of social work and how they differ from one another 1

Social work offers numerous opportunities for practitioners. So long as they are compassionate, want to help those in need, and have the right educational qualifications, they qualify to become a social worker. However, the variety of opportunities can leave some confused, and without knowing what each has to offer, they may find themselves in a type of social work they are not passionate about.

The first step toward becoming a social worker is to get a social work degree. It qualifies students to become direct social workers, where they will work with individuals, families and groups, exploring ways to improve their lives.

Those who would like to do more than direct social work should pursue a master’s degree. It will qualify them for a variety of MSW careers options, although social workers are primarily involved in helping people with mental health and addiction problems. With an MSW, practitioners can work in for-profit and non-profit organizations, outpatient and inpatient facilities and government agencies.

Many of these professionals climb to the highest ranks of the profession, becoming involved in policy making and advocacy on behalf of their clients.

When choosing a specialization, it helps to know the different fields of social work and what they involve. If, for example, one likes working with young children and teenagers, they might want to specialize in child social work, or they can earn an MSW and work to help teenagers deal with addiction and mental health problems.

This article will explore the different fields of social work and the roles and responsibilities of each, as well as the educational requirements to become successfully employed.

Child welfare social workers

The child welfare system receives and investigates potential child abuse and neglect reports. They also resettle children with relatives and arrange for adoption. It falls on social workers to make sure that these things are done and follow up to make sure that each child in their caseload lives in a secure, safe and happy environment.

Current statistics underpin the need for child welfare social workers. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 8 out of every 1,000 children were abused in 2020. This was a slight improvement from the previous four years where 9 out of every 1,000 children suffered some form of abuse.

More than 200,000 children entered the foster care system, with those aged between one and five making up the largest number. By the time many of them aged out of the foster care system they were marked by adversity and trauma and had to deal with a variety of mental health issues. Many already suffer behavioral problems that are expected to follow them into adulthood.

The job of the child welfare social worker is to be an advocate for these children. They locate them, move them to safety, make sure that they get therapy and place them in safe environments where they can thrive.

It is also the job of the social worker to follow up and make sure that these children receive all the services the government and private organizations have to offer and provide assistance to help them cope with whatever obstacles they encounter along the way.

Child social workers are also involved in issues that affect children in ordinary homes, like obesity and learning disabilities. They work with the parents of these children to provide interventions aimed at whatever problems they may be dealing with.

A child welfare social worker needs a degree in social work. An online program can take as little as two years, and to practice, licensure from the relevant state is needed. Do some research into what licenses are required and how to obtain them.

Child social workers also need a specific set of soft skills. They should be empathetic and willing to help those who cannot help themselves. They should also be resourceful people who are self-driven and can find solutions in the direst of situations.

Child social workers are good communicators, and they are patient. They are also tireless and are prepared to deal with emergencies when they occur.

Family social workers

Families often find themselves in crisis, and social workers step in to provide assistance and guidance. They tackle all sorts of issues, including domestic violence and behavioral problems.

A family social worker’s role will vary depending on where they work and who their clients are. They may find themselves helping an inner-city mother organize childcare so that they can go to work, or visiting with the elderly in a rural American community and making sure that their prescriptions are filled.

Family social workers also handle child abuse and neglect issues, and they help relocate and foster children. To become a family social worker one needs a degree in social work. With additional credentials they can become a community social worker, creating and implementing outreach programs at a broader level.

Community social workers

These professionals develop and coordinate community programs and outreach initiatives for at-risk groups. They work with the disadvantaged to make sure that they can access vital services.

A community social worker can choose to specialize in certain segments of the demographic, like the elderly, the homeless or the poor.

Many choose community healthcare where they work with health setups to reach those who are underserved by mainstream healthcare. They may also serve as educators. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, many community social workers played a crucial role in educating the public on how to stay safe.

A degree in social work is needed to become a community social worker. However, to participate at a higher level like policy making, an MSW is usually required.

The career outlook for community social workers is strong. More and more communities across America realize the value of these professionals and as a result, there are many jobs for those who are qualified.

Mental health social workers

It is estimated that at least one in every five adults in the US lives with a mental health illness. As of 2021, nearly 58 million Americans had been diagnosed with mental illness. The illnesses vary, as does the severity, and social workers provide the bulk of mental health carers in the country.

Clinical social workers provide most of the services that are needed in mental health treatment. The average clinical social worker helps people who suffer addiction issues caused by either alcohol or drugs. They also work with those who suffer from mental health problems due to a variety of other reasons.

These professionals have a good understanding of human behavior and are trained to diagnose and offer treatment to their clients. They often work with doctors, nurses, psychiatrists and psychologists to provide tailored treatments for their clients.

Where hospitalization or institutionalization is required, the social worker helps find the most ideal solution and gain admission for their client. They keep track of their progress and intervene whenever necessary.

An MSW is needed to become a mental health social worker. A master’s in social work imparts the necessary knowledge for clinical work. These professionals are paid more, and they can choose to start a practice if they want to enjoy more freedom and make even more money.

Gerontology social workers

This is a growing field, and there is demand for it. According to the US Census Bureau, about 77 million baby boomers were born between 1946 and 1964. By 2012, about 66 million of them were still alive. These are just those who were born in America. When factoring in immigrants who were born within the same period, the number of living baby boomers is about 76 million.

Gerontology is an increasingly popular field in social work. Some social workers choose to specialize in caring for the elderly, and in almost every community there are jobs available for those who have the right training. A degree in social work is needed to become a gerontology social worker. You also need to know how to provide basic healthcare and therapies for elders.

One can advance their career if they get a nursing qualification to boost their social work degree. The combination qualifies them to work with the elderly in all sorts of settings, and if they have leadership skills they can climb to the top of the social work career ladder.

Legal and criminal justice social workers

Some social workers work with the police and courts to make sure that those in the system have access to services. A typical role for this type of social worker would be to visit families of arrestees to see whether they require social assistance.

Social workers can also be employed by courts to testify in cases or provide their professional opinion for juries. Some social workers are employed within the prison system where they provide counseling and support for inmates.

An MSW is needed to qualify as a legal and criminal justice social worker as they will frequently undertake clinical duties. They will diagnose mental health and addiction problems in inmates and guide them to recovery using available resources.

Public policy social workers

This is a professional who formulates social work policy within communities. They are advocates, and it is their job to understand those they serve and the issues that afflict them so that they can come up with viable solutions.

They do research within their communities, write up reports, create budgets and seek funding for various initiatives. These social workers also work closely with other institutions, like law enforcement and public health, to make sure that they reach those who need services.

Public policy social workers can seek employment within the government where they participate in formulating far-reaching policies. They will be asked to do research and analysis and write reports on how different social issues can be tackled.

This career may be of interest to those who want to be a social worker who wields broad influence. It requires an MSW, and graduates will go even further if they have leadership and management qualifications.

Addiction social workers

Although sometimes they are classified as mental health social workers, there is an increasing realization of the role that they perform in almost every community in America. Addiction is a growing problem across the country, and it affects people of all ages. Not only does it reduce their ability to work, but it also affects their families and their communities.

It is considered a public health crisis. According to one source, overdoses kill more people than car accidents, guns and breast cancer combined. There are more than 100,000 overdoses every year, and the crisis costs the government more than $740bn annually.

Social workers have stepped in to help people fight addiction. They help the afflicted through the treatment process, get them placed in treatment centers, and monitor them to make sure that they get a positive result.

Addiction social work is one of the MSW careers options that has plenty of employment opportunities and pays well. Those who choose it will work closely with other mental health professionals like doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists.

School social workers

These have become commonplace as the number of children from broken homes has increased. Although they work within the school setting, it is their job to tease out external problems that affect the child’s learning and development.

School social workers can work with children who have problems making friends, for example, to find out why they are shy and withdrawn. If they find that the child has an unhealthy home situation, they work with the authorities to provide the necessary interventions.

School social workers are also involved with children who have learning disabilities. They are part of the assessment and intervention team, and they aim to make sure that each child achieves their potential. They are also placed in universities and colleges to work with young students who need mental health support.

A degree in social work is needed to get a job as a school social worker. Those who want to help children with mental health problems should enroll in an MSW. If they do their job well they may find themselves supervising social issues for several schools in their district, and may eventually rise to a managerial position for all the schools in their area.

VA social workers

The VA employs thousands of social workers to help returning soldiers. Many of them come back home with mental and physical scars that require healing, and social workers help them reintegrate into their communities and become productive, well-adjusted members of society.

VA social workers are often involved in providing physical therapy to soldiers who need to relearn movement. They also help them with basic self-care skills. They may, for example, help them learn how to navigate into and out of wheelchairs.

They also work with those who have suffered from their experiences overseas. Many come back with PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and other conditions that affect their psychological function — and social workers help diagnose and treat them.

An MSW is needed to qualify for a career in the VA, because it deals with clients who have mental health problems. However, to help soldiers and their families without providing any medical assistance, all that is needed is a degree in social work.

Hospice and palliative care social workers

These are social workers who are trained to work with patients with chronic conditions, especially toward the end of their lives. They discuss with the client and their family what they would like to happen before, during and after death.

They perform psychological assessments of all who are involved and counsel them during this difficult period of their lives. They also coordinate with caregivers to make sure that their patients are comfortable. They ensure that the patient is consulted in care decisions and is happy with the treatment they receive.

After the death, the social worker may help those who are left behind pick up the pieces. They can direct them towards support services for those in grief, lawyers to help settle estates, and whatever else the family may need to resume their lives as normally as possible.


There are many types of social work, and what to choose depends on the level of education. Those who hold a social work degree will qualify to do social work with families, children and the elderly. They focus on those that do not need mental health assistance.