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Ian Milligan's picture

Supervision - An essential ingredient in sustaining effective practice

blog by Ian Milligan, International Advisor, CELCIS, University of Strathclyde, Scotland

In social services, the type of supervision we have is quite distinctive – it is meant to be personal, supportive, developmental - things that are not usually associated with supervision as a traditional middle management-type role.

In recent years there have been numerous pieces of research and policy documents aimed at improving supervision –  carried out in countries where social work is well established. The fact that there is much research into supervision in countries where it is well-established, tells you that it is a difficult thing to get right and sustain. That is certainly true in my experience in Scotland and across the UK.

The Alliance Interest Group on Supervision in the Social Service Workforce 

So I have been very happy to be part of the Alliance’s global consultation process on the subject. I was one of the co-chairs of the interest group, working along with Jane Calder, Senior Child Protection Advisor, Asia and Pacific, and Sayed Adrian Mawismi, Assistant Development Officer, Department of Social Welfare in Malaysia. The consultation took place online, and over 60 people took part in a number of discussion and planning calls, exploring the main issues before we split into three working groups.  

Naturally, we had lots of viewpoints, even just about how we should describe what we all talking about! We began by agreeing to a definition and some basic meanings about the various ‘models’ of supervision. We realised that we had to be clear about what we meant in what we hope will be a widely used and translated toolkit. While this toolkit isn’t meant to be exhaustive or the final say on supervision, it is intended to bridge best practices and knowledge on supervision and to provide a toolkit of resources to support the development of supervision.Some of our starting points: there are many countries where supportive supervision is little understood and rarely practiced. There are other countries where social work is a relatively new profession and few people with the experience or capacity to undertake supervision. In some places the State has begun to recruit social workers but often not established systematic systems of supervision. We hope our guidance provides advocacy and resources to address this gap. We also wanted to see if we could find or develop any guidance to deal with the COVID-19 situation and the need for online supervision. We also wanted our guidance to address whole workforce, while recognising much of the literature and practice has been developed within the social work profession. We wanted to look at existing resources and we drew from recent resources published in Namibia, Myanmar and Cambodia to name but three. We also recognised the value in recent work of the Inter-Agency group who produced the Supervision and Coaching package developed for those working in emergency situations but with great relevance to those in development contexts also.

Cover of the Guidance Manual

Group supervision and peer supervision was a topic which came up more than I expected in the interest discussions. My sub-group felt that peer group supervision might be especially useful in countries where social work is an emerging profession, and where there are few experienced managers who can offer reflective supervision.

Bottom up as well as top down

Making supervision happen across an organisation is both a top-down and a bottom-up matter. The Alliance guidance is focused on government and agencies who are responsible for implementing supervision across departments. Yet I believe that all of us who work in social services have a duty to seek the support of a colleague or colleagues and to be honest about how we are getting on in our work, to find those people who understand the role, who will support us and help us improve.

So I’ll be pleased if what we've developed - Guidance Manual on Strengthening Supervision for the Social Service Workforce - can get more people talking about supervision and doing it. Whatever setting we work in, wherever in the world, social service work is personal, it involves working with oppressed groups and people in trouble and often in distress. It is vital we don’t become hardened to trauma, exclusion and injustice. And we must be accountable – are we doing the work we say we are doing – and how are we doing it? We don’t just want to ‘help’ though, we want to empower – it’s pretty demanding to get all that right! Sitting down with a senior colleague or a peer, or in a group – where the agenda is our practice - can be uncomfortable at times. But if we are open-minded and realise we need this space to do the job better, then sitting down with an experienced and supportive person is a good place to be.

Let’s get it in the diary!

Nicole Brown's picture

Social Service Workers Mitigating the Impact of COVID-19

A well-supported, appropriately equipped, empowered, and protected social service workforce is essential to mitigating the damaging effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Social service workers can build on their existing strong ties to children, families, and communities to rapidly respond in ways that are effective.This page includes COVID-19 resources specific to mental health and psychosocial support,child protectioncase managementalternative caregender-based violenceservice provision to vulnerable populationsworking within communities and across sectorscommunications and key messages, and webinars and trainings.

Technical Note: Social Service Workforce Safety and Wellbeing during the COVID-19 Response

COVID Technical Note Cover Image

Our technical note Social Service Workforce Safety and Wellbeing during the COVID-19 Response provides guidance and recommended actions to support the social service workforce and empower them to safely serve children, families, and communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. The document is a collaboration between the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance, UNICEF, International Federation of Social Workers and Alliance for Children Protection in Humanitarian Action.

A webinar was held to review the technical note and learn from country-specific examples of how they are supporting the workforce by developing remote supervision, criteria for determining in-person or remote case management and advocacy strategies to government for workers to be protected and recognized as essential service providers. The full recording and presentations are now available for download

Mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) tools:

Child protection resources:

Case management resources:

Alternative care and separated children:

Gender-based violence:

Service provision to vulnerable populations:

Working within communities and across sectors:

Communications and key messages:

Webinars and Online Trainings

*We are updating this page as new resources are made available. 

Nicole Brown's picture

Policy and Funding Support for the Essential Role of the Social Service Workforce in the COVID-19 Response

COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on individuals and communities, particularly those that have been historically marginalized. National social service systems in many countries have been stretched to respond. As a result, there is increasing recognition of the important role of social service workers, particularly in the areas of child protection, family strengthening, psychosocial support and mental health. To meet the heightened call for a range of services, many governments and non-governmental organizations have increased funding to hire and train more workers and have passed legislation to ensure continuity of services. 

How has your organization supported advocacy efforts for increased funding, greater recognition or policies to deem the social service workforce an essential service provider? Add your voices and engage in the conversation by contributing your comments on this page.

Covid-19 Ethiopia
Tirusew Getachew is a social worker at a quarantine centre in Ethiopia, where her work includes needs assessment, family tracing and family reunification. UNICEFEthiopia/2020/NahomTesfaye

Global advocacy for recognition as essential service providers
Multiple global entities have advocated for social workers and other social service workers to be considered essential service providers and are raising awareness of their daily work.

The Statement from U.N. Secretary General António Guterres and a letter from the Group of Friends of Children and the SDGs, endorsed by more than 160 member states, highlight the importance of holistic COVID-19 response plans that ensure well-being and healthy development of children. It calls on national governments and multilateral institutions to work immediately to strengthen ‘child protection in COVID-19’ response frameworks and to provide sufficient donor support to implement these responses effectively. The statement calls for several actions including to: Designate members of the social service workforce (SSW) as essential to prevent and respond to child protection risks; Provide them with appropriate Infection Prevention and Control training, and equip them with personal protective equipment in accordance with World Health Organization (WHO) guidance and national laws; and Ensure that resources are available for national governments and humanitarian actors to fully implement these responses, recognizing the traditional gaps in child protection funding in past humanitarian aid expenditures.

The Joint Leaders’ Statement from global organizations working to end violence against children “calls on governments, the international community and leaders in every sector to urgently respond with a united effort to protect children from the heightened risk of violence, exploitation and abuse as part of the broader response to COVID-19. Governments have a central role to play. They must ensure that COVID-19 prevention and response plans integrate age appropriate and gender sensitive measures to protect all children from violence, neglect and abuse. Child protection services and workers must be designated as essential and resourced accordingly. Working with and supporting governments, our collective response must include: maintaining essential health and social welfare services, including mental health and psychosocial support; providing child protection case management and emergency alternative care arrangements; ensuring social protection for the most vulnerable children and households; continuing care and protection for children in institutions; and communicating with and engaging parents, caregivers and children themselves with evidence-based information and advice.

As an example of advocacy and interagency coordination, the Ugandan government issued a declaration that district probation and community development officers should sit on district intersectoral COVID-19 task forces across the country. These staff are primarily professional social workers, and they are meant to highlight issues of child protection, gender based violence, disability and psychosocial support so that these issues are addressed by the COVID-19 task forces.

National policy support
In many countries, social service workers are advocating for their work to be considered essential so that services continue. Many professional associations and organizations have been successful in attaining recognition by governments for social service workers as frontline service providers in order to continue and adapt social services. 

Under the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988 (Act 342) in Malaysia, social service workers are considered among essential service providers. Funding has also been allocated for ongoing training and acquiring new skills and knowledge to meet new and increasing needs. 

In states and cities throughout the United States, social workers, case workers and other social service workers have been declared as essential service providers and given flexibility in determining continuity of services. 

When the government closed all social services in Romania, the social work association successfully lobbied ministers to overturn the decision. Then, mobile teams of local law enforcement and social service workers worked in tandem to increase door deliveries of basic food and hygiene products to vulnerable groups, including single parent households, Roma populations and children with disabilities. 

The National Association of Social Workers Uganda brought together many organizations to advocate for social service workers to be recognized as essential service providers and to obtain PPE and an allowance for those working at the quarantine centers. With an expected 2,500 people returning to Uganda from other countries, there is great need for psychosocial support at the quarantine centers. To assist with emergecy mobilization of qualified first responders, the Association is compiling a list of qualified social workers who are ready and able to respond. When the Child Helpline closed during lockdown, the Association and partners also advocated for it to reopen and be recognized as an essential service. 

The South African Council on Social Service Professionals, representing social workers and child and youth care workers, actively advocated to relevant ministries to ensure properly licensed practitioners are considered essential service providers to be able to continue meeting the needs of communities; safety of workers is taken into account by employers; and a permissive work environment is created to ensure maximum service excellence. They worked closely with the Minister on development of policies and directives for social service workers to continue services during lockdown. “I would like to pay special tribute to all our service workers, and particularly our social work professionals, all support staff, as well as professional volunteers, who are out there every day, working hard to ensure that services to the most vulnerable continue, whilst dealing with the personal health threat of contracting the coronavirus,” said Western Cape Minister of Social Development Sharna Fernandez

Guidance for Social Workers During Covid-19 Response in Malawi, developed by the Association of Social Workers in Malawi and UNICEF, provides categories of essential social services that must be continued to meet the needs of vulnerable people during COVID-19 and the essential promotive, preventative and responsive functions of the social service workforce. The guidance sets out instructions and key principles related to COVID-19 for all social workers and para-professionals in Malawi, and their employers in government and non- governmental organizations to safely support children, families, and communities; raise professional concerns and questions; and request appropriate support and guidance from employers. 

In the Philippines, Proclamation No. 922 authorized hazard pay to government personnel who physically reported to work during quarantine for COVID-19. Public social workers were among the cadres of workers and personnel eligible to receive hazard pay for each day they were physically reporting for work. 

Increasing workforce numbers and capacity
With COVID-19 funding from USAID, the Government of Cambodia has hired 20 new social workers (in addition to 17 already working in priority provinces for care reform) for four months to provide the additional support during COVID-19. With this new deployment, every province in the country now has a social worker. In particular, these workers are focusing on case management, child protection and prevention of family separation. 

In Bangladesh, where there was an increase of four times the number of calls to the Child Helpline between February and April, UNICEF advocated to the government to reopen child courts, continue birth registration and hire more workers. The country had 3,000 social service workers before the onset of COVID-19 but needs at least 80,000 to meet typical needs. Online training was conducted for new social workers who were hired to assist the Child Helpline center, support institutions and places of detention, and work in key urban and field locations. Advocacy efforts resulted in social workers being considered as essential, critical and lifesaving. 

With 170,263 children affected by COVID-19 school closures in Bhutan, the Ministry of Education activated the Education Emergency Operation Centre under which a mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) sub desk was created. To ensure the provision of MHPSS to children, parents and caregivers in need, 147 school counsellors from 20 districts were each assigned a set number of schools to work with. With support from UNICEF, a guidance note on provision of remote PSS to parents and caregivers in Bhutan was developed to support the counsellors and other front liners working with families. All 147 school counsellors (80 male and 76 female) have been trained on how to provide psychosocial support remotely to parents and caregivers and face to face structured psychosocial support to children once the schools reopen. Laja Wangchuk, a participant, said, “The training helped me enhance my professional service delivery in time of the emergency. Especially at this COVID-19 emergency period, students, staff, parents and general public are stressed out more than the usual.” 

In South Africa, a database has been launched for unemployed and graduated social workers to enroll to help in filling roles and hiring of qualified workers. Additionally, a partnership between the National Department of Social Development, HWSETA and University of the Witwatersrand Health Consortium is placing 1,210 newly qualified social work graduates in social development and health roles. 

Community Social Workers (CSW) are a part of the frontline workforce in Armenia. In April 2020, the “Community Level Access to Social Services” (CLASS) project, funded by USAID/DCOF, conducted a needs assessment in the communities to have a clear picture of the CSW role in the communities during the COVID-19 pandemic under the conditions of the lockdown. CSWs work for local governments in a village or cluster of villages with a population of 5,000 or more. Through the end of April, 14,933 families received services, including support in applying for state programs/ resources, referrals to public organizations /programs, financial support, emergency care packages and home visits. In response to the vastly increased workload and burnout of the community social workers who started working 24/7, four additional senior social workers were hired. They keep in touch with the CSWs assigned to them on a daily basis and provide educational, professional and supportive supervision. World Vision is providing training and technical supervision to these 86 CSWs. 

COVID-19 is taking a toll on the mental health & psychosocial well-being of children & caregivers. UNICEF is also supporting governments in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Tanzania to strengthen the capacity of social workers to provide MHPSS services and deliver other interventions. And in Ethoipia, UNICEF is working closely with the Addis Ababa Bureau of Women, Children and Youth for recruitment, training and deployment of social workers in quarantine centers.

The Iran Association of Social Workers established a system for direct consultative and supervision support to social workers by enlisting 60 university professors and managers of social organizations. A list of specialized areas, available times and mobile phone numbers were provided to social workers to connect with them. The Association also provided an update to the President of Iran on social workers’ responses during the pandemic to gain greater support. 

Integration of social and health services
When social service workers are included in integrated health services and work alongside health workers and other allied workforces, everyone wins. During this unprecedented public health pandemic, social service workers are once again proving the essential, frontline role they play in caring for and protecting individuals and communities. The Alliance recently conducted a survey to gain insight on how social service workers are responding during COVID-19. Survey results show that 28% of social service workers are supporting health staff in provision of health services. 

Medical social workers in Nigeria
Medical social workers in Nigeria

Medical social workers in Nigeria are working alongside health workers as frontline workers by providing psychosocial support and community contact tracing. In Colombia, the government launched a cross-institutional social and health framework with the goal of providing better services in order to reduce the high child mortality rates associated with all types of violence. Evidence from South Africa has shown that including child protection alongside health services contributes to supporting HIV prevention goals. These lessons are being applied to the current COVID-19 response to ensure that the work of the social service workforce is included in health responses. 

In Croatia, workers are prioritizing services to middle and high-risk families, and based on case manager assessments, families at high risk are supported with face-to-face services. To meet the growing needs for responsive services to respond to reports of family violence, the Ministry has established special crisis teams. 

Resources to Increase Support
To support social service workers in advocacy efforts for greater planning, development and support while ensuring safety and well-being during the COVID-19 response, the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance has collaborated with the Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action, UNICEF and IFSW on a technical note. The Safety and Wellbeing of the Social Service Workforce during COVID-19 Response: Recommended Actions outlines how a well-supported, appropriately equipped, empowered, and protected social service workforce is essential to mitigating the damaging effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The document also  provides guidance on how to support the social service workforce and empower them to safely serve children, families, and communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance has developed advocacy materials to support the workforce in advocating for increased support, including a Global Advocacy Toolkit for the Social Service Workforce and a Call to Action: Strengthening the Social Service Workforce to Better Protect Children and Achieve the SDGs

Several other technical notes also call for recognition for child protection and other roles of the social service workforce to be designed as essential, including: COVID-19: Protecting Children from Violence, Abuse, and Neglect in the Home; Working with Communities to Keep Children Safe; and Protection of Children during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Children and Alternative Care. Other technical notes relevant to the social service workforce can be found on the Alliance website.

Share Wins for the Social Service Workforce
This is an unprecedented time to advocate for the social service workforce. The International Federation of Social Workers, in a recent article, noted the speed at which change is taking place regarding recognition of the role of social workers, stating, “Change in the delivery of social services normally takes years. There are exceptions, where political direction coincides with the aspirations of the communities and social services workforce, but these are rare. The journey over the last five months is something new: a change at global level caused by a pandemic, where social workers have been and continue to be at the forefront advocating and leading change in nearly every country.” 

It is important to capture and highlight achievements that are happening at such speed. This blog only begins to list the many policy and funding wins achieved by the social service workforce due to their essential role during the COVID-19 response. We encourage everyone to share wins your organization or association has helped to achieve so others can learn from these successes and together, we can jointly advocate for continued change. What advocacy efforts have you undertaken? How has the social service workforce received greater funding support or policy recognition? Add your voices and engage in the conversation by contributing your comments here.

Nicole Brown's picture

Statement on Promoting Social Justice and Human Rights

The recent deaths of African Americans at the hands of police in the United States are not isolated incidents, rather the result of deep-rooted racism that has existed in many forms for far too long. We’re heartbroken, angry and frustrated, like so many are right now. In any circumstance like this, in any place around the globe, staying silent only allows these actions to continue. We must continue to challenge ourselves to not only recognize racism and violations of human rights in all forms, but respond, react and call out those actions. It will take all of us.  

As a network of social service workers across the globe, we recognize the importance of bringing together individuals and groups across sectors in dialogue and actions to address the root causes of racism. Social service workers are needed now more than ever to work alongside leaders who are committed to a peaceful path to justice. Social service workers engage people, structures and organizations to: facilitate access to needed services; alleviate poverty; challenge and reduce discrimination; promote social justice and human rights; and prevent and respond to violence, abuse, exploitation, neglect and family separation. 

We are committed to remaining true to the values that guide social service workers every day – to uphold and recognize human dignity, and protect and promote fundamental rights of people, particularly the most marginalized and excluded. Many of our members live in countries that have experienced overt and underlying systemic racism. We all have the opportunity to learn from one another and be better together. We have hope that this time will result in constructively moving dialogue and actions forward, together.

Nicole Brown's picture

Celebrating the Important Role of Child and Youth Care Workers

Jakes Jacobs serves breakfast to boys living on the streets of Cape Town, South Africa in order to develop a rapport with the kids. Shelton Tshuna ensures children affected by HIV in Chinotima, Zimbabwe, receive ART treatments and attend school. In Umbumbulu, South Africa, Lungi Mkhize provides development and therapeutic care to vulnerable and at-risk youth.

Child and youth care workers (CYCWs) focus on the infant, child and adolescent within the context of family, the community and the life span. This unique work is carried out wherever children live, play or learn.

This week, during the annual Child and Youth Care Workers’ Week and on Thank a Youth Worker Day, we recognize the passionate contributions and dedication of those in the child and youth care field. This special week is an opportunity to celebrate the important role this cadre plays in improving wellbeing for vulnerable children while sharing information about this growing profession.

The 1992 meeting of the International Child and Youth Care Education Consortium adopted a formal definition of child and youth care practice: Child and Youth Care practice includes skills in assessing client and program needs, designing and implementing programs and planned environments, integrating developmental, preventive and therapeutic requirements into the life space, contributing to the development of knowledge and professions, and participating in systems interventions through direct care, supervision, administration, teaching, research, consultation and advocacy.

CYCWs build relationships with children through interaction in typical daily routines. They act as a child’s confidant and provide support in any area as needed in a child’s life. They stay with the child and family until their help is no longer needed.

For Jakes Jacobs and his colleagues, building relationships starts by cooking breakfast for street children at a drop-in center, where they discuss street life, careers, family, drugs and gangs. “It takes time to win their trust,” he says. He then follows up on what the children tell him by making home visits to assess a child’s family’s situation, provide food or school uniforms if needed, and determines if reintegration is possible. In his experience, it can take two to three years of hard work to persuade a child who has been on the streets for some time to begin to risk change. “If there are tantrums and crying along the way, these signal success because they show engagement. These signs of engagement are markers in the progression from street life to shelter to a children’s home to the family home of origin.”

As the profession continues to grow, so, too, do the opportunities for career advancement. There are now many universities around the globe offering advanced degrees in child and youth care work as well as many specialized certificate programs for the myriad of skills necessary for this career path. Several organizations and professional associations have been created specifically to support child and youth care workers.

One such association is the National Association of Child Care Workers in South Africa, for which Lungi works. They have developed a unique model for training child and youth care workers to meet needs in their immediate communities. Meaning “courage” in IsiZulu, the Isibindi program is training 10,000 child and youth care workers through a five-year scale up funded by PEPFAR through USAID.

“I’m happy to advocate for child and youth and be of service in 18 different communities in my area,” says Lungi. “I’m also proud to have had an impact on over 400 orphaned, vulnerable and at-risk children, youth and their families. One must always remember that if you help a child develop, you help our nation develop.”

Aspects of the Isibindi program are being replicated or built upon by the National Association of Child Care Workers Zambia and the governments of Zimbabwe and Kenya.

The Para Professional Interest Group of the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance has drawn from the expertise of NACCW and many others to develop a competency framework, guiding principles and functions for para professionals that includes a section on functions and competencies specific to child and youth care workers. The framework has been field tested and the first edition was released during Social Service Workforce Week in September 2015.

While this week is a specific occasion to recognize and thank people like Jakes, Shelton and Lungi, every day of the year we are appreciative to the hard work of the countless CYCWs who make a difference in our communities.

You can help recognize and promote the work of child and youth care workers. Learn more about child and youth care work from these organizations:

Carolyn Moore's picture

Social Service Workers Leading the Way to Better Nutrition for Vulnerable Children

During their first years of life, children develop brain architecture and establish a foundation for life-long health and learning. Malnutrition interrupts this process, and children who experience adversity are at the highest risks of malnutrition. This blog will explore how social service workers are working to prevent malnutrition in vulnerable children; and how capacity building and stronger systems can lead to better development outcomes for all children. 

Nutrition, disability, and the right to family care 

VietnamVulnerable children, including those with disabilities and those without family care, face some of the highest risks of malnutrition. Children with disabilities are three times as likely to be malnourished; and SPOON’s work has shown rates of malnutrition as high as 91% in residential care facilities. Around 80% of children with disabilities have feeding difficulties, and specialized feeding support is limited in most low- and middle-income countries. 

In residential care facilities, staff typically do not receive training on nutrition best practices, and children often miss out on nutrition and nurturing care at critical developmental windows. Globally, the social welfare community is working to develop childcare systems that fulfill every child’s right to family life. A strong foundation of nutrition helps to prepare children for community life and contributes to the success of care reform efforts. 

While malnutrition is a significant challenge, it is preventable. SPOON equips social service workers and caregivers to prevent and respond to malnutrition in these highly vulnerable children by linking children and caregivers with the individualized support they need. 

Embedding nutrition in the social service system in Vietnam  

In Vietnam, child malnutrition is high nationally, with vulnerable children particularly at risk. SPOON, International Social Service, and the government of Vietnam are working together to support social service workers to respond to the nutrition and feeding needs of children with disabilities living in institutions and those living outside of, or returning to, family care.   

In Vietnam, SPOON has equipped a team of Master Trainers from the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs with knowledge, skills, and tools in growth monitoring, anemia prevention, and improved feeding practices for children with disabilities. These Master Trainers are training children’s caregivers to improve nutrition and feeding practices by using SPOON’s app, Count Me In, to track children’s growth, detect anemia, and assess feeding practices. Data from Count Me In helps caregivers implement individualized care plans for each child, and improve nutrition and feeding practices across community or residential care sites. Their work is reducing rates of malnutrition and improving children’s health, development, and chances for a successful return to family care. 

This program also aims to prepare children with disabilities as they to transition to community settings into family care through supporting the government in building a reintegration pilot. The long-term goal is to equip the social service workforce with knowledge and skills to include the unique feeding and nutrition needs in the case management of children during the reintegration process, and to support families to care for children with disabilities. 

Scaling social service workers’ impact in nutrition 

With strong training and tools, social service workers can support caregivers and link them with services to prevent malnutrition in vulnerable children. SPOON has seen significant improvements in nutrition outcomes with this approach, with stunting halved across our programs. To make this a reality at scale, social service champions need to ensure that appropriate training and support are in place and that children who need specialized care and treatment are linked with the health system. Nutrition must be included in policies and programs that seek to improve children’s development. With supportive policies, consistent capacity development, and strong systems, social service workers can ensure that all children meet their potential.

By Carolyn Moore and Tammy Teske, SPOON. SPOON is a global nonprofit empowering caregivers to nourish children who are highly vulnerable to malnutrition. Learn more about our work at

Heather Modlin's picture

Self-Care in the Social Service Workforce

by Heather Modlin, PhD, Provincial Director, Key Assets Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada

Self-care is a hot topic these days, particularly for those of us in a helping profession. We know that working closely with people who are struggling makes us vulnerable to struggling ourselves. As we interface with the pain of others we are susceptible to experiencing vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue and burnout. Add to this the long hours, isolation and shortage of resources with which many in the social service workforce are familiar and the risks multiply. It is important to acknowledge the toll that working in this sector can have on practitioners and openly discuss ways in which the risks can be mediated. 

I am not a fan of the traditional self-care rhetoric. While there is nothing wrong with taking care of ourselves, I am concerned that sometimes the discourse on self-care crosses over into self-indulgence. Self-care is really about monitoring and knowing ourselves, taking responsibility for ourselves and making sure that we are the best we can be in every functional domain. Self-care is about continuous growth and development. 

The most useful self-care framework I have come across, from the Child Welfare League of Canada, that focuses on helping people recognize what gives them energy and what depletes their energy across various functional domains. Download in pdf format.   

Self care framework

The premise of this framework is that we can’t – nor do we need to – stop doing the things that deplete our energy. We just need to ensure that as we use up energy, we concurrently create energy. We also need to recognize that this must be individualized – generalized self-care platitudes can be harmful when we assume that they apply to everyone in the same way. Let me provide an example. 

Several years ago I was teaching a group of child and youth care students in their last semester of a two year diploma program.  These bright and committed students, who until this semester had been showing up for class enthusiastic and eager to participate in the learning process, were now dragging themselves through the door, looking tired and demoralized, muttering under their breath about how burnt out they were. I was concerned about them and also curious about how they had gotten to this place, and I decided to spend a day exploring self-care. We did the exercise above. One of the students was a single parent. In addition to attending school full-time and raising her three children, she had worked a part-time job in the retail sector. Bowing to pressure from her family and friends that she was going to “burn herself out” she quit her job. When she completed her self-care table, she identified that the things that depleted her energy were her children and school. Being at work, in a job she loved, gave her energy. In a misguided effort to prevent herself from becoming stressed out, this student gave up the part of her life that was keeping her energized. Even worse, some of the activities she had engaged in with her children, that gave her energy, were no longer affordable since she had lost the income from her job. After doing this exercise, the student went back to work and her symptoms of “burn out” immediately disappeared. 

This example is not representative of all situations, and it does not reflect scenarios in which employees are negatively impacted by the stress of the job. This example is also not intended to imply that burn out is not a real thing – it is. Sometimes, however, when we think we are burnt out we may be just tired. We may need to get our energy back up. To do this, we need to know ourselves and we need to recognize what we have the capacity to control. We may not be able to control our work hours, our organizational environment, the challenges of the work itself, or even what consumes our time outside of work, but we can control our mindset. This is where self-care starts.

Related Resources 

As we wrap up Social Service Workforce Week with this focus on the importance of self-care for the social service workforce, some suggested further reading:

Nino Shatberashvili's picture

Addressing Violence and Stress through Multi-Disciplinary Teams in School Settings

by Nino Shatberashvili, PhD, MSW, Deputy Head, Office of Resource Officers of the Educational Institutions, Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sports, Georgia 

Standing at the vanguard of social work development in the educational setting, I feel excited, responsible, motivated and curious. 

Social work is still a relatively a new profession in Georgia, in comparison to other countries, where it has been already developed for a century, and in comparison to other supportive professions in my own country. I myself grew with this profession, when I entered it in 1999, and have supported it by helping to found the Georgian Association of Social Workers. The maturity of a profession relates to the length of its development, the historical moment it was introduced, the tradition on which it was developed, the sphere from which it introduced itself in the society. All of these mold its image. 

A newly adopted law on social work legitimizes, though does not limit to, four core directions of the profession: child welfare, justice, health and educational social worker. It also emphasizes the role of a social worker at the municipal level. So far only central level statutory social workers exist, and they are limited with their responses to referrals and unable to provide outreach services. 

Currently I am a deputy head of the Office of Resource Officers of the Educational Institutions under the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sports of Georgia, curating psycho-social services. The center hires 55 specialists: social workers, psychologists and child psychiatrists to be based in 10 locations across the country. We are serving children from ages 6 to young teens who exhibit emotional, behavioral or destructive behavior. Sometimes neither school nor society or the family is aware of their needs. Or there are situations when the case doesn’t yet meet the criteria to be reported to the police, Social Service Agency or our Psych-Social Center. Sometimes, there is reluctance to report the case for number or reasons. It is quite difficult to maintain a golden standard - not to rush to report cases for which you feel resourceful or have already taken concrete steps and are seeing results and vice versa. But we have to move to this direction. 

School is a quite complex social organism. As school definitely is the place to teach children how to behave and support their personal growth and development, it also is not an institution for the treatment of behavioral problems. Though the need has to be addressed. Any kind of problem, be it discrimination, violence, oppression flourishes in silence and wilts only when and if discussed. Therefore, supportive professionals have a huge role in school setting.   

I see social work in educational settings as assisting children, teachers, parents to not only cope with difficulties and stress that comes with change, but to support them to exercise their resiliency. 

We are planning for social workers to work with school officers, teachers, administration and parents not to neglect the problems, cases of violence, bullying, as it will fuel over representation of exclusion, stress etc. School absenteeism is often attributable to feelings of being excluded or not fitting into the school network. Social workers have to promote children’s social success in par with academic success. They have to identify, assess and intervene. 

Recently, I was impressed when referred by my dear colleague Mark Doel to Rachel Bramble’s work on school social work methods. She emphasizes that children are assessed on everything but not happiness, and this is true for the majority of countries. But this is a component of welfare and well-being. How can they be socially effective, successful? This is quite challenging. 

Another challenge is to find its role among other professionals and decide when to act as a stand alone professional and when to step in multidisciplinary setting, as there is no clear-cut standpoint on when a monodisci­plinary solution is not enough and a multidisciplinary approach may be more effective. They need to be confident on how to address these issues not only individually but at the school level too. We must conduct strengths-based interventions to empower students to become the kind of person they want to become.

OYINLOLA Oluwagbemiga's picture

Improving Mental Health through Social Work in Hospital Settings

Oluwagbemiga Oyinlola

Social workers in hospitals settings help support psychosocial wellbeing for patients and staff. Within the hospital, a medical social worker is an important member of the multidisciplinary team of health professionals, which can include medical doctors, nurses, clinical psychologists, laboratory sciences, medico-legal services, occupational therapists, recreational therapists, etc. By addressing the interrelationships of physical, emotional and social factors that are present in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of patients in the hospital, medical social workers play a major role in a patient’s care. They are also key to effective discharge planning for patients by ensuring an adequate and conducive environment after leaving the hospital. Their support is especially critical when working with patients with mental health issues.

Family support groups as a means toward improved mental health outcomes

WSWD2018 NigeriaOne specific aspect of care that medical social workers coordinate at the University College Hospital in the city of Ibadan is family support groups for patients with mental illness. As the first family support for patients with mental illness in Nigeria, the groups have been in existence since 2014 through generous donations from individuals and medical doctors at the hospital. The purpose of the group is to promote mental health among the patients and their family members, educate on mental health issues with the general public, reduce the rate of relapse, and serve as advocates for the rights of persons with mental illness in the country. The medical social workers also help to navigate the diversity of culture, traditions and beliefs surrounding stigmatisation for mental health illness and mental health services. 

The family support group currently has a total of 671 members, largely comprised of previously admitted patients from different regions, communities and states in Nigeria. Medical social workers facilitate the weekly group meetings, giving lectures on specific topics and conducting modules on mental health issues. Oftentimes, individual therapy sessions are organised to address specific health and well-being concerns. The social worker often provides relapse prevention services by linking individuals with existing mental health facilities in his/her community or providing medication subsidies. The support group also participates annually in World Mental Health Day on October 10 with a phone-in programme, road walks and distribution of educational information to the general public in the city of Ibadan. The advocacy efforts have created great momentum in Ibadan and other parts of Nigeria, resulting in several other hospitals in other regions replicating the programme through the technical support of medical social workers from the University College Hospital. 

About Medical Social Work

In Nigeria, Medical Social Services started at the University College Hospital, Ibadan, in 1957, with only five Nigerian medical social workers providing psychosocial services in collaboration with an Irish trained social worker. Today, that number has grown to more than 2,500 medical social workers practicing in all 36 states plus the federal capital territory in Nigeria. They all hold both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in social work and are registered members of the Association of the Medical Social Workers of Nigeria (AMSWON). Their work includes:

  1. To collaborate with other professionals to evaluate patients’ medical or physical condition and to assess clinical needs
  2. They advocate for clients or patients to resolve crisis.
  3. They refer patients or family to community resources to assist in recovery from mental or physical illness and to provide access to services such as financial assistance, legal, housing, job placement or education.
  4. They investigate child abuses or neglect cases and take authorized protective action when necessary.
  5. They counsel patients in individual and group sessions to help them overcome dependencies, recover from illness and adjust to life.
  6. They plan discharge from care facility to home or other care facility.
  7. They monitor, evaluate and record patient’s progress according to measurable goals described in treatment and care plan.
  8. Identify environmental impediment to patient progress through interviews and review of patient records
  9. Organise support groups or counsel family members to assist them in understanding, dealing with and supporting the patient. 

About the Author

Oluwagbemiga Oyinlola provides clinical social services, research and training in his capacity as a registered Senior Medical Social Worker at University College Hospital in Ibadan, Nigeria. He popularised the use of community-based mobile courts for the prevention of domestic violence in the rural areas of Ekiti State. He was also involved in the development of the Ekiti State Gender-Based Violence Prohibition Bill of 2011. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Social Work and Community Development and a master’s degree in Social Work. He was a 2018 commonwealth fellow at the University of Southampton, UK. He is currently the steering chair of Social Work Technology in Africa, an NGO with more than 300 members from eight African countries. He is also currently the Assistant General Secretary of the Association of Medical Social Workers of Nigeria.

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Engaging the Global Social Service Workforce to Protect Children on the Move

by International Social Service-USA

Of the close to 260 million migrants around the world, an estimated 50 million are children who have left home as a result of poverty, war and other life-threatening circumstances .[i],[ii] In the United States, there is increased attention over the past few years, to the hundreds of thousands of Central American migrants seeking safety at the US-Mexico border, including tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors.[iii] The conversation about the future for these children has largely been taking place in the context of legal aid, with millions of dollars invested in the legal defense of unaccompanied and separated children. Meanwhile, there has been little attention to or investment in, their social service needs. While many children seek relief through the backlogged US asylum system, few petitions are granted. The vast majority remain in the US with limited access to services and vulnerable to deportation. However, others seek voluntary return to a home country. It is for these children in particular that a robust global social service workforce is crucial to ensuring long term safety. 

Children on the Move include migrant, refugee, trafficked or other asylum-seeking children who leave home with family or on their own to seek a better life. Most are fleeing danger, including natural disasters, war, armed conflict or other violence.[iv] Children on the move present unique challenges to the coordination of social services as they cross state and international borders and engage with multiple judicial and protection systems that often lack coordination. It is at the nexus of legal, judicial and protection systems that social service workforce has a vital role to play, particularly social service case management. 

Social workers and case managers identify, engage, and coordinate services for children.  This includes legal aid groups, psychosocial resources, medical and educational systems and other supports that help children return to, and remain safe, in their communities. When working with children on the move, the missing piece is cross-border case management that includes pre-departure planning, the development of a repatriation and reintegration service plan, and on-going case management upon return.

International Social Service-USA (ISS-USA), is the US branch of an international network of social service providers present in 130 countries. ISS-USA has been providing cross border case management and permanency planning services for migrating children and families for more than 90 years. The extensive knowledge gained by International Social Service (ISS) network partners working with migrating children and families over the years has allowed the network to author/co-author several key guidelines to best practices, most recently, Children on the Move: From Protection Towards a Quality Sustainable Solution, A Practical Guide. In addition to presenting policy and advocacy recommendations, the Guidelines provide action steps for social service professionals, regardless of their country context, to work with children on the move and ensure long term solutions in the best interest of the child.

ISS-USA’s current Family Reunification and Reintegration program in Guatemala is an example of how the Guidelines can be put into practice. ISS-USA case managers coordinate with  US-based providers working with unaccompanied and separated children, as well as with the ISS partner social workers in Guatemala. The local Guatemalan social worker conducts assessments and resource mapping, working with the family prior to the child’s return to develop a service plan and engage local resources to stabilize the child’s reintegration. Once the child arrives in Guatemala, the social worker accompanies the family for six months, helping them access a variety of services including housing and nutritional support, medical and mental health services, educational and vocational programs and other social service supports based on the family’s needs and wishes.  

Preparing for the possibility of a child’s return to his or her country of origin is not equivalent to advocating for a child’s forced removal or aiding in enforcement policies. Rather, engaging a network of social service professionals across borders and disciplines ensures that decisions made for each individual child are factually-informed, abide by international law, and are based in internationally-recognized best practices in child protection.


To learn more about best practices related to Children on the Move, check out ISS-USA’s October conference Beyond Separation: Protecting Cross Border Families).