Understanding the Value of Social Work: The Story of Mary Ellen Wilson

You may not realize it but, March is National Social Work Month, the month where we recognize and celebrate the work of this nation’s more than 600,000 social workers.

When you think of “social work,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind?  Maybe the answer is in one of these pictures…

SW perception 1

In reality, social workers play an integral role in keeping people safe and advocating for causes and services on behalf of others. America’s social workers serve in hospitals, mental health clinics, military facilities, prisons and schools. About 96 percent of these social workers spend their time on direct client services and 73 percent on consultation. Their services and consults can range from providing mental health services to serving children and families, to addressing health issues and aging.

Despite celebrating community heroes like teachers and first responders, social workers often go unrecognized. Is it due to a lack of understanding? Are there misperceptions of what they do? Is it a lack of visibility in mainstream society or Hollywood? Or is there a stigma that prevents people from openly acknowledging their impact – the idea that working with a social worker is synonymous with an inability to care for oneself or children.

Whatever the reason, we owe social workers respect and gratitude for keeping people safe, especially when it relates to children. In learning to value and appreciate their work, let’s take a look at the history of social work as it relates to child welfare.

SASS-Jane-Addams-quoteIn the late 1800s, Jane Addams became the first social worker and pioneer of social work in the United States. For her work, she became the second woman to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. Many women and men followed, pursuing a career in social work to help alleviate the circumstances of the poor and those mistreated by society.

While Addams paved the way for social workers, Etta Angell Wheeler, a missionary and humanitarian, paved the way for child welfare. She was the first person to shed light on child abuse in the U.S. Wheeler was informed about a young girl, Mary Ellen Wilson, being abused by her caretakers. Neighbors could hear the child screaming and begging for help, but could not do anything to help Mary Ellen.

With the information she had, Wheeler alerted the police. The police couldn’t do anything. They did not have the authority to intervene on suspicions of abuse. They could only act on it if it was an animal. Wheeler sought the help of Henry Bergh, president of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and Elbridge T. Gerry, ASPCA’s lawyer. Bergh and Gerry found a loophole in the law, giving the judge the authority to remove Mary Ellen from her abusive environment.

Not only did Wheeler save Mary Ellen from a life of abuse, Wheelers’ family went on to care for Mary Ellen until she married at the age of 24. After the success of Mary Ellen’s case, the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) worked to extend their laws to protect children and created the NYSPCC, New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Since 1874, social workers have worked to protect children from abuse and neglect. Etta Angell Wheeler may not be the pioneer of child welfare, but she was a driving force in the creation of laws to protect children. Whether working in the school or community setting, social workers strive to support families and keep children safe.

This March let’s work together to show our appreciation to the Wheelers and the Jane Addams of this world for keeping children safe and sound.