Foster Care Social Worker
Foster care social workers work one on one with vulnerable children and families to provide the best living situations possible. In doing so, they can give foster children the resources, services, and dignity they deserve.
Understanding how to become a foster care social worker is an ongoing process with changing policies and practices, so you have many responsibilities and skills to learn if you're considering foster care social work employment.
Understanding the Unique Challenges of Children in Foster Homes
Children in the foster care system are significantly more likely to experience mental health and development issues. First, children who are separated from their parents may suffer from anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and a lack of motivation. These symptoms will likely worsen as they adjust to their new living situation.
This process can also bring up new emotions, behaviors, and motives for children. For example, a child who feels abandoned by their parents may lose confidence, feeling like they aren't good enough. On the other hand, a teenager working through traumatic emotions may lash out at their foster family in ways they had never acted before.
About 24,000 individuals transition out of foster care every year without finding a permanent family. Many of these individuals go on to live fulfilling, independent lives. However, they are significantly more likely to face poverty, health problems, incarceration, and other systemic issues, so matching foster children with the right families doesn't just define their childhood — it can define their lives.
What Is a Foster Care Social Worker?
A social worker manages and coordinates many steps in a foster child's case. Like child welfare social workers, they usually meet with children to evaluate their needs and identify the best foster parents. Beyond arranging new homes, a foster care social worker's responsibilities also include allocating resources, changing discriminatory policies, and finding counselors.
What Does a Foster Care Social Worker Do?
Protecting and advocating for children are the core fundamentals of a foster care social worker's job description. They provide and coordinate many services for children, including housing, counseling, and living essentials. However, the duties of a foster care social worker vary from case to case.
A Foster Care Social Worker's Roles and Responsibilities
Foster care social workers may work with children from the intake process through their transition out of the system. Explore the roles of social workers in foster care below.
Evaluating the Foster Child's Needs and Circumstances
First, foster care social workers must assess the child's needs during the intake and evaluation processes. Depending on the case, Child Protective Services (CPS) or another organization may have already started the intake process. Nevertheless, you should restart the evaluation process to fully understand the child's circumstances.
Most children cannot verbalize or even understand the full extent of their needs, especially if their biological parents didn't meet them, so social workers must have a thorough understanding of family and child trauma to recognize different signs and symptoms. Additionally, you should be able to understand non-verbal cues to gauge their emotional responses and feelings of safety.
The foster care intake process often requires you to juggle various family and client records to understand the entire situation. Social work and foster care case management software, such as Casebook, lets you automatically compile and review all the necessary data for your case. These tools make it easier to review intake notes and properly evaluate a foster child's needs.
Matching Children With Suitable Foster Families
Next, social workers in foster care must connect children with families and living situations that meet their needs. This often requires you to work with various foster and child welfare systems to find the best foster homes for each individual.
In some cases, you may find suitable foster parents within children's biological families, such as aunts, grandparents, and cousins. In 2021, 35% of placed foster children moved into a relative's home, while 44% moving into a non-relative foster home.
Relatives' homes are typically easier for foster children to adapt to since they should already be familiar with their new living situation. Plus, these arrangements are typically faster to arrange than with non-relative foster families, which may require a waiting list and other lengthy processes.
Unfortunately, living with family members can create conflicts of interest and safety issues, depending on the case. For example, if a child's biological parent threatens their safety, you should avoid placing the child in a home where their parent may find them. So, even if a child's relative meets most foster care expectations, they may not be the best choice.
Coordinating Services and Resources for Children and Families
Foster children and families usually need additional services and resources during their initial transition. At a base level, this may include allocating food, education, bedding, toys, and other essentials. These resources should improve the lives of the child and help the family accommodate their newest member.
Depending on the type of case, you should coordinate other services and resources for their mental health. Up to 80% of foster children experience significant mental health issues. Additionally, children who have lived in unsafe conditions typically require an intensive trauma-informed approach. Considering the child's safety, experiences, and most prominent needs is crucial to avoiding re-traumatization.
Due to the nature of foster care, most children already feel a lack of control in their new environment, so you should give them only goals they're comfortable with and not push services they aren't ready for yet.
Social workers should also find mental health services and similar resources for foster families. Realistically, not all children will transition smoothly into their new homes. Counseling services prepare foster families for their newest members, usually by focusing on the children's trauma and most significant concerns. This helps parents gauge their expectations and give children the help they need without compounding their stress.
Advocating for Foster Children
Advocacy is crucial in social work and foster care, letting you identify unmet needs and systemic issues. Individual advocacy helps you stand up for foster children and families impacted by social injustice.
For example, Black children receive disproportionate care in U.S. foster systems and may receive fewer resources and foster home opportunities than other kids. Recognizing inequality will help you speak up when your clients' needs are unmet, such as if a foster child is skipped over for discriminatory reasons.
Beyond client-by-client scenarios, advocacy is essential for holding foster and adoption agencies accountable. Social workers in the foster care system may need to advocate for policy and legislative changes to combat systemic issues.
Ongoing debates about LGBTQIA2S+ adoptive parents potentially keep thousands of children from going to perfectly safe homes. Additionally, prejudices, stigmas, and biases prevent children from different backgrounds from finding suitable families. So even if it doesn't directly impact your caseload, advocating for more ethical foster care practices can change countless lives.
Essential Skills for a Foster Care Social Worker
Soft skills such as empathy and problem-solving are essential to a foster care social worker's job. Continuous learning helps you develop new abilities, hone your existing skills, and stay up to date on best practices. As a result, you can establish the best possible care for foster children and their families.
Review the following foster care social worker skills:
- Emotional intelligence
- Active listening
- Critical thinking
- Conflict resolution
- Cultural competence
- Professional boundaries
The Impact of Social Workers on the Lives of Foster Children
In 2021, the number of children in U.S. foster care systems dropped to 391,098— nearly a 9% decrease from 2018. Though this number is still uncomfortably high, it demonstrates the positive outcomes delivered by social work programs.
According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), social services made significant contributions to this improvement. Foster care social workers and other human services providers are now more involved with child welfare systems and other essential family resources. As a result, fewer children seem to require foster homes, and foster children can receive better help for their specific needs.
How to Become a Foster Care Social Worker
While every role differs, most foster care social worker jobs require at least a bachelor's degree in psychology, sociology, or another relevant field. However, many positions, such as leadership and trauma-focused roles, may include additional education requirements. Beyond your education, many employers and state laws require additional child welfare training.
You should also have tangible qualifications and soft skills to be considered for most positions. While some foster care social worker jobs are entry-level, you should still have experience working with children and in the foster setting.
It's important to note that a social worker can be a foster parent, too, so you don't have to choose only one way to help foster kids. However, some foster programs may deem social workers ineligible due to their busy schedules and other challenges.