At age 12, I decided to be a social worker and I’ve never looked back. Social Work is a profession steeped in tradition. It offers a wide range of practice options. I’ve been an advocate, program developer, supervisor, psychotherapist, and community organizer. I’ve worked for nonprofit agencies, for-profit agencies, church-based social service agencies, medical settings and private practice. When I look at this list of social work roles and settings, I begin to understand why colleagues, friends, and yes, even family, ask, “What does a social worker do exactly?”
To understand this question, you have to understand the roots of social work. “Social workers promote social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients” (National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics-Preamble). Social work in the United States started with a very simple and ancient principle: help the impoverished. Before the Revolutionary War, Americans were providing child welfare assistance, mental health services and assistance for the poor. In the early 19th century, urbanization led to a significant increase in need. The upper-class was the provider of aide, or charity, through religious and secular organizations. Society began to ask questions about causation: why was someone poor? What causes homelessness?
Modern social work dates back to the establishment of Settlement Houses, considered the first social service agencies that integrated direct services, research and advocacy. The most famous Settlement House was Hull House in Chicago, established by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr in 1889. The first social work class was at Columbia University in 1898. This marked the formalizing of social work as a profession.
From its inception, the profession of social work has been involved in bettering individuals, families, communities, and institutions. “The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty” (NASW Code of Ethics- Preamble). The profession’s six core values are service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence. These values are present in everything a social worker decides to do. Child labor laws, unemployment insurance, child abuse and neglect prevention, and the de-stigmatization of mental illness and substance abuse are a few of the privileges we enjoy because of social work.
Social workers have been an integral part of the Terry Reilly staff for decades. Our Behavioral Health Consultants have fine-tuned observation and assessment skills to ferret out information to help a patient with problem-solving and accessing solutions. Our counselors build trust with clients in order to help them heal from years of trauma and unhappiness. Social workers not only bring skills and knowledge to the patient’s care team, but also a unique perspective. We not only see and hear the client in front of us, but must also consider influences such as the neighborhood where a client grew up, culture, and social policies that affect their lives and who they have become.
March is National Social Work Month. Remembering the foundation of social work reminds me why I love my profession and encourages me to find solutions for the challenges I see daily at Terry Reilly.
Libby Engebrecht, LCSW, is a Social Worker for Terry Reilly Health Services