There were nearly 424,000 children in foster care in the U.S. as of 2019.1 Many of these children were removed from unstable families, and many of them have suffered abuse and neglect. Because children in the foster care system often deal with difficult circumstances, they are at a high risk of mental health problems and similar challenges.
In fact, it’s been estimated that almost 80% of foster care kids in the U.S. have a mental health issue—up to five times the incidence rate among children who aren’t in foster care.2 These vulnerable children need specialized care and treatment from trained professionals who work in the foster care system. If you feel called to make it your life’s work to protect these at-risk kids, you may be wondering how to work in foster care.
There are several types of careers that address the question of how to work in the foster care system, such as youth care workers and even school guidance counselors. However, three of the more prominent types of careers in this area are social workers, adoption counselors and social work case managers. This career guide explores the pathways toward becoming one of these three professionals who specialize in working with foster care children.
Types of Foster Care Careers
There are many ways to help children in need. Some individuals decide to open their home and heart to foster children by becoming foster parents. Others decide to make it their life’s work to support kids in the foster care system.
The question of how to work in foster care can be answered multiple ways, as there are different types of jobs available. Three of these options are as follows:
- Social work case manager who specializes in foster care
- Social worker who specializes in working with foster children
- Adoption counselor, also known as an adoption coordinator
A social work case manager or case work aide assists and supports the work of social workers. Like social workers, case managers can specialize in working with specific populations, such as children in the foster care system. Case managers largely act as coordinators.
That is, a case manager may assess and evaluate the needs of foster children and foster families. They can then identify the services their clients may need (such as counseling) and create a care plan. Then, case managers coordinate the delivery of services from other professionals, including social workers, to fulfill the care plan.
Some common job duties of a foster care case manager can include the following:
- Review the files of new clients and find foster placements for these children, including emergency foster placements
- Attend hearings, meet with the biological parents, if any, and coordinate services delivered to the biological parents, such as drug testing or treatment
- Develop care plans for foster children and refer them to social workers and other professionals for needed services
- Meet with foster children regularly to track their progress, meet with biological parents periodically for the same purpose and facilitate supervised visits between biological parents and their children
- Explore long-term guardianship options or adoption for foster children for whose biological parents are unable to make sufficient progress to resume guardianship
- Work in a Residential Treatment Center where children may be places due to behavioral or mental health concerns
Social workers are licensed professionals who, like case managers, may choose to work with a specific population such as foster children. The job of a case manager and social worker can overlap at times, as both of these professionals may help their clients secure needed community resources. However, unlike the case manager, the social worker can also deliver some services, such as mental health counseling.
A social worker who specializes in working with foster children and their biological and foster families may do any of the following tasks:
- Assess the situations, needs and strengths of foster children, foster families and biological families, and develop care plans
- Deliver counseling to foster children and teach them coping skills to help them overcome their challenges, including mental health issues
- Check in regularly with foster children and their foster families to ensure they are receiving all of the support they need
- Teach parenting skills to biological parents with the goal of reuniting children with their biological parents whenever possible
- Assess and report on the children’s safety and well-being during their foster care placement or with their biological parents
A third option for addressing the question of how to work in the foster care system is to pursue a career as an adoption counselor or coordinator. As you might expect, an adoption counselor focuses specifically on the adoption aspect of the foster care system.
An adoption counselor works with children who are preparing to be adopted, parents who want to adopt (including foster parents who want to adopt their foster children), adoption agencies and biological expecting parents who are seeking adoption for their unborn children. Pursuing a career as an adoption counselor can be a great choice for people who are hesitant to become a case manager or social worker because they are worried about the emotional stress involved with those careers. As an adoption counselor, you’ll be helping to prepare children and parents to become loving families.
On any given day, an adoption counselor might do any of the following tasks:
- Work with foster care children by evaluating their emotional well-being, helping them learn about the adoption process, protecting the rights of the children and determining whether the potential adoptive families are the right fit for the children
- Assess adoption applicants to determine if they are fit to become adoptive parents
- Work with potential adoptive parents to guide them through the adoption process and prepare them to shoulder the responsibilities of parenthood
- Help expectant parents learn about the process of giving their child up for adoption and assist with finding a suitable adoptive family
Preparing for Your Career in the Foster Care System
The career pathway for how to work in foster care depends largely on the type of career you choose and the requirements for the state in which you plan to work. First, let’s take a look at the career of a case manager.
Social work case managers are generally expected to hold a bachelor’s degree in social work. Some employers prefer to hire job applicants with a master’s degree, although this is not a universal requirement. Case managers generally do not need to be licensed, although they may choose to obtain a voluntary certification in case management from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).
An aspiring social worker needs to earn an undergraduate social work degree and a Master of Social Work (MSW). Then, the professional must obtain a license from the state in which they would like to work.
The job requirements for an aspiring adoption counselor are a little less cut-and-dry because they can vary considerably from one state to the next. Before you begin your post-secondary education, it’s best to check whether your state requires adoption counselors or coordinators to obtain a license. If so, you’ll need to ensure that your educational programs fit the eligibility criteria for future licensure.
At the very least, an aspiring adoption counselor should plan on earning a Bachelor of Science in Social Work degree. You may or may not need to earn a master’s degree, as well.
All three of these career pathways can benefit from hands-on work experience at the entry level. Students are strongly encouraged to seek internship opportunities related to their field of study, as practical, in-the-field experience provides an impactful introduction to this line of work.
Earn Your Undergraduate Social Work Degree
Regardless of which specific foster care career you choose to pursue, you’ll need to plan on earning an undergraduate social work degree. Look for a program with curriculum that aligns with the standards of the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). The specific coursework and assignments will vary from one school to the next, but in general, you can expect to study topics such as the following:
- The structure and professional roles of human service agencies, and the delivery of services to various populations
- Cultural competencies, diversity, social justice and advocacy within the social work field
- Public policy, social health and civil rights in social work
- Case management skills, including client assessment techniques, problem-solving strategies and progress tracking
CSWE requires students to enroll in practicum courses as part of their study. These involve placing students within approved service providers in the community for supervised, hands-on learning experiences. You’ll have the opportunity to take what you’ve learned in the classroom and apply it to real-world situations.
Social work students can benefit from choosing their elective classes wisely. You may want to take courses in Spanish or another foreign language to facilitate better communication with clients whose native language isn’t English. Another option is to take pre-law classes, as social workers must have a keen understanding of applicable family and child protection legal requirements.
Earn Your Master’s Degree in Social Work
After graduating with your bachelor’s degree, you may need to head to grad school to complete your Master's in Social Work. An MSW typically requires two years of full-time study. If you plan to work while attending school, it may take you longer to graduate.
During your MSW program, you can expect to take a deep dive into advanced topics in social work, such as the following:
- Social work history and methods
- Research methodologies in social work
- Social work concepts, perhaps focusing on specific populations such as families or foster children
- Health and the environment
- Public policy, social justice and the role of the social worker as an advocate
Earn Your State License
If your chosen career in social work requires that you earn a license from your state, you should double-check your state’s eligibility requirements. Generally, you can expect to need proof of your academic credentials, such as official transcripts from your undergraduate and graduate programs. You can also expect to be required to submit a fingerprint card, which will be used to complete a background check.
After submitting an application along with all necessary documentation and paying the required fee, you may be invited to schedule an exam. You’ll need to pass the state licensure exam before you can receive your license. At this time, you should check the licensing renewal requirements for your state.
Are Foster Care Workers in Demand?
There is a significant and ongoing need for all types of social workers, including those who specialize in working with children in the foster care system. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the job growth rate for all types of social workers is expected to be 12% through 2030. This rate of growth is faster than average, and it indicates that about 78,300 new job openings will be available for these professionals each year through the end of the decade.3 The BLS does not track employment statistics for adoption counselors.
When you enroll at Grand Canyon University, you can prepare to pursue a meaningful and impactful career that allows you to make a positive difference in the lives of vulnerable children in need. The Bachelor of Social Work degree covers core competencies in areas such as trauma-informed care, case management and social work ethics. Graduates will emerge prepared to pursue graduate-level education in social work or entry-level careers in the foster care system.
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1Administration for Children & Families. (n.d.). Record number of adoptions and reduced number of children in foster care in new "AFCARS" data release. Retrieved in March 2022.
2Specialized Alternatives for Families & Youth, Mental Health Among Children in Foster Care in March 2022.
3COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is based on 2019, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Social Workers.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.