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 Much of this information may be outdated.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.