Family Social Work Careers: How to Become a Family Social Worker

What is Family Social Work?

Family social work involves utilizing a wide range of tools to help vulnerable families cope with problems both big and small. Family social workers may help families cope with day-to-day stressors, such as concerns about money, in a healthy and productive manner. This might involve placing parents in a financial literacy class and providing them with continued guidance as they resolve their money issues.

The field is also concerned with a variety of more serious factors that lead to family dysfunction, from physical and emotional abuse to homelessness to drug problems. Family social workers commonly place families in danger into safe housing, provide assistance gaining employment, and coordinate care for individuals that are addicted to drugs.

A relatively unique factor about family social work is that it takes a systems approach to identifying the nature and extent of the problem. This approach also informs the manner in which strategies for overcoming those problems are developed and implemented. Social workers are interested in the systems approach regardless of their employment setting, which can vary widely from a school or a social services agency to a hospital or private practice.

For example, if a family’s primary concern is the anger problems of a child, family social workers would not just focus on that child but examine his or her functioning within the family system. How the child interacts with each member of the family would be explored to determine the role of those interactions in the child’s display of anger.

Family social work and related disciplines are borne out of the concept of helping people help themselves, which became a popular mantra of charity organizations in the late 19th century. The development of social work as a profession is typically attributed to these early attempts, often by women, to resolve the specific issue of poverty.

However, after the conclusion of World War I in 1918, many of these women and other volunteers helped veterans cope with the traumas of war and assisted their families in coping with the struggles of their loved one. Thus began the journey of social work to becoming a systems-based approach to helping families overcome obstacles in their lives.

What Does a Family Social Worker Do?

The field of family social work focuses on providing support services to families who must overcome obstacles to achieve optimal family functioning. Trained in a number of areas, including communications, counseling, and advocacy, family social workers are employed in a variety of public and private settings and work with a myriad of clients. Family social workers may assist couples in adopting a child, find resources for victims of domestic violence, or help parolees reintegrate into society after serving their sentence.

Family social workers typically help families overcome obstacles in their lives, ranging from abuse to poverty to addiction. They focus on assessing the needs of the family and offering various types of support, both to individual family members and to the family as a unit. Supports may include counseling, advocacy, and coordination of resources.

For example, a family social worker assigned to a homeless family would work to secure the family temporary housing. The social worker would consult with parents to arrange for job interviews if one or both are unemployed. For the children in the family, the social worker might procure needed school supplies and arrange for transportation to and from school. If a family member struggles with addiction, one-on-one counseling might be undertaken.

Related: How to Become a Youth Social Worker

What is a Family Court Social Worker?

Family court social workers are specialists that work exclusively with children, adolescents, and families that are involved in the judicial system in some way. Most often, family court social workers handle cases that involve abuse of one or more family members. Social workers in this field often work on cases in which there is a battle for custody of children as well. In either case, the essential function of family court social workers is to identify and deliver essential services to families in crisis.

Family court social workers are tasked with overseeing cases in both criminal and civil courts. In this capacity, social workers meet with other professionals, as well as family members, to determine the best course of action for a family. For example, in civil court, family court social workers would interview parents, their children, and any other stakeholders to determine which parent is best fit to raise the children under the current circumstances.

In criminal court, a social worker’s duties are much different. Family court social workers in this setting must provide services in potentially volatile situations, such as in the aftermath of abuse. For example, a mother accused of physically abusing her children would receive services from the family court social worker. This would typically involve a period of assessment by the social worker in which he or she attempts to develop a clinical picture of the client. From there, one-on-one counseling to address the client’s specific issues would be carried out, with the hope that she might be reunited with her family in a more positive and healthy relationship.

Family court social workers also work with the victims of abuse and neglect. For example, a social worker would provide services to a child that has suffered neglect at the hands of his or her parents. These services might vary widely from counseling to finding the child a safe place to stay. In this context, family court social workers would also be tasked with interviewing and assessing the child, both for the purposes of informing the plan to treat them for neglect, but also in terms of collecting evidence for the purposes of the court.

Much of the time, family court social workers are in court, providing testimony and evidence to judges so they can be as informed as possible regarding the details of the case before them. For example, a family court social worker might offer his or her testimony regarding the fitness of a parent to retain custody of his or her child.

Oftentimes, family court social workers will be asked to write detailed reports as well. These reports will vary in their subject matter, but typically they are an account of the events surrounding the case, with an unbiased presentation of evidence such that the judge in the matter can make a more informed decision.

Where Does a Family Social Worker Work?

Family social workers are employed in a variety of settings. Many work for government agencies, such as the Department of Family Services, in the military, or at correctional facilities. Others work in non-profit settings such as advocacy groups.

Family social workers are also frequently employed in the health sector, including in hospitals and hospice care centers. Schools are another popular work setting. Sometimes social workers work in the field as well. This may involve visiting families in their homes or testifying in court proceedings. Some family social workers are also self-employed and work in private practice while others work in academia as professors at the college level.

What are the Requirements to Become a Family Social Worker?


Family social workers must have at least a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) or a closely related field. Bachelor’s degree programs in social work are widely available, and typically last four years. Studies at this level are generalist in nature, introducing students to the basics of human behavior, social policy, and multiculturalism.

The master’s in social work (MSW) usually takes two years to complete and focuses on more specific skills and knowledge. Master’s programs include coursework that prepares graduates for clinical work, advocacy, crisis intervention, and research.

Graduate students work on developing skills that are essential for this occupation, including the development of highly advanced communication skills and counseling techniques. Practicum and internship placements are a key component of MSW programs so students can get real-world experience before entering the workforce.

There are doctorate programs available that offer a Ph.D. or Doctorate in Social Work (DSW). Since a master’s degree is sufficient for clinical practice, most social workers pursuing a doctorate do so in preparation for a career in research or academia.


Master’s level family social workers are typically required to undergo at least two years of supervised training before becoming eligible for full licensure. Bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate level social workers are all required to undergo professional development over the course of their career in order to maintain licensure.

Family social workers can also voluntarily seek advanced certifications in specific fields of social work. Many certification options are available that relate to working with families, including education, hospice and palliative care, case management, addictions, and clinical practice. These certifications typically require several thousand hours of clinical work and 20-30 hours of continuing education credits.

Licensing Requirements

Although licensing requirements vary from state to state, a good rule of thumb is that to practice social work, one must be licensed by the appropriate governing body in the state of practice. Usually, licensing takes place on four levels:

  • Bachelor’s level: Practitioners at this level can be licensed for limited practice with just a four-year degree.
  • Master’s level: With a MSW and no post-graduation work experience, licensure can be obtained for limited practice.
  • Advanced generalist: The advanced generalist licensure is for social workers that have a MSW and at least two years of supervised experience.
  • Clinical social worker: Social workers at this level must have a MSW with at least two years of direct, post-master’s clinical practice in social work.

To be eligible for licensure at any level in the United States, social workers must have a degree from an institution that is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education or another accrediting agency with national recognition. Social workers whose studies were conducted internationally will have to prove the equivalency of their program of study to those offered in North America.

What Personal Skills are Needed for a Family Social Worker?

Since family social workers provide services to a wide variety of families in various settings, oftentimes during times of great family stress, there are an abundance of personal skills that are an absolute must. According to the University of Southern California Department of Social Work, among the most important skills are:

  • Empathy – Family social workers must be able to put themselves in the shoes of other people in order to understand their perspective, both on an emotional and intellectual level.
  • Listening – The day of a family social worker is filled with meeting with clients. Having the ability to listen actively, ask pertinent questions, and establish rapport with each client is vital to their success.
  • Organization – Many family social workers have a heavy client load, and keeping track of all the appointments and paperwork is necessary in order to provide the best services possible.
  • Flexibility – Oftentimes family social workers have odd schedules, working at all hours of the day and night, on weekends, and oftentimes on holidays as well. Flexibility in this regard is essential.
  • Respect – Family social workers provide services to clients from all walks of life. The vast differences in clients’ socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, religion, education level, and other factors require family social workers to address their work with an open mind and respect for others.

What is the Salary and Job Outlook for Family Social Workers?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual income for family social workers is $50,470, which is slightly below the average for all social workers. There is a rather large pay band, however, with social workers in the top ten percent making in excess of $82,540 per year and social workers in the lowest ten percent making less than $31,790 per year.

The annual salary one can expect depends heavily on the employment setting, with social workers employed in the health care field making more money on average than social workers working for assistance agencies or non-profit organizations.

The job outlook for family social workers is quite strong, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicting growth at 11% through 2028. With continued high levels of poverty and violence, and an increasing number of older Americans needing social support services, family social work is set to grow rapidly over the next decade.

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