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Social Casework

   As the nation turned away from reform, the other branch of young social work became more prominent. Social casework, representing that part of social work which focused more on the individual, had a vital role throughout the progressive period. Social casework's influence actually began to increase shortly before the 1920s.

   World War I provided unique opportunities for social caseworkers to prove the utility of their skills on non-poverty populations. Social work's prestige was raised through work in war-related activities such as the Red Cross's Home Service.  Caseworkers with the home service ,led by Mary Richmond, applied their skills to problems faced by service men and their families.    Physicians, psychiatrists and psychologists working with emotionally disturbed soldiers saw the social worker as a natural ally. They began using caseworkers as specialists in social adjustment.  Such vital activities, were outside the profession's traditional constituency of the poor and indigent and opened up new opportunities for social work.


   The second major event that marked social casework’s ascendancy within social work was the publication of Mary Richmond's Social Diagnosis.  For several decades, Ms. Richmond had been attempting to turn the practical but rough-hewn techniques and skills commonly known as casework into a more systematic approach.   After honing her ideas through workshops, lectures and articles, Ms. Richmond put her ideas into a book which was the first definitive text on casework.

   Much more than just another book, Social Diagnosis, gave to the new field of social work an anchor in its quest for professionalism. In 1915, noted authority of professional education, Abraham Flexner, had delivered a paper at the National Conference On Charities and Corrections declaring that social work was not yet a profession. In his paper, Dr. Flexner was particularly critical of the new field's lack of a technique which was "communicable through the educational process". Mary Richmond,through Social Diagnosis ,gave social work what Dr. Flexner said it was lacking and propelled casework from one of a number of approaches used by charity workers into a major form of practice.

Family Social Work


   Prior to the 1920s, important cornerstones had already been laid in the development of casework principles for working with children and families. In 1918, the leading association for charity organizations, The American Association for Organizing Charity, voted to make its primary area of interest casework with "disorganized" families. Shortly thereafter, the Association changed its name to the American Association for Organizing Family Social Work.

   While the American Association set the agenda, specific charity organizations worked on technique. Big city children's aid programs, such as those in Boston, New York  and Philadelphia, made important contributions to casework before the war. After the war, some of the more progressive organizations linked up with like-minded juvenile courts and Psychiatric Institutes. Working together, they developed a set of guidelines for family social work that included mental and physical evaluations and detailed social histories. Such activities significantly advanced the newly formed field of family social work and served as one of the major conduits for the entry of psychiatric and Freudian theory into family work.

Mary Richmond

An orphan named Annie

Adapted from

Special thanks to the late Professor Dan Huff and Boise State University School of Social Work

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