Social Work and Child Protection

Social Work and Child Protection
Social Work and Child Protection

Katie Krukenberg is an MSW graduate (2006) from Florida State University and a licensed clinical social worker in North Dakota. She works at the University of Mary and is an assistant professor of social work as well as the director of field education for the social work program.

When considering public perception of the field of social work, child protection may be one of the most widely recognized areas of practice, however, it is often also deeply misunderstood by the general public. People who might otherwise know very little about the role and work of a social worker may know at a minimum that social workers are involved with removing children from homes, and this is most commonly the way that social workers are portrayed in movies and on TV. Unfortunately, this does not accurately capture the important work that social workers do within the child protection system, and worse yet, may run the risk of creating negative stereotype about who social workers are and what they do. Students in Florida State University’s MSW program learn about the roles that social workers play within the child protection system, as well as gaining the education and experience needed to effectively work with children and families within the child welfare system.

Here are 3 ways that social workers help children through child protective services:

1. Assessing Immediate Safety Risks and Needs

Reports of suspected child abuse and neglect are typically made with social service agencies at city or county levels, with policies in place that dictate required time frames for follow up and procedures for doing so. Investigation of child abuse and neglect may require visiting with the child at their school or home setting, interviewing other adults or caregivers in the child’s life, and the caregiver suspected of abuse or neglect. In cases where there is a physical injury, collaboration with professionals from other disciplines may also be necessary, including law enforcement and medical professionals.

A report of abuse or neglect is not a guarantee that the child will be removed from the home, unlike what is often portrayed in movies. Instead, the social worker’s role is to be an advocate for the child while determining what steps need to be taken to ensure the child will be safe. In the assessment process the social worker has the task of engaging with parents who may feel frightened or defensive in order to assess the presence of any threats to safety, as well as the severity. Interviewing children regarding abuse or neglect is a task that requires a high level of skill, along with the ability to establish therapeutic rapport under difficult circumstances. While the social worker needs to determine if there has been abuse or neglect, their role is also to assess the family’s strengths and protective factors in order to make the best determination of the required course of action.

In cases of severe abuse or neglect when the child cannot be maintained safely in the home with supports, the social worker will take needed steps to petition the court for the removal of the child from the home, which is facilitated by law enforcement. In this case, relative placement options would be explored, followed by foster care placement if there were no appropriate relative placement options. In some cases, the child may be able to be safely maintained in their home while a thorough assessment is conducted, and with supports and close supervision for the family put in place. This assessment may lead to a formal presentation of the findings for a designated team to make a determination regarding a course of action. If following the social worker’s assessment, there are no findings of abuse or neglect, the social worker will close the case.

2. Systems Approach to Intervention

Social workers employ a person-in-environment approach to work with clients, meaning that they look beyond a person’s immediate circumstances to better understand the challenges faced by the client and look for creative strategies to address those challenges. When working with a child and family where child abuse or neglect has occurred, it is important for a social worker to engage not only with the individuals but also with their environment. Understanding the stressors that preceded the abuse or neglect might help to determine what supports may be needed by the family. Addressing factors such as job, food, and housing stability, medical access, and parenting skills can be useful places to partner with parents in need of supports that will promote effective parenting for the future.

Social workers that work with vulnerable children need to be culturally aware, trauma-informed, and well versed in children’s developmental needs and the challenges that arise when needs have not been met due to abuse or neglect. Social workers advocate for children within the legal, medical, educational, foster care/adoption, and mental health systems in order to address gaps that create a higher degree of vulnerability for children. Social workers are uniquely positioned with their education and skill set to be able to build rapport with the children they work with. They can effectively navigate the service delivery systems in a way that promotes positive outcomes for children.

3. Reunification and Planning for Permanence

When children are removed from their home, the first plan that the social worker is required to work toward is reunification with their family. It is the social worker’s job to follow all laws and court requirements set forth, and document all efforts made toward reunification of the child and family. The goal of the child protection system is for children to be safe, and when possible, to be with their biological family.

For various reasons, sometimes reunification is not possible. In these situations, the social worker’s role then becomes to determine a different plan that involved permanency for the child. This may include pursuing a termination of the parental rights so that the child may become eligible for adoption, or if the child is older and does not wish to be adopted, they may plan for permanency within a relative placement or foster home, with focused efforts on supporting the child as they age out of the foster care system.

Social workers often act as advocates for the children in their care, providing case management and being the central point for communication from the various entities in a child’s life including the biological family, foster family, and the court, medical, school, and other systems. Social workers ensure that decisions being made are in the best interest of the child and that their developmental needs are being met, highlighting the greatest priority of the child protection system: safety and wellbeing of the child.

Read an earlier blog post Community and Social Systems.