The role of the social worker in family law

Social Work

What does a social worker do?

If you are going through a divorce, especially if you have children, there may be a social worker involved in helping you and your partner resolve disputes. Social workers are an important part of the divorce process, particularly when it comes to child care and contact arrangements. Sometimes clients are alarmed or offended at the introduction of a social worker, believing it suggests their parenting ability is in question. This is not the case. The social worker’s main function is to ensure the interests of the child come first. It’s no secret that in some divorce proceedings spouses become so embroiled in their own emotional battle that the children are overlooked or…worse…used as ammunition. Social workers are able to assess home environments and make recommendations regarding the welfare of the child. They are also skilled in mediation and may be involved with the couple in a mediated divorce.

What is social work?

Social work focuses on people, groups and communities. It engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing. The goal is to achieve social development, cohesion and empowerment. Central to social work are principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversity.

Who regulates the social worker?

Social work practice is regulated by the South African Council for Social Service Professions (SACSSP), the body entrusted to set and maintain standards of education and practice of the social service professionals (social work and child and youth care work). All social workers must be registered with the Council, which sets out the minimum standards for the academic and practical training requirements needed for registration. The Department of Social Development provides training to all social workers in line with these standards. SACSSP is an autonomous, financially independent, statutory body, established in terms of section 2 of Social Service Professions Act 110 of 1978.

To protect the public and the integrity of the professions, no one may practise social work or child and youth care work without being registered with the SACSSP. Registration is mandatory for anyone wanting to practise in the area of social work, whether at a professional or auxiliary level. The mandate of the SACSSP is fulfilled by the Council, Professional Board for Social Work and Professional Board for Child and Youth Care Work under its auspices, supported by its administrative staff.

Areas of practice

Although child welfare makes up a significant proportion of the total social work caseload, there are other areas of expertise, and a social worker will usually specialise in one or several related areas of practice, including:

  • Social development and policy
  • Community development
  • Family development and guidance
  • Violence and abuse
  • Social work intervention with children and youth
  • Foster care and adoption
  • Statutory services
  • Gerontology (old age, the process of ageing, and the particular challenges faced by old people)
  • Crime prevention
  • Health and mental health
  • Substance abuse
  • People with disabilities
  • Employee assistance programmes
  • Academia and research

Social workers are trained in a wide variety of skills, including couple counselling, family therapy and problem solving. Thus, they are often engaged as mediators in a mediated divorce. In child care disputes, the social worker will evaluate the overall situation and make recommendations to the Family Advocate or the court hearing the divorce case. Often it is the divorce attorney who will appoint the social worker to conduct an investigation or give an expert opinion on whether the proposed agreement is in the child’s best interest or not. Sometimes the Children’s Court or High Court may request a report, for example when considering an application for assignment of guardianship or an application for care and contact.

Code of Conduct

Service to clients is more important to a social worker than their own interests. The SACSSP releases Policy Guidelines for the Course of Conduct, Code of Ethics and the Rules for social workers. The key ethical guidelines are “social justice, respect for people’s value, human rights and dignity, competence, integrity, honesty and professional responsibility”. Social workers apply the principle of self-determination, within the limitations of the client’s abilities and the context of the client’s social needs and problems. Self-determination means the clients should be given the opportunity to make their own choices and decisions, provided those choices do not harm others. However, when it comes to child welfare and child protection, the interests of the child come before the wishes of the parent, if those wishes are not in the best interests of the child. Ultimately the child is the social worker’s client.

Similarly, in mediation, an amicable outcome that allows both partners to move on with dignity and protects the child is more important than either party getting exactly what they want. Because of their commitment to the greater good, the social worker is sometimes viewed as a meddler or an obstacle to a desired outcome. However, social work is a helping profession with a focus on communal as well as individual needs. The goal is to enhance the individual’s quality of life and support their wellbeing, ultimately to deliver a greater return for society. If you’re in the thick of an unpleasant divorce negotiation, it can be hard to see beyond your immediate needs and objectives. The role of the social worker is to help you reach a space where you can see the bigger picture, and to make sure no one gets hurt along the way, least of all your children.

Get professional help with parenting issues

SD Law is a law firm in Cape Town and Johannesburg with expertise in family law. If you are considering divorce or need any help with child care and contact, call Simon on 086 099 5146 or email We’ve helped many families reach agreement on complex parenting issues.

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The information on this website is provided to assist the reader with a general understanding of the law. While we believe the information to be factually accurate, and have taken care in our preparation of these pages, these articles cannot and do not take individual circumstances into account and are not a substitute for personal legal advice. If you have a legal matter that concerns you, please consult a qualified attorney. Simon Dippenaar & Associates takes no responsibility for any action you may take as a result of reading the information contained herein (or the consequences thereof), in the absence of professional legal advice.

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