8 Social Work Practice with Children and Families

Learning Objectives

In this chapter the student will be reviewing:

  • Overview of child welfare and child protective services
  • A review of family structures and values
  • Family systems’ theory and concepts
  • A brief overview of child protective services
  • Trauma and its impact on children and families
  • Foster Care

In this chapter, you will learn about child welfare and foster care, 2 prominent fields of practice for social workers. We will be considering the ever-changing variations of family structure, and the importance for social workers to know their own pre- conceived notions of what it means to be “family.” There will be a brief overview of family systems’ thinking and key concepts. A look at child protective services, and, finally, a consideration of the impact of trauma on a child.

Family Systems’ theory and concepts

The family systems’ perspective fits well into the core social work perspective, person-in-environment. This perspective is believed to be one of the unique, defining features for social work. As is evident in its name, this concept emphasizes the importance of viewing the individual within the context of their environment. Related to person-in-environment, the family systems’ perspective posits that our view of selves and the world is constantly being informed and influenced by our family, our culture, and other external factors, such as religion, gender, sexual orientation, race, and ethnicity, to name some important ones.

Family systems’ makes several assumptions:

  • A change in one family member affects all family members
  • The family is greater than the sum of its parts.
  • Family systems are inclined to balance change and stability.
  • Family members’ behaviors are best explained by circular causality.
  • A family belongs to a larger social system and encompasses subsystems.
  • A family operates according to established rules.

Let us consider some important family systems’ concepts:

  1. Boundaries: Boundaries refer to interpersonal barriers for individuals and subsystems. Such boundaries dictate or regulate the level of proximity, closeness, or distance, between individuals. Examples of subsystems are to be found in overly close or overly distant relationships. Either of these examples can be considered a dysfunctional family system.
  2. Subsystems: More common subsystems between family members are spousal and parental, sibling, and parent/child.
  3. Rules: Rules are recurring expectations in a family system, and such expectations can be overt or covert, known or unspoken. Such rules are believed to determine how family members relate to one another, who is deemed acceptable and unacceptable within the family, and they the rules may change over time or remain fixed. Treating a 16-year-old with the same curfew rules as the 12-year-old might be an example of a fixed rule that does not flex with time and maturity of the child.
  4. Goals: Family goals, like family rules, may be overt or covert. As with the other systems’ concepts, such goals are impacted by one’s family and culture. An example of an overt goal might be to get a college degree; a more covert goal might be to get a degree that fits in with family expectations. A parent graduated with a social work degree, and this is expected of the child as well.
  5. Roles: One final systems’ concept has to do with roles adopted by family members. Roles involve 2 or more family members and are influenced by age, culture, legal and social expectations. They can be based on gender and are based on social interactions. They may be static or change over time. Such roles would include basic types of roles, such as father, mother, aunt, grandparent, son, daughter. Other roles common in families are hero, rebel, invisible child, enabler, responsible/caregiver, to name common ones.

Family Structure

The family structure is ever changing and can have various effects on the family as they move forward. A traditional family, also known as nuclear family, is defined by Es (2007) as a married couple and their biological children. This is one of the more reinforced family structures in the dominant society. It should be noted that a child starts out with their traditional family, and as they grow, becomes more involved in outside activities, or even moves out to live with others. Thus, the family grows to beyond relatives and includes friends. Another thing to keep in mind is the idea that a child may start out in one type of family structure and then the structure or dynamic of that family may change due to divorce, death, parents marrying again, or even just an addition to the family through adoption, foster care and more.

Such a discussion on family structure begs the question: how do you define family? When you are asked “who is in your family,” how do you respond? Does your definition of family focus on biological ties or the shared history? Would you consider close friends to be “family?”

Family Culture/Values

In the field of social work, it is incredibly important to remember that we are to validate the families we work with and not judge them. We must acknowledge the family’s culture by respecting their belief systems and values. For example, if a family comes to you and you notice that the female is looking down and not making eye contact, consider the fact that in their culture that may be how the female shows respect to her husband, and other authoritative figures. Thus, interacting with the family in the way they feel comfortable (i.e., talking to the husband first etc.) will help one build a solid rapport (close relationship) with the family group.

Enrique et al. (2007), provides the following ideas for working with families:

Working with Families

  • Avoid stereotyping
  • When introducing innovative ideas, materials, and more respect the family’s need for control
  • Recognize the parenting styles being utilized, and their boundaries
  • Recognize that everything may be a family affair with some families
  • Help families notice their strengths within each other
  • Ask for family’s input when producing solutions to conflict
  • Encourage families to plan ways to increase stability and security (i.e., bedtime rituals etc.)
  • Observe and engage with the family to learn the different dynamics (i.e., male head of the household, or is it the female?)
  • Provide opportunities for the family to discuss what their beliefs are about children (should they be seen not heard etc.)
  • Maintain an objective viewpoint when working with conflict within the family system

Child Welfare

Brief History

Child welfare is necessary in our society to help maintain child safety and keep families working cohesively. The Child Welfare Information Gateway (CWIG) (http://www.childwelfare.gov) Defines child welfare as a field of services that aims to protect children and ensure families have the tools to care for their children successfully. Many people see this happen through an agency like the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) which is present in every state. To ensure the safety of children, DHHS is responsible for performing various tasks. These tasks include things like coordinating services to help prevent abuse or neglect and providing services to families who need help protecting and caring for children. They are also responsible for investigating reports of potential abuse and/or neglect, and then determining if alternative placement of children is necessary. They are also in charge of various other aspects including support services to children, achieving reunification, and more. Child protective service workers and foster care workers are the more specific workers in which these work functions are performed.

To get a good overview/understanding of what a child may experience with their family, abuse, and in the Child Welfare System (CPS and Foster Care), please follow this link and watch the two videos provided. Warning, this video may evoke some heavy emotions of sadness, so prepare yourself to watch this video: Removed Film (https://www.removedfilm.com/pages/watch)

Abused children often suffer from trauma throughout their adult lives. Patients that were exposed to trauma in early childhood can express their anxieties through drawings.

Types of Abuse/Traumas

Children involved in the Child Welfare System have often experienced trauma. Trauma is defined by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network as frightening events that are overwhelming to anyone who experiences them (NTCSN, 2017). Often a person feels that their safety is a concern and is on high alert to anticipate what may or may not happen next. There are three diverse types of traumas: acute, chronic, and complex.

Before defining several types of traumas, one must understand that all types of traumas impact the brain. The stress hormone cortisol is released, then creating the fight or flight mentality. These reactions can occur any time after a traumatic experience. The link provided is a video that explains the effects of trauma on the brain and provides many explanations of how one can help others who have experienced trauma: www.changingmindsnow.org.

Acute Trauma/Chronic Trauma

Acute Trauma is a single traumatic incident. An example would be a car accident or even a natural disaster. It may only be a single incident, but it can have lasting effects such as fear of being in a vehicle. Chronic Trauma is a traumatic experience that is repeated over a period. This type of trauma would include domestic violence, and war. Both have lasting effects on many people and the consequences can be hard to overcome.

Complex Trauma

Complex Trauma is a repeated traumatic experience that has been inflicted by a caregiver. This includes, but is not limited to, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and verbal/emotional abuse (also known as psychological abuse). Complex trauma leaves a child confused and conflicted. The person who inflicted harm was supposed to be the one protecting them and keeping them safe. When that does not happen, the child is then in a predicament where they do not know who to trust. A main type of trauma that will be highlighted in this chapter is complex trauma. This type of trauma occurs in various forms of abuse which are defined below.

Abuse comes in many forms including physical, emotional/verbal, and sexual abuse. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN, 2017) physical abuse is defined as any act, completed, or attempted, that physically hurts or injures a child. NCTSN also describes that act of physical abuse includes hitting, kicking, scratching, pulling hair, and more. Child Protection Services typically get reports of bruises, and other noticeable marks when investigating a report of physical abuse.

Emotional abuse is a nonphysical maltreatment of a child through verbal language. NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) states that emotional abuse includes “humiliation, threatening, ignoring, manipulating, and more.” (https://www.nspcc.org.uk/preventing-abuse/child-abuse-and-neglect/emotional-abuse/what-is-emotional-abuse/) Emotional abuse can be combined with other forms of abuse like physical and sexual abuse. Most reports emotional abuse is harder to prove, and thus physical or sexual abuse tends to be the main cause of removal in a home.

Statistics about Sexual Abuse

  • In 2012, 26% of sexually abused victims were ages of 12-14 years. 34% were ages 9 or younger. (CDC, 2022).
  • Center for Disease Control found that 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused before they reach the age of 18.

The link provided is where these statistics were found, and more statistics are available:


Sexual abuse has many facets when it comes to a specific definition. Overall, sexual abuse is a “type of maltreatment, violation, and exploitation that refers to the involvement of the child in sexual activity to provide sexual gratification or financial benefit to the perpetrator. It includes contact for sexual purposes, molestation, statutory rape, prostitution, pornography, exposure, incest, or other sexually exploitative activities.” (American Society for the Positive Care of Children, 2017). The person who inflicted harm will typically use force, threats, or coercion to those who cannot/do not give consent.

Abuse does not always have to be physical, sexual, or verbal assault. It can also be neglected. According to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), neglect is the failure to meet the basic needs of a child. The NSPCC website states that neglect is the most ordinary form of abuse. According to Crossen-Tower (2010) there are three categories of neglect: physical, medical, and emotional. NSPCC adds educational neglect to the list.

Things to Remember When Working with Trauma Victims

When working with children who have been abused, or a family who has experienced trauma, remember that building resiliency is a key factor. Resilience is defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) as having the ability to adapt when facing adversity including trauma (APA, 2017) This, in a sense, means that one can bounce back after facing trauma. However, this does not mean that there will not be any kind of consequence or negative impact because of trauma. A resilient individual will have the tools needed to move past traumatic experiences and potential future traumas.

To help children build resiliency, the APA suggests a variety of different techniques (APA, 2017). One is to help the client build connections. Finding a support person, they can be close to, and trust will help them have the ability to attach and bond appropriately. This, in turn, will also help them be able to work through the events that they have experienced. Another factor is to help them find a positive view of themselves. Trauma can often have a negative effect on the victims’ view of themselves. Building up their confidence will not only help them bounce back from present traumatic experiences but give them the confidence to be able to move past future experiences as well.

Social Work and Foster Care

Just like a CPS worker, a Foster Care worker can come from a variety of backgrounds including social work, criminal justice, and even psychology. Within the role of a Foster Care worker, their ultimate priority is to identify and place children who cannot remain with their parents due to safety concerns. MDHHS has protocols in place which outline the duties of a foster care worker. These include home visits and various other tasks such as interviews with biological parents and schools.

Before a child is placed with a foster family, or if the child is relocating to another foster home, there are protocols that a foster care worker follows. These protocols include providing Medicaid card/records, enrolling, or insuring the children are attending school, and providing education records to the caregiver within five days of placement. If the child is attending the same school, they previously attended then a transportation plan is to be discussed. One last example of what a Foster Care worker does is discussing any revision or plans for parents or siblings to be able to visit the child. Foster Care workers are responsible for visiting a child in the foster home. In a sense, they are searching for the same things a CPS worker would, a safe place to live, ensuring that medical needs are taken care of, and safe sleeping requirements are met, and then gathering information of how the child feels about being placed in that home. They meet with the caregivers as well to discuss various aspects of the child including medical (i.e., doctor visits, dental visits etc.), education, and behaviors portrayed in the home.


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Introduction to Social Work: A Look Across the Profession Copyright © 2022 by James Langford, LCSW and Craig Keaton, PhD, LMSW is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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