Social Work | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Social Work

Social Work is a profession that assists individuals, families, groups and communities in enhancing their individual and collective well-being. It assists individuals in developing their own skills and the ability to use their own and community resources to resolve problems.

Social Work

Social Work is a profession that assists individuals, families, groups and communities in enhancing their individual and collective well-being. It assists individuals in developing their own skills and the ability to use their own and community resources to resolve problems. It is also concerned with broader social issues such as POVERTY, UNEMPLOYMENT and FAMILY VIOLENCE. Historically, social work was associated with CHARITIES and voluntary assistance to the needy. It is currently associated with public service provision and citizenship rights of the welfare state.

History of Social Work

Prior to 1867 social work in Canada meant, as it did in England and the US, relief of the poor, whose situation was generally believed to result from weakness of character. This belief was exemplified in a publication of the London Charity Organization Society: "If the head of the family makes no provision in case of his death, part of the responsibility falls on his wife, and it is doubtful whether the widow ought to be relieved of the consequences by charitable aid."

The Associated Charities, part of a movement originating in England in 1869, was established in Canada in 1881. It differed from similar organizations of the time by stressing the importance of systematic investigation rather than the simple provision of relief. By 1912 the municipal social-service commissions were replacing the Associated Charities; simultaneously the social casework method of investigation was being popularized in Canada by followers of Mary Richmond, one of America's social-work pioneers. In 1914 a training program for social workers was established at the UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO, followed (1918) by a similar program at MCGILL UNIVERSITY.

Social work grew slowly during the 1920s and 1930s. In 1926 the Canadian Association of Social Workers was formed, with its first charter members drawn principally from child and family welfare agencies, municipal departments and settlement houses. During the GREAT DEPRESSION heavy demands were placed on social-work agencies, yet governments were reluctant to promote the advancement of trained social workers in universities. Only 2 new training programs opened during this period - one at the University of British Columbia (1928) and the other at Université de Montréal (1939).

After WWII the profession expanded, along with the development of health-care, hospital insurance, old age PENSIONS, SOCIAL SECURITY, homes for the aged and special services for people with a DISABILITY, and these agencies often employed social workers. Growth was particularly strong in the 1960s and 1970s with the development of a wide range of public services under the aegis of the Canadian WELFARE STATE as social entitlement to public services became associated with the rights of CITIZENSHIP rather than charity. In 1941 the census reported 1767 social workers in Canada; by 1996 there were over 85 955 social service and social workers and in 2000 there were 34 schools of social work in Canada.

Some of Canada's principal social reformers have been associated with the social-work profession, including J.S. WOODSWORTH, founder of the CCF; Charlotte WHITTON, child-welfare activist and mayor of Ottawa; Leonard MARSH, author of an influential report on social security; Harry Cassidy, writer and director of the University of Toronto School of Social Work for many years; and Georges-Henri LEVESQUE, of Université Laval, who had a distinguished career in the social sciences and helped to establish social work education in Québec.

Training and Specialization

At the undergraduate level (BSW), most educational institutions focus on generalist practice. A generalist approach ensures that students are exposed to a variety of theories and skills to address diverse issues in various fields of practice. Courses cover such areas as human behaviour and social development, social service provision, social policy and social intervention. At the graduate level (MSW, DSW or Ph.D.), students specialize in fields of study such as family and child welfare, mental health and justice.

New specializations of social work develop in response to personal and social problems created by changes in society. Across Canada, intervention methods in social work include counselling, group work, community development and social administration, although they share a common body of theory and practice integral to the profession as a whole. Social workers act as counsellors to individuals and families suffering from problems such as marital breakdown, parenting inadequacies, CHILD ABUSE, HIV or AIDS,ALCOHOLISM and drug abuse (DRUG USE, NON-MEDICAL), as well as issues that may arise in schools or in the workplace.

Group work generally refers to programs in which participants are not necessarily closely related. Sometimes the groups are organized around social-recreational programs, eg, senior-citizen centres or DAY CARE; sometimes they are formed to deal with personal problems or simply to share common experiences. Community development refers to activities aimed at improving social conditions, co-ordinating services or promoting public-policy changes. Emphasis is shifting to development of community leaders and self-help initiatives. Finally, with the growth of public and voluntary services, social workers are increasingly required to specialize in social administration, ie, the management of a wide range of services and the direction of large bureaucracies.

Field of Practice

Many social workers are employed in public social and health services contributing to the care and rehabilitation of the physically and mentally ill, the young, the aged and the mentally challenged or the disabled. SCHOOL BOARDS engage social workers to counsel students with emotional and social problems. Settlement houses, community centres, senior-citizen centres and hostels hire social workers to work with individuals and groups. Some social workers are employed by companies to assist their employees with personal problems. In the corrections field, social workers counsel offenders, prisoners and parolees. Some are employed as organizers in social-planning agencies, community organizations and TRADE UNIONS, while others work as administrators for government or voluntary associations. Some teach in universities and community colleges. In recent years there has been a substantial increase in the number of social workers in private practice.

Institutions, Societies and Journals

The Canadian Association of Social Workers, a national, professional organization, is a federation of provincial and territorial associations representing about 16 000 members (2000) and maintains a National Registry of social workers in private practice. The CASW establishes a code of ethics, issues guidelines for practice and publishes books on social-work practice and social-welfare policies. The federal and provincial associations have also been active in helping develop social services and social-security programs in Canada.

The Canadian Association of Schools of Social Work is the accreditation body for schools of social work and maintains professional and educational standards for social workers who must be accredited through the Board of Accreditation of the Canadian Association of Schools of Social Work. The board in recent years has acted to ensure that the curriculum of the schools reflects the diversity of Canadian society and addresses the concerns of aboriginal people. A bachelor's degree (BSW) is a prerequisite for professional practice. The title of social worker is protected by legislation in all provinces, and in the Atlantic Provinces legislation also provides for the protection of practice. Hence, only properly qualified persons can use the title or practice social work.

The association promotes research and scholarly publications to foster an understanding of the profession among the public and to safeguard standards. Principal professional journals in Canada include Canadian Social Work/Travail Social Canadien, Canadian Social Work Review/Revue canadienne de travail social and Service Social and Intervention. The Canadian Association of Social Workers and provincial associations also publish newsletters for their members. The members of Canadian associations are associated with equivalent bodies in other countries through the International Federation of Social Workers and the International Association of Schools of Social Work. The latter sponsor a conference in different parts of the world every 2 years.

Future of Social Work

Social work is continually adapting to demographic and cultural changes in Canadian society. In this respect, an AGING population, the increasing diversity of society, and the social needs of INDIGENOUS PEOPLE are emerging priorities in social services and social work education. The profession is also concerned about the preservation of quality programs and the nature of practice in a time of fiscal restraint and cutbacks. The profession continues to be engaged in reform movements to change negative societal attitudes toward people in need and to advocate for HUMAN RIGHTS, social justice and gender equality. In spite of these professional commitments, however, the future role of social work within the public sector remains uncertain. On the one hand, social work and social services have become an integral part of PUBLIC SERVICE provision in Canada as a result of the growth of the welfare state. On the other hand, the current retrenchment of the welfare state means that social services, like other public services, are restrained by cutbacks in social expenditures as governments adapt to a changing economic environment in a global era. Like other professional fields in the public sector, social work is being shaped by globalization. While the impact of globalization remains unclear, it is likely that social work will have to think beyond the public services of the welfare state, to develop new concepts of social entitlement, and to identify new ways of meeting human need.


Further Reading