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What Does a Caseworker Do?

A woman sitting with a caseworker looking at an iPad

In communities across the country, individuals and families encounter challenges and hardships on a number of fronts, from healthcare issues, to counseling, to domestic and social service needs.

While there are typically a range of services, organizations and programs available that are designed to provide assistance in these circumstances, understanding how to effectively access them isn’t always easy.

This is where social caseworkers enter the picture, stepping in to bridge the gap between those in need and the resources available to them.

What Does a Caseworker Do?

Caseworkers are dedicated professionals who work closely with individuals and families, managing their cases in a way that successfully connects them with various forms of assistance and social services.

You’ll find that caseworkers come from a variety of academic and disciplinary backgrounds including social work, healthcare and human services. This often helps determine the type of caseload they carry, as well as the kind of agency or organization for which they work.

Caseworkers meet with clients to whom they’re assigned, develop an understanding of that client’s specific circumstances, assess what services are available and create a plan for moving ahead in a way that will best resolve the client’s needs.

Dr. Thomas Maccarty with the text Dr. Thomas MaccartyThis assistance can range from long-term and temporary housing, to healthcare, to mental health and counseling, to employment and job training and many other points in between.

“Case workers make sure their clients' needs are being met and will help clients access the resources and support necessary to improve their well-being and quality of life,” said Dr. Thomas MacCarty, associate dean of social sciences at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU).

“They work to assess the needs of their clients, develop plans to meet those needs and collaborate with other professionals such as doctors, psychologists or counselors and organizations such as child welfare, social services, food banks, housing, etc., to make sure their clients receive the appropriate support they need,” MacCarty said.

What Skills Does it Take to Succeed as a Caseworker?

If social casework is a field you’ve considered, it helps to understand what kinds of skills it takes to thrive in the profession. According to MacCarty, some of these include:

  • Ability to be a self-starter and an effective self-manager
  • Computer savviness and the ability to multitask
  • Excellent time management and organizational capabilities
  • Strong oral and written communication abilities

“Caseworkers must be good at managing their time and cannot afford to put things off,” MacCarty said. “Most of the time, case loads are large and there is a strong need to stay on top of things.”

In addition to professional skills and abilities, MacCarty said there are also a variety of personal characteristics and traits that could make you a good fit for the field. Some of these include:

  • Compassionate
  • Empathetic
  • Strong emotional intelligence
  • Unbiased towards others

“Caseworkers also need to know how to set professional boundaries and realize the need to take care of themselves emotionally, psychologically and physically so they can help those in need,” MacCarty said.

Another important characteristic for caseworkers, MacCarty said, is being a good listener.

“To truly understand what may be happening in an individual’s life is to truly listen without formulating responses,” he said.

What’s the Difference Between a Caseworker and a Social Worker?

In a broad sense, there are many similarities between caseworkers and social workers. They’re often employed within the same agencies and organizations, and both professions strive to provide social assistance and relief to underserved and vulnerable populations.

But when you dig a little deeper you’ll find there are distinct differences between what caseworkers and social workers do.

“Social workers are often times licensed professionals that can provide counseling, therapy and advocacy services,” MacCarty said. “They have received specialized training in the theoretical frameworks of social work, how to apply intervention strategies and professional ethics.”

Learn more about what it takes to become a social worker.

In comparison, caseworkers don’t provide mental health counseling or therapy, and instead focus on working directly with individuals and families to ensure they have access to the appropriate support and services they need to survive.

“Both caseworkers and social workers are dedicated to helping those in need and moving ahead with the goal of promoting positive outcomes for their clients,” MacCarty said. “But how they do the work differs significantly.”

The field of social casework emerged to address the front-line need for personnel to help individuals and families navigate the often complex process for accessing services across a wide range of agencies and organizations.

The role of casework itself also has evolved over the years due to a number of reasons, MacCarty said, including:

  • Changes in current societal problems and challenges
  • Demand for services
  • Legislation at all levels of government

While in its early form, casework was more about getting immediate help for families in crisis, the field today involves more comprehensive planning.

“It does seem the role has evolved from providing immediate services, such as when an individual or family is in crisis — though this does still happen — into a more client-centered and holistic approach that’s focused on encouraging individuals and families to become more self-sufficient and be able to recognize how to overcome the challenges they may face,” MacCarty said.

What Level of Education is Required to Become a Caseworker?

Unlike many other professions, caseworkers represent a broad range of academic backgrounds, disciplines and degrees.

According to MacCarty, employers typically look for applicants with a bachelor’s degree in a field that’s relevant to the type of work caseworkers do, such as a:

However, you will find situations where entry-level caseworker positions are filled by applicants with an associate degree in a related field, he said.

In What Types of Organizations and Settings Are Caseworkers Employed?

A key benefit to pursuing a career as a caseworker is the breadth of employment opportunities across a spectrum of professional organizations, agencies and settings. MacCarty said some of these include:

  • Adoption and foster care agencies
  • Criminal justice
  • Government agencies
  • Hospital and healthcare facilities
  • Mental health clinics
  • Nonprofit organizations
  • Physical therapy facilities
  • Schools and community centers
  • Social service and human service organizations
  • Substance abuse clinics

Caseworkers can have a significant, positive impact on the lives of their clients, not just in terms of connecting them with immediate assistance but also in empowering them to help themselves moving ahead, MacCarty said.

“As a caseworker, you need to realize you can only do your best to help those in need,” he said. “But people also need to want to help themselves.”

A degree can change your life. Find the SNHU social science degree that can best help you meet your goals. 

Cary Jordan is an Iowa-based writer and content strategist.

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