Masked Therapy Session

Social Workers Past and Present

Social workers by definition are responsible for helping individuals, families and groups of people to cope with problems they’re facing to improve their patient’s lives. uses 25 words to define the role of social workers. However, their role, responsibilities and impact are far more than 25 words worth. Social workers are the professionals who aid those in need due to trauma, disability, poor family circumstances, abuse, neglect, exploitation, mental and or emotional issues, addiction, and acute/chronic and terminal illness. They work in all levels of government agencies whether the entire family is the focus or just one individual. Social workers can be found in schools assisting students or teaching the next generation of social work professionals. They work in the public health arena as well as acute care institutions and long term care facilities. Social workers have a strong presence in the mental health delivery system and within the world of addiction. They are also working diligently within the growing trend of outpatient medical care including dialysis centers.

Regardless of the venue, all social workers face the same challenges at some point in their career. Challenges such as but not limited to higher caseloads, inadequate staffing, home assessments, increasing documentation requirements, limited community resources, and declining government benefits along with fragmented support systems. The profession whose motto is “make a difference in someone’s life” is expected to experience a 19% growth rate according to Widener University, After watching one evening of world news this becomes understandable. However, even without television great need is evident.

The social work profession was born in the late 1800’s helping the disadvantaged secure shelter, food, medical care, employment all the while trying to help them overcome poverty and injustice. The responsibilities of the Social Worker today remain the same as those in past centuries, i.e.; the pioneers of the social work profession would still be gainfully employed if they were in the work force today!  The following is a definition and some historical facts about the responsibilities of a Social Worker.  

Assessment: Social workers conduct extensive psychosocial assessments to gain a complete picture of the client including their resources, limitations, strengths, weakness, goals and commitment to effecting change. This is the foundation for all future interactions between the social worker and client.

Jane Addams, lived among those she helped at Hull House, the first settlement house. She is considered the first social worker who created a structure for volunteer middle class social workers to alleviate the poverty of their low income neighbors.

Collaboration: Social workers are the liaison between many other professional disciplines and often is the reason the communication was initiated. Social workers slip and slide among others to gather information, services and products to develop a collaborative action plan with the client to facilitate the change that will improve the client’s overall life situation.

Edith Abbott, a social worker with an economics doctorate who helped write the Social Security Act of 1935.

Advocate: Social workers stand toe to toe on the front line with the most disadvantaged individuals who have lost their voice in efforts to obtain justice for their clients. Many times this work centers around populations the general society would prefer not to see.

Jeannette Rankin, first woman elected to the United States Congress and was a lifelong pacifist and advocate of women’s suffrage. She introduced a suffrage amendment that passed a year later.

Investigate: Social workers are called to the scenes of horrible acts where they work with law enforcement to determine what happened to who and why. This can involve abused children and the importance of their safety. The margin for error in this situation is zero.

Frances Perkins, first woman to be a presidential cabinet member along with being secretary of Labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt. She was a champion of labor reform, minimum wage law and the department of labor’s headquarters is named after her in Washington, DC.

Counseling: Social workers are able to provide one on one interventions as well as counseling in group settings. This can happen in community organizations or their own private practice.

Grace Coyle, developed and popularized group work as a social work profession.

Research: Social workers are instruments of change for others and often work behind the scenes collecting data and information to effect policies for social change.

Harriett Rinaldo, created rating and recruitment procedures along with higher personnel standards for the Veterans administration department of social work services that was adopted by the Federal Government.

Activism: Social workers are in the trenches experiencing the effects  social policy has on individuals giving them the motivation to organize, speak up and work toward policies that create better situations for those in need.

Frances Feldman, documented and changed the discrimination cancer patients were facing in the workplace and started the network of non-profit credit counseling organizations to help individuals manage their resources to rise above poverty.

Leadership: Social workers are able to take their first hand experiences and transfer them into policies by being the ones to lead the way to the necessary changes.

Barbara Mikulski, 1st Democratic woman to serve in both the United States House and Senate and also the longest serving woman in history of congress.

Documentation: Social workers learn early in their education that they are required to keep records of all interactions with their clients regardless of the venue they work in. It is very clear that if it is not documented, it did not happen. The social work notes can serve as documentation of the progress a client has made as well as data to track trends developing in society.  

Mary Ellen Richmond, first social worker to push for the professionalization and standardization of social workers. She applied scientific principles from law, medicine, psychology, psychiatry and history in a book, Social Diagnosis to emphasize the need for standardization of the profession.

To the great agents of change who have paved the way for us, to the students seeking their degrees on the path to becoming a social worker, please accept our deepest appreciation.  Happy Social Work Month.


USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck, Social of Social Work.
Social Work Degree Page.