By: Sam Hickman
Spring 1994, Vol. 1, No. 1
Editor's Note: This article appeared in our very first issue, Spring 1994. Much of this information may be outdated.
Social Work Licensing--What's It All About?
by Sam Hickman, ACSW, LCSW
Professional licensing--that is, a state-required license to practice within a particular profession--is the state's best effort at protecting its citizens from professional misconduct and malpractice.
Licensing differs from certification or registration in that licensing usually has stiffer requirements. It also offers greater status and, in many cases, the only route toward getting direct payment for the provision of certain professional services. Some states require social workers to be licensed, while certification and registration (whether offered by the state or by a professional organization) is usually voluntary. Holding a license generally requires the licensee to adhere to a code of ethics or professional conduct. If this code is violated, the license can be revoked or other disciplinary actions taken. This is how licensing accomplishes its main purpose--to protect the public.
Your primary concerns are finding out:
- If the state where you wish to practice requires a license in social work;
- If the license is required in your particular practice setting (see "exemptions"); and
- How to get a license if you need one.
From a professional perspective, licensing provides a "gatekeeper"--a hoop, or series of hoops, through which anyone wishing to practice the profession has to jump. This helps ensure, for example, that only persons trained in psychology become licensed psychologists, only nursing educated folks become licensed nurses, and only those with accredited social work degrees become licensed social workers.
But nothing is that simple.
States have the inalienable right to define what a profession is, and who may practice it, within their borders. Certainly, there are similarities between states, but I will focus on differences to give you an idea of how they affect you professionally.
How to locate the licensing agency, board, commission, empire, etc.
State make laws to require licenses. These laws assign the jobs of granting licenses, keeping records, and handling complaints to a particular entity of state government.
I don't know why, but this fact seems to confuse many people. I get so many calls for the licensing board at my NASW Chapter office that when the telephone company offered me an 800 line, I said, "Why do I want an 800 line...half of my calls are for someone else!"
The fact remains that if you can't locate the licensing body via the "state government" pages in your phone book, you best bet at finding them--with the lowest charges for long-distance phone charges--is by calling the NASW Chapter office in your state's capital city. NASW was involved in achieving most of the licensing laws in the states. It still has a major interest in purveying good information about licensing to social workers.
As an alternative, the American Association of State Social Work Boards (AASSWB) publishes a handy guide called Social Work Laws and Board Regulations: A State Comparison Summary ($15 plus shipping and handling, AASSWB, 400 S. Ridge Parkway, Suite B, Culpeper, VA 22701). The guide lists fees and additional requirements, as well as listing the licensing bodies of all the states.
The LAW and the RULES
It is often said that no one would enjoy witnessing the making of sausage or laws. Licensing laws are no exception. Laws come complete with the personality quirks of the legislators who make them. The West Virginia law has an elaborate section describing how to get licensed without an accredited deegree, but the process is more difficult than just going ahead and getting the degree!
LAWS provide the broad framework for licensing--who gets licensed, who pocesses licenses, who gets in trouble for doing what, whether continuing education hours/credits are necessary to keep the license, and so on.
RULES are the day-to-day guidelines for the licensing body and the license holder. Rules are more detailed. They tell you how much it costs to apply, take a test, and so on. They tell you how many continuing education hours you have to have. They tell the licensing body what to do when it receives a complaint. Rules are enabled by laws. Rules can't describe or require processes that are not mentioned in the law. Rules are approved through a process of state government, sometimes by the legislature itself.
Who gets licensed?
Remember the above about nothing being THAT simple? Here's where states demonstrate their individuality. States may require all or some social workers to have a license.
And a licensing law may be primarily focused on title protection or practice protection.
ALL or SOME
State laws may require licensure at a single level or at multiple levels.
For example, a single level might mean that only MSWs with over two years of experience who are primarlily clinical social workers have to be licensed. (Whether other social workers may be licensed is another question entirely. My advice is to get licensed if you can.)
A multiple level example, from my own state of West Virginia, is that there are separate and distinct levels of license for BSWs, new MSWs, MSWs with over two years of experience, and MSW/Clinical Social Workers with over two years of experience.
A title protection law requires anybody whose job title is "Social Worker" to be licensed. It might, for example, allow a BA-level counselor to work as a "discharge planner" but not as a "social worker."
Practice protection means that the specific knowledge base of the profession has been recognized, by law, to be unique. In this case, the law requires all those who claim to engage in the practice of social work, as defined in the law, to hold a social work license. There is usually a disclaimer to the effect that a professional with a related egree who is appropriately trained and duly licensed in that profession to perform some or all of the same methods, treatments, or techniques be allowed to do so without getting a social work license. A reciprocal disclaimer should also appear in the licensing laws of related professions.
Most laws are either title protection or practice protection, with practice protection being viewed as the stronger of the two. A few states have laws with their feet in both areas--generally meaning that they are title protection acts which have a modicum of practice protection in them.
The stronger laws provide for the fewest exemptions. Then there are others...I kid you not...which could be paraphrased as, "All social workers must be licensed, unless they work for the federal, state, or municipal government, a hospital, nursing home or other health facility, a non-profit organization, etc., etc., etc." Check with your state's licensing board to find what exemptions apply there.
Each state is different
Because each state enacts a law to license or register a given profession, the acronyms vary. Let's take the case of a regular ol' MSW with two years of non-clinical, post-master's work experience. In Kansas, she would go by the title Master Social Worker (MSW); in Washington, DC, she's a Licensed Independent Social Worker (LISW); in New Jersey, a Licensed Social Worker (LSW); and in West Virginia a Licensed Certified Social Worker (LCSW). In several of these states, she would not be required to have any post-master's experience. In others, it is mandatory.
A BSW license in Indiana requires two years of post-BSW experience. No experience is necessary in Arizona, but BSWs are not required to be licensed at all in 19 states.
What to ask
If you contact your state's licensing board, the staff may offer to mail you some general information with the application materials. Once you have had an opportuunity to contact the board and look the information over, these are the questions you need to have answers to:
- Do I have to be licensed for what I intend/hope to do?
- If I don't have to be licensed, may I become licensed?
- How do I apply?
- What materials are needed to apply? (transcripts, references, documented supervision and/or practice experience?)
- Do I have to take an examination?
- How much are the application, examination, and renewal fees?
- How often must I renew the license?
- What are the requirements for renewal? (continuing education and so on)
- How do I document and prove what is needed to renew the license?
- May I receive a copy of the law and/or rules?
Most states require that you take an examination to get a license. This is, of course, after jumping through the hoops of establishing your qualifications.
The good news is that all states currently utilize one or more levels of the American Association of State Social Work Boards (AASSWB) exams. This makes it easier to prove yourself when crossing borders.
The bad news is that you may cross a border into a state that does not license at your level of practice, or which has established qualifications for licensure at your level which you met back home, but not here. The worst news is that your newly adopted state could make you take the same test again, but this doesn't happen too often.
Be aware that states set their own prices for taking the exam, reviewing an application, granting or renewing a license, and so on.
After you get your license
- Keep copies of everything!
- Keep them somewhere where you can find them!
- Inform the licensing board if you move, change names, retire, decide not to renew your license, leave the frfield of social work for a time, or sneeze (just kidding).
- Display your license proudly--you earned it! (And it may be required.)
- Start early! Some states let you take the exam while you're still in school.
- Find out what you need to know and go and do it.
- Take responsibility for yourself. Don't expect a bureaucrat to take care of you.
Sam Hickman, ACSW, LCSW (WV), is Executive Director of the National Association of Social Workers, WV Chapter. He is a member of the Editorial Board of THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER, Vice Chair and past Acting Chair of the West Virginia Board of Social Work Examiners, and a member of the Education Committeee of the American Association of State Social Work Boards.