Social Worker VS. Social Services Worker: Ensuring Proper Training in the Field of Social Work

By: Caroline Reid, Ph.D., MSW, EKU online social work program coordinator and associate professor

I recently listened to a news conference at which Gov. Bevin proposed a new apprenticing initiative to train high school students for social services worker positions in the Department of Community Based Services (DCBS). 

After hearing the proposal I now find myself in a place of having many more questions than answers.  I — like many others in my profession — appreciate the goal of expanding resources to meet social and family service needs, but can’t help but feel concerned over the proposal that has been laid out before us.

What is social work?

Social work is a highly skilled profession requiring rigorous training, extensive practice, thorough supervision, demanding certification and ongoing education. The field is demanding and practitioners work daily with complex social issues such as poverty, addiction, domestic violence, discrimination, immigration, unemployment and mental illness.

Social workers work in challenging environments and, at times, dangerous circumstances to provide services with the aim of alleviating the conditions of those in need of help or welfare. In short, empowering clients to become more self-sufficient; to overcome their social, financial, and interpersonal challenges; and to lead more healthy and productive lives.

It includes the professional application of social work values, principles, and techniques to one or more of the following ends:

  • Counseling and nonmedical psychotherapy with individuals, families, and groups
  • Helping people obtain tangible services
  • Assisting communities or groups to provide or improve social and health services
  • Engaging in social work education, research, planning, and the appropriate administration of social work or social welfare service.

What’s the difference between a social worker and a social services worker?

Gov. Bevin uses the terms “social services worker” and “social worker” interchangeably. This is a concerning problem because social services worker positions are NOT the same as social work positions. It is easy to get the two confused. They are just a few letters apart but there is a clear distinction between the two.

In the Commonwealth of Kentucky, a social worker is required by law to graduate with a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in social work from a Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredited program and pass the state licensing exam. The rigorous training and education expected of social workers ensures that they are prepared to handle the incredibly challenging situations and often difficult work required of them in a safe, professional, and compassionate way.

A social services worker is any employee of the cabinet or any private agency designated by the secretary of the cabinet to provide, under its supervision, services to families and children. Meaning, in the past, that DCBS has been provided an exception to the law that allows the appointment of employees without the required trainings and education to assist in tasks or activities that don’t necessarily require a higher level of training.  For example, many social services worker positions assess whether or not a person qualifies for certain financial or health care benefits as this decision comes down to a formula and does not involve a lot of skill to make that determination.   

This exception has made it possible for paperwork and administrative tasks to be reassigned to allow social workers the ability to spend more time in the field.

Why does it matter?

While I appreciate the basic objective to provide an entry point into social work careers for individuals that have not yet completed college coursework, I would caution that the current proposal has the potential to damage the high standards we hold our social workers to in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.  

I would ask the Governor to be clear about the terms that he uses. While announcing the proposal, Governor Bevin stated that “These are not highly skilled jobs, but they are critical jobs.”

I would hope that our Governor would acknowledge that social workers intervene with some of the most fragile families in our Commonwealth, and are called on to make very difficult decisions –that deeply impact families. Taking children out of their parents care because of neglect or abuse is, many times, a life and death decision. I don’t think anyone would think of these decisions as “low skill” and hopefully that is not what the Governor meant.    

I would also call upon the Governor — when creating new programs or embarking on new initiatives — to always, involve key stakeholders—those who are affected by the program, those who have a “stake in the game”.  

The Kentucky Association of Social Work Educators (KASWE), the Kentucky School Clinical Social Workers (KSCSW) and the National Association of Social Workers in Kentucky (NASK-KY) were not consulted nor invited to discuss this new initiative. Thanks to their proactive leadership, these groups have invited themselves to meet with the Governor and Commissioner to get some answers.    

I hope we all want the same thing—more qualified workers (both social service workers and social workers) in DCBS; we want workers who will stay in the job long-term, and we especially want highly skilled and educated social workers responsible for making very difficult decisions for our children in Kentucky.    

Information on KRS:

http://www.lrc.ky.gov/statutes/chapter.aspx?id=38874

Published on June 27, 2018