Social Work: The Swiss Army Knife of Human Services

I find that the general population has no idea what social work is or what social workers do. Social work is not something often depicted in Hollywood TV shows or movies (when it is depicted, it is usually inaccurate), and frankly, the tasks of social work are so varied that the work can be hard to categorize. Social work is done in hospitals, homes, and communities. Social workers often intervene when people are at their lowest, and so their work is often not shared with others. Most people encountering social workers wish they didn’t have to, and are even sometimes hostile to receiving the services that social workers are offering.

In the last year, many have suggested that police officers be replaced with social workers. This idea has obviously come from a fundamental misunderstanding regarding what social workers do. Social Workers assist people as they engage with their environments. Some social workers focus on the individual and their relationships with family members in their environment, while others focus on larger policy issues that determine how entire groups interact with their environment. In other words, social workers are not trained to arrest individuals or ensure their physical safety. They are trained to engage with people to prevent or treat the social/emotional/relational issues that lead them to these dangerous encounters with police. So yes, social work does need more attention and funding in our society, but social workers cannot be a replacement for police officers that respond to crimes being committed.

Many people know the function of therapy. Therapy/counseling treats the internal world of the person. Social Work treats the person in their environment. In other words, if you come into a counseling session complaining about your child’s poor behavior, a counselor will talk to you about how you can manage/change your own feelings about their behavior and how you can respond. If you come to a social worker complaining about your child’s behavior, they will either arrange to do in home coaching sessions with you and your child, or refer you to a service that could do this for you. Social work is best when it happens with all of the family members/individuals involved, and in the environment in which the issues are experienced. Not only that, but the social worker will explore with you any other mitigating/environmental factors that could also be affecting this relational issue with your child. Is there anything else stressing you out? Has your family fallen on financial hardship? Are you having marital problems? Social workers will look at everything in your environment that could be affecting you. Social work acknowledges that while you have the control to choose how you respond to your environment, it could also be beneficial to try to change how the environment responds to you.

This is why many social workers choose to go work on a macro level to change policies. They help others by researching and determining how governments and private agencies should operate to best serve their patients/clients.

All that being said, while child welfare is the sphere of social work I talk about the most because it is what I am the most familiar with, social workers also work in hospitals, in insurance companies, with the homeless, in criminal justice, in assisted living centers, in substance abuse rehabilitation centers, etc.

As you can imagine, all of these roles can require a wide variety of knowledge and skill sets. While the basic tasks of data management and case management carry across social work professions, as you can imagine, social workers must pick up knowledge and training about their specific fields on the job. In addition, the needs of people in different areas of human services require social workers to often step into roles/tasks that are unexpected. When I mentioned this on Instagram the other day, one of my followers shared that one time in her role as a social worker a desperate mom frantically asked her to bury a dead kitten, as all her children screamed and cried. Talk about an unexpected task!

Here are some of the other tasks that social workers do on a regular basis: data entry, motivational interviewing, investigative interviewing, home safety assessments, leading meetings, supervising parent-child interactions, teaching/training, networking, finding services, assessing needs, transporting children, general child-caregiving, testifying in court, writing court reports, documentation, de-escalating crisis, school tutoring, participating in IEP meetings, compiling and interpreting statistics, mediation, managing budgets, planning events, paying and managing invoices, navigating insurance company payment/policies, reading and understanding medical terminology, cleaning client’s homes, helping clients move, writing obituaries, planning funerals, accompanying children in cross-country flights, and searching for run away teens.

And thats a short list. This is why I refer to social work as the swiss army knife of human services. Social work is a tool we can use to solve many different societal problems.

As you can see, this isn’t the kind of job that can operate in clean 50 minute sessions, or in a clear 8 hour shift. Its complicated, because people are complicated.

This work needs more attention. Social work is so needed, yet so undervalued and misunderstood. Especially child welfare work. People are ashamed when they are having crises, especially if that crisis communicates they are a failure as a parent. Furthermore, in my experience, no one wants to have to think about the fact that foster care is needed or that it exists. The thought of children being abused or neglected is so horrible it makes most people feel uncomfortable. They are content to say “wow the work you do is so needed” and then move on. But they don’t think about how the fact that this work is needed should influence their personal choices and the policies they care about.

The truth is that our child welfare systems are severely underfunded. The truth is that if we want to improve society we have to start with our most vulnerable members: abused/neglected children and their parents/family. If we want people to stop committing crimes and choose healthier ways of living we have to show them how to do so. We have to find more evidenced based ways of helping those that suffer from addiction as well as childhood trauma.

This is why social work is essential. This is why we need to bring social work issues to the forefront of the political and cultural conversation. Until we do, we will continue to spin our wheels with our different ideas on how to treat the symptoms of the problem.

Blake Boyer,, @christiansocialworker on IG

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