By: Deborah M. Murray, MSW, & George E. Hendricks, Ph.D.
The narrative that follows has two different, although related, purposes. First, it describes title protection for social workers. Second, in a vivid example of democracy at work, it describes how the students in a social work policy class, with the help of the Methodist University Social Work Department faculty, helped implement a new North Carolina law providing title protection for North Carolina generalist practice social workers. This is certainly an issue of extreme importance for new social workers in our profession.
The issue of social work title protection has received no attention in the peer-reviewed social work literature. Our search of Academic Search Premier, Westlaw Campus, SocIndex, and Google Scholar revealed no information. There are fact sheets and white papers from individual states available through state chapter Web sites of the National Association of Social Workers. The literature review indicated that the United Kingdom is committed to title protection. Under Chapter 14 (Part 1V) Section 61 of its Care Standards Act of 2000, no one can describe herself or himself as a social worker unless he or she is registered in the Social Care Registry maintained by the General Social Care Council.
The lack of information is surprising, given the importance of this topic to the profession. Social workers daily encounter complex issues as they serve vulnerable clients who are unable to evaluate the quality of service they need or are receiving. Also, historically, our profession has allowed anyone, without our protest, to call herself or himself a social worker. The absence of title protection has undermined the image and reputation of our profession. The professional image issue led the Methodist University Social Work Department, especially the upper-level majors in our policy class, to initiate a movement to establish title protection regulation in North Carolina. As a result, the North Carolina legislature, in its 2009 session, passed a bill providing title protection to individuals in North Carolina holding a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) Degree from colleges or universities with an accredited social work major. Discovering the details of what title protection provides and experiencing the process that led to the adoption of title protection legislation was an informative and revealing experience in advocacy for the students in the policy class.
North Carolina House Bill 1168 provides that no individual in North Carolina may use the title of “social worker” or any variation thereof unless he or she meets one of the three following requirements:
Such individual is a certified, licensed, or provisionally licensed social worker in accordance with North Carolina law.
Such individual holds a doctorate in social work.
Such individual holds a bachelor’s or master’s degree in social work from a college or university having a social work program that is accredited.
Qualifications of BSW educated social workers
In North Carolina, there are 22 colleges and universities that offer a BSW degree accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Class research compared the specific courses and focus of the various North Carolina social work programs to the course requirements of other human service programs, most often psychology and sociology. Although these academic disciplines are important in their own right and often make positive contributions to social work as a whole, they lack the focus on client-centered needs and problem solving skills that engage the social work professional day in and day out. The accreditation guidelines are quite clear that the focus of baccalaureate social work education should be on direct services to clients with the intent of development, provision, and evaluation of social services. The absence of this preparation illustrates why individuals who are educated in related human service fields are not prepared to fulfill the challenges of the practicing social worker. Would you want a dental hygienist to perform your root canal?
How did the legislation pass and why is it important?
The possibility of title protection for North Carolina BSW graduates was an idea that took root in the Methodist University social work policy class in the spring of 2007. As students compared the social work profession with numerous other human service professions, they came to realize that BSW graduates did not have the professional protection commonly accorded to many professionals.
They broadened their research to look at how other states in the United States had protected the social work profession through title protection. The students compared the educational requirements of social work with other human service majors. They described the broad and complex nature of a social work professional career that must be fine tuned to meet the needs of very diverse clients.
For the purpose of this class, the students defined social work as a professional activity designed to help individuals, groups, or communities to discover, enhance, or restore their capacity for effective social functioning and to create a favorable environment and social conditions that support social welfare. Our students came to believe that there was a need for title protection for social workers because social work is a specialized profession and not just a job title. They understood more clearly that social workers function within the person-in-environment perspective. Almost all social workers are involved in the solution of real world, practical problems. Social work is proactive in focusing on the interaction between individuals and their environment. According to the CSWE Web site, the mission of the CSWE “aims to promote and strengthen the quality of social work education through preparation of competent social work professionals by providing national leadership and a forum for collective action. CSWE pursues this mission through setting and maintaining policy and program standards, accrediting bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in social work, promoting research and faculty development, and advocating for social work education.”
Graduates of CSWE-accredited baccalaureate social work programs are prepared to practice with diverse populations guided by the social work profession’s values and ethics. Although a BSW requires a strong theoretical base, its focus is on practical service delivery to clients. This is especially important to graduates, because addressing the practical problems of clients is most often the responsibility of an entry level professional.
A roadmap to title protection
The policy students developed a plan to evaluate title protection for CSWE-accredited BSW graduates. They began locally. First, they met with the director of the Cumberland County Department of Social Services in Fayetteville, North Carolina. The interaction began with a meeting of the director and two students. They discussed the issue, and he agreed to meet with the entire class. After the meeting, students expanded their influence with community leaders to the local delegation of state legislators.
One legislator agreed to meet with the class to discuss the need for title protection and to identify the factors that, in her opinion, the students needed to address to increase the project’s chance of success. On the advice of this representative, the students fine-tuned their proposal with illustrations from states that had incorporated title protection. They presented these benefits in a manner easily grasped by busy legislators. They pointed out the broad nature of the benefits and how they could benefit urban and rural areas.
The students then arranged to meet with all legislative delegates representing Cumberland County in North Carolina. This exchange of ideas proved to be critical in securing the delegates’ support.
The students learned that a title protection bill had been proposed previously in the North Carolina legislature, but that the proposal never made it out of committee. The students obtained a copy of this earlier bill and used it as a blueprint for moving their project forward. Because of the legislative work schedule, the title protection proposal developed by the students with legislative staff support could not be introduced in the North Carolina House of Representatives in 2007.
In the spring of 2008, a new policy class continued the work of their fellow students from the 2007 class. The new class also studied the process used in other states to achieve title protection. They also obtained support from the other BSW programs in North Carolina. The Methodist University social work faculty, current policy students, and some previous policy students met again with the original representative who had met with the class to update her on their progress.
Collaboration with her resulted in a letter-writing campaign to the other BSW programs across North Carolina. The department faculty supported the students’ efforts by contacting all of the directors of the baccalaureate social work programs in North Carolina by letter. The letter provided a brief description of title protection and a statement about its importance to the social work profession. The letter asked for support for the proposed legislation. Many of the BSW programs responded favorably and worked with their local legislative delegation, to gain support for title protection. The signed forms of the BSW programs that were returned were provided to the local legislative delegation, who made them available to a wider legislative group. At this point, the Methodist University Social Work Program joined forces with the North Carolina chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, obtaining its help with the passage of this legislation.
In May 2009, another Cumberland County representative introduced the title protection bill to the North Carolina legislature and it passed. In June 2009, the Governor signed the bill into law. Based on student and faculty advocacy efforts, the Methodist University Social Work Program received the NC-NASW Advocate of the Year Award in March of 2010.
Why is title protection important to social workers and those they serve?
With title protection, the public can now be assured that those performing the services of a social worker in North Carolina are professionals who have the requisite education and training for the services that they are providing. Also, these social workers are subject to the ethical standards of the National Association of Social Workers and are expected to adhere to these professional standards in the performance of services.
With title protection, the public can be comforted in knowing that the degreed social workers have been educated to work with all populations, especially those who are vulnerable, underserved, oppressed, and at-risk. The public trust is protected by setting apart the qualified social workers from those who do not have the education and training to serve those in need.
In North Carolina, if an individual claims to be a social worker, he or she now must have earned a BSW or MSW degree from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. This protection serves to guard against ill-informed and uneducated workers in our field.
The passage of North Carolina House Bill 1168 was a momentous day for social work in North Carolina. Likewise, this collaborative educational project proved especially educational for our students. It demonstrated the power of a group of committed individuals interested in positive social change. This type of advocacy work is the foundation and “continuing theme” of the social work profession.
George E. Hendricks, Ph.D., serves as the Methodist University Social Work Department Chair. He worked for 12 years as a social worker in public schools. Deborah M. Murray, MSW, is an associate professor of social work at Methodist University. She worked with hospice for five years prior to working in academia.