By James Golden
Tragedy struck the social work profession recently as Pamela Knight, a licensed clinical social worker for the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services, died from injuries sustained when she was brutally beaten by the child’s father as she attempted to take a child into protective custody. Social workers are often called upon to serve, protect, and advocate for those in society who are most vulnerable, and, while Ms. Knight’s death is a rare occurrence in the field of social work, it is unfortunately not without precedent, as several social workers have been killed in the line of duty throughout the country.
While the term “social work” has become a catchall title applied to most any federal, state, or local government position directly involved with child protection or public, there is a significant difference between engaging in the tasks of social work and being a licensed clinical social worker. This is often difficult to parse for those not familiar with the training and ethics of the profession of social work, leading to a public perception of social workers as either naïve do-gooders or wasteful public employees.
Though social work is rooted in centuries of community-focused outreach and advocacy, the vast and rapid cultural changes in post-World War II America required additional and specific expertise to work alongside those in the medical and criminal justice systems to address the emerging realities of a racially, religiously, economically, and socially diverse population.
The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) was created in 1955, and a new approach to addressing social problems that viewed human behavior as inextricably tied to prevailing social forces, joined the ranks of doctors, psychologists, and police officers on the front lines of social change. Though social work’s rise to professionalization was timely, coinciding with the tumult of the 1960s, it was not without peril, as the advocacy efforts of social workers soon became figuratively linked with the cultural shifts taking place in the country and perhaps even viewed as a catalyst for those very changes.
Perhaps it is for this reason that social work has struggled to assert its identity as a knowledgeable and skilled profession that requires the completion of a two-year master’s degree program, state-based licensure, and continuing education to maintain one’s credentials, and the willingness to risk one’s life, as Pamela Knight did, to protect the most vulnerable among us.
Whether working with families coping with the loss of a loved one, or with a young adults battling opioid addiction, or veterans facing the physical and emotional scars of war, the impact of licensed clinical social workers on the well-being of individuals, communities and society as a whole is immeasurable and it would be a shame for it to take the death of another Pamela Knight to remind us of this fact.
By James Golden, Ph.D., MSW is an assistant professor of social work at Daemen College.