Recently, another social work blog site (Social Justice Solutions) published a blog post on “the importance of social work internships” which mentioned attempts to influence the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) to reduce its field placement requirements in its MSW accreditation standards. A petition drive is currently being conducted to eliminate the internship requirement for all BSW and “non-clinical” MSW students, both in the future and retroactively. According to this petition, these students “should have the opportunity to customize their degree based on need, work experience, and desired career path whether this means taking more technology, business, clinical or political sciences courses in lieu of more internship credit hours”.
What this proposal ignores is that the field placement, on either a BSW or MSW level, is more than simply an accumulation of credit hours, but rather an essential process of socialization into a profession that can have profound impact—even life and death—on individuals, families and communities. For example, I think here of the social worker involved in child welfare work—a field of social work that might be characterized by some as “non-clinical”. The professional responsibilities—protecting a child from severe abuse or neglect or evaluating a specious allegation of abuse which might lead to a child being removed from his family—here are immense. Such work requires not only academic study of child development and child welfare policy, but active mentoring in an agency milieu where one develops professional judgment and an ethical perspective in line with social work values.
Even “macro social work” involves similar considerations as the lives and livelihood of community members may be at stake. Also, many “macro” social work positions involve management responsibilities involving oversight of direct practice social workers; without experience “in the trenches”, how can such social work managers effectively discharge such responsibilities?
While certainly some social work students who eschew field internships will “customize” their education in a way that insures professional excellence, many others will simply see this as a shortcut to a professional degree and licensure. For example, in many states, anyone with a CSWE-approved MSW degree can qualify for licensure that enables them to enter private practice of psychotherapy, regardless of whether their MSW education was “clinical” or “non-clinical”. It is not difficult to imagine that some potential students will view a “non-clinical” MSW education without a field placement as a route that will enable them to enter private practice in half the time. And, frankly, the field internship sometimes identifies students with significant character deficits that should preclude them from professional social work practice of any kind.
Given these apparent problems of making the field internship in social work education an elective choice, one wonders why the Network for Social Work Management (NSWM) has given significant exposure to this radical proposal in its website and emails.
Instead of giving BSW and MSW students the options to eschew a field internship, the Council on Social Work Education, as noted in a recent Clinical Social Work Association report, needs to tighten its standards for field placements, requiring students to be placed an actual agencies and institutions, to be supervised in-person by a qualified MSW supervisor, and for social work schools and departments to actually visit, in-person, all agencies not in their immediate communities before student placement.
F. Douglas Stephenson, LCSW, LMFT, BCD
Former President, The Florida Society for Clinical Social Work