Last updated November 5, 2015
NASW Press home
Shopping Cart | Site Map | NASW  
Browse Catalog
About NASW Press

Social Work Practice in Child Welfare

The Interactional Model

This is a book about social work practice in the child welfare context. The practice is based on a generic theory, first articulated by William Schwartz (Schwartz, 1961, 1969, 1971) and then elaborated and researched by this author, who termed it the “interactional model” (IM) of practice (Shulman, 1978, 1980, 1981, 1991, 2010, 2015).

The common elements of the IM are presented in this book, including the impact of time and the phases of work (preliminary, beginning, middle, and ending and transition); the importance of integrating the personal and the professional selves of the worker; the integration of support (empathy) with demand (confrontation); the notion of “two clients” (for example, the child and the family, the client and the agency); the skills of professional impact (for example, working with other professionals within the agency and between organizations); the importance of integrating science (for example, evidence-based practices [EBPs]) into social work practice in a way that allows the worker to maintain and not lose the individual artistry of practice; and supervision of practice (the parallel process).

Although the book will include some criticisms of current practice in the field, I want to make clear that my years of experience working with child welfare frontline workers, supervisors, and administrators has only increased my admiration of the job they do, day in and day out, and often without the community support they deserve and need (for example, reasonable caseloads, effective supervision).

Interactional Model Adapted to Child Welfare Practice

The core (constant) social work practice concepts of the IM are then elaborated into their variant elements introduced by the following:

  • Child welfare field of practice;
  • Subfunctions of child welfare practice (for example, investigation, emergency services, foster care, adoptions, family support);
  • Specific clients (for example, adoptive parents, foster children, foster parents, suspected abusive birth parents);
  • Modality of practice (for example, individual, family, group);
  • Nature of the specific issues facing the client (for example, transition to independence of an older foster teenager, preparations to adopt a child, difficult interactions of foster parent with birth parents); and
  • Professional impact skills required when working with other professionals involved both within the agency and in other agencies or systems (for example, court personnel, school staff, family support workers, and doctors).

Although all of these variant elements and others may affect practice and supervision, the unifying framework of the IM will be evident in the work done by frontline workers and their supervisors. Simply put, this book focuses on what is the same about the practice of all child welfare workers and supervisors as well as what is different as influenced by the factors listed earlier.

This book is not about the field of child welfare (for example, policies, underlying theories of human development, legislation, research), although this will be addressed as relevant; rather, this book is about what one does in interaction with clients, foster parents, and other professionals and in supervision of frontline staff and others in implementing the specific roles of the child welfare social worker and supervisor.

It is more of a “how-to” book with detailed case examples and detailed process recording illustrations of the worker, or supervisor, in action. I am grateful to my MSW students over the years who submitted these examples in response to their class assignments and to the frontline child welfare workers, supervisors, and administrators who presented many of these examples as participants in workshops I provided. Students and workers were kind enough to agree to their use in my future publications.

Common Problem Situations or “Days I Wonder Why I Work in Child Welfare”

During my years of teaching and providing training for social workers, supervisors, and managers in all areas of child welfare practice, as well as in my own child welfare research, I have come across common problems that emerge in almost all of my workshops. I always begin the workshop, after clarifying the purpose and structure of the session, with a brief time for what I call “problem swapping.” This is the participants’ chance to raise what they experience as difficult moments in practice and supervision that they would like to have addressed. Some of them follow, and discussion of how to respond to them will be integrated into the appropriate sections of this book.

  • The foster care social worker has a new client—a teenage foster child whose new foster parents ask for help regarding his acting-out behavior. The child responds to every question in the first session with either a “yes” or a “no” without elaboration. It feels to the worker like pulling teeth.
  • A young, unmarried social worker is having her first interview with a middle-aged mother of six children, who is having parenting problems, when the client suddenly turns to her and asks: “And how many children do you have?” Having none, and feeling defensive, the worker responds by saying, “We are here to talk about you, not me.” The social worker can then sense the mother appearing to shut down.
  • An African American male protection worker is assigned to visit a Caucasian family as a result of an anonymous telephone call suggesting parental neglect. The wife responds to his questions, referring to him as “Sir.” After a few minutes, the silent husband says to the wife, with a sarcastic tone: “You don’t have to call him ‘Sir.’” The social worker feels hurt and angry at what he perceives as a racist comment, what I will refer to as a “micro-aggression” (Constantine, 2007), but he continues as if he did not hear it. When he discusses the home visit with his Caucasian supervisor, he fails to mention the husband’s comments. When asked why by the workshop leader, he says: “Well, my supervisor is white also.”
  • A family support worker from a contracted family counseling agency attends an interdisciplinary meeting with professionals from the referring child welfare agency, including a clinic psychologist working with the child; the visiting nurse, who meets with the mom once a week; and the child welfare protection worker. From the start of the meeting, it is clear that each participant has his or her own ideas of how to assess the problem and develop an appropriate treatment plan. The social worker is frustrated at what she experiences as a subtle battle over “Who owns the client?” The actual conversation is an “illusion of work” in which conversation is taking place but with nothing substantial happening. When the family support worker leaves the meeting, she is frustrated and no further ahead in figuring out how they can best help this client.
  • An adoption worker is interviewing a couple applying to be accepted for a child. When the worker asks how they think their extended family would respond to a transracial adoption, the father starts to speak, but the mother interrupts him, indicating that she thinks her family is liberal and would be very accepting. The worker gets the feeling the conversation is not honest, with the mother providing answers she thinks the adoption worker wants to hear.
  • A supervisor is in a supervision session with a newly hired BSW social worker. The worker reports on interviews with a parent and proudly says: “I think I have figured out how to help this mom.” When the supervisor asks how, the worker indicates she took the mother to church with her the previous Sunday. The supervisor is stunned and wonders how this worker received her BSW and how she passed the hiring interviews.

These and other examples make up what I call archetypes in that, in one version or another, I hear them raised at workshops I have provided for frontline workers, supervisors, managers, and foster parents. They will each be addressed, along with others, in the appropriate chapters that follow. In each case, there is a response that may increase the chance that the client, foster parent, or frontline worker can address the issues effectively. Again, I emphasize that there is no magic solution, and in the final analysis, the clients, staff, and other professionals must play their part as well. That is why the model is described as “interactional.”

A Personal Note

On a personal note, when I graduated from the Columbia University School of Social Work in 1961 with my MSW, my mother asked a key question. She said: “Now that you are an MSW, a master of social work, can you tell me what you do?” I told her I worked with people to “enhance social functioning, strengthen egos, facilitate growth and development, and make the world safe for democracy.” After a short pause, my mother smiled and responded: “But what do you do?” I had learned to use jargon, words like “facilitate,” “enhance,” and “enable,” followed by generalized goals (for example, “enhance social functioning”), in response to this question. I was not alone in my class—most of us had difficulty articulating in simple, nonjargonized terms a statement of our professional role and function. Other helping professions (for example, psychologists, teachers, nurses) also tended to use jargon when responding to this question. This book is part of my ongoing effort to answer my mother’s question, “What do you do?” without using jargon, in the specific context of practice in child welfare.