A social worker's battlefield is usually the client's home front - provided the client is lucky enough to have a home. Beatrice Hogg remembers such clients from her tour of duty in San Mateo County.
Too often "they had nothing . . . no home . . . nothing," Hogg recalls with pity. She would marshall all her personal and professional reserves to help these clients with cash assistance and referrals for shelter, medical, financial and/or vocational counseling.
"You really do have to be a strong person to help them day in and day out," Hogg confides.
The wounds of battle may not be visible, but they can linger, prompting social workers to leave the field to seek higher-paying work, often in the private sector. Indeed, Hogg is now the communications coordinator for the California chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.
Left behind are overworked social workers, along with their under-served clients. Some social workers are carrying two and three times the number of recommened cases. A recent Senate study confirmed that California needs to double its staff of social workers.
Why the Demand?
In response to public cries for help, state and federal governments are enacting programs which enlist social workers to deal with juvenile delinquency, mental illness, AIDS, mental retardation, individual and family crises of all sorts.
In addition, there is the growing need to serve an aging population's health and social service challenges. Today, a graying baby boom generation is facing midlife hurdles like depression, layoffs, and addictions.
The shortage of social workers comes at a time when state and federal allocations have increased funding for mental health, adult protective services and school counseling.
"Virtually every medium-to-large-size county in California has openings for social workers," notes Janlee Wong, executive director of the California chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.
Wong says some counties are responding by raising salaries and offering better benefits packages, including signing bonuses of $1,000 to $3,000.
Still, median annual earnings of social workers are not stratospheric, hovering around $30,000 nationwide, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The lowest 10 percent earn less than $19,250. Salaries are highest with the federal government, with median annual earnings of $45,300. In California, social work administrators can make $50,000 annually.
Since family problems cross racial and religious lines, people from all cultures and backgrounds are needed in social work.
"I think there is a huge demand for people of diverse backgrounds to reflect the nature of people in California," Wong suggests. "If you're a bilingual, Spanish person in California, you virtually have a job waiting for you in most counties" after completing college social work studies, Wong states.
Hogg agrees, noting that cultural and religious sensitivity arms social workers with the ability to better serve California.
Master's Not Required
Educational requirements for social workers vary by agency. Most public employers prefer hiring people with master's degrees, which provide the most advancement opportunities. However, the shortage has eased educational requirements.
Today, social workers are being hired with bachelor's degrees as agencies "under fill" positions that they would prefer to staff with people with a master's, reports Cheryl Davis, director of the Sacramento County Department of Human Assistance.
At the entry level, some social workers are even hired after just 30 semester hours of sociology, anthropology, and behavioral science, and the passing of a state exam through Merit System Services.
For those determined to get their advanced degree, Wong notes that anyone with a bachelor's in any field is eligible to apply for state tuition grants. The recipient must then pledge to work for two years in child welfare upon graduation.
Most social workers provide services aimed at protecting and, when possible, reuniting families, says Charlene Harris, senior consultant with California Merit System Services, a state recruiting agency for many California counties.
County social services departments must investigate abuse and neglect reports, and make recommendations to judges regarding placement of children and anyone else in danger of abuse, Harris explains.
"There's a lot of court interaction," she notes. "You can't actually remove a child from a home. The final decision lays with the family court judge.
"Then, of course, there's the ongoing monitoring and overseeing the home situation. "Sometimes you have a situation where one or both (parents) are going to jail, then, obviously, the children have to be removed, and you're looking at one of two things . . . family placement or foster care," Harris warns.
BLS officials note that social workers often see clients who "face a life-threatening disease or a social problem. These problems may include inadequate housing, unemployment, lack of job skills, financial distress, serious illness or disability, substance abuse, unwanted pregnancy, or antisocial behavior."
Social workers provide referrals to parenting classes, drug abuse or alcoholism treatment, counseling and transportation referral services.
"Or maybe a parent just needs emergency shelter care, maybe the kids need to be taken out of the home so that the parent can regroup," Harris suggests.
Agencies such as Families First, based in Davis, provide transitional housing for children, teenagers and adults, and some children are placed with adopted parents.
"The ultimate goal is the child's safety," notes Donna Ibbotson, a supervisor with Families First.
Not all social workers are involved in the horrors of child or elder abuse. Some are clinical counselors providing psychotherapy with public or private agencies.
Most private sector jobs are in social service agencies, hospitals, nursing homes, home health agencies, and other health centers or clinics.
Social workers are also found in psychiatric hospitals and mental health community centers, where counseling includes marriage, family, adoption, grief, and even disaster assistance.
In the workplace, Employee Assistance Program (EAP) counselors advise employees on drug and alcohol addictions, finances, personal or family challenges.
The criminal justice system has changed as well to employ more social workers over the last decade.
"I know that ticks off some people [who think] that criminals, convicts, inmates should get nothing but bread and water, but we're not that kind of society," Wong admonishes. "If people are mentally ill, we treat them. If [inmates] were sick with a disease, we would treat them."
Furthermore, Wong notes that inmates might be healthier and able to function better in society when released if they receive needed psychiatric assistance.
Another avenue is gerontology. Social workers are needed to counsel adult children about their parents, and to advise elderly people or family members about the choices in housing, transportation, and long-term care.
At the other end of the age spectrum is genetics counseling for couples planning families, a relatively new avenue for social work.
In the public sector of social work, clients often need educational and vocational skills.
In Sacramento County, about 5,000 people getting public assistance are receiving help for mental health issues, domestic violence and illiteracy.
"Actually, we're finding a lot of folks who are learning disabled," notes Sacramento's Davis.
Some people have "no employment history, coupled with maybe not having completed high school, so they need more intensive training and work support," Davis states.
Davis' department focuses on vocational life management skills, in response to federal welfare reform.
Welfare reform appears to be successful in Sacramento County, with about half as many people on public assistance as five years ago, down from 28,000 to 14,000.
But Wong worries that when parents are working, some children are abusing drugs or joining gangs.
Social workers should have good investigative, assessment, organization and communication skills, both in writing and in person.
Patience is also a big prerequisite for an effective social worker. "And the ability to not get emotionally involved in situations," Harris adds. "There's a lot of burnout in the social worker field, because you're seeing this [challenged] part of society day after day."
Ibbotson of Families First agrees that detachment and training are important. "Everybody in the field should be trained in crisis intervention, and how to de-escalate problems," the social worker advises.
Each case is different, and social workers need to be flexible. "Sometimes it's just letting [children] tantrum...if they're not hurting themselves," Ibbotson suggests. "Sometimes redirecting and giving the children power over some things" helps diffuse a situation. They don't control "most of their lives . . . [so we] try to offer some choices."
Ibbotson cautions social workers against going into the field "thinking you're going to change the world . . . you might be able to change part of one child's life. But that's enough."
A successful social worker, Harris muses, is one who "is not in it for the money . . . it has to be someone who is interested in making a difference in people's lives, [someone with] compassion, a sense of community.
"Kind of like teachers, it takes special people."
Anyone interested in finding employment as a social worker, or in exploring the issues facing the profession today, can find a wealth of information about specific jobs and working conditions online.
Here is a sampling of some useful sites: