Greater mobility benefits social workers, clients, and the entire profession

Christina Wong, LCSW
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Imagine a social worker in Vermont is taking the train to Boston when they receive an urgent call from a client. As the client speaks about a personal crisis, the social worker interrupts and says they must end the call because the train is crossing the state line into New Hampshire. As the client pleads to continue the call, the social worker explains that unfortunately they are not licensed to practice in New Hampshire or Massachusetts, only in Vermont.

This scenario may sound far-fetched, but without social work mobility, or the ability to easily transfer our social work licenses across state lines, it is actually a possibility. And it’s an example of why the social work profession should establish greater license portability.

Views from the field

This commentary is part of a series that shares the perspectives of social work thought leaders, focusing on licensing, regulation, and the exams.

We are already facing a shortage of licensed social workers and mental health professionals, making it more important that we work to break down barriers. We need to remove obstacles that social workers face when they move to a different jurisdiction. These unnecessary roadblocks could include having to retake the licensing exam or even restart the whole process from the beginning, even if a social worker has been practicing for years in good standing.

While some progress has been made in this area, there’s still more we have to do to ensure equitable access to entering the social work profession. One key aspect of improving mobility is having licensing exams that are consistent—and used—across the entire profession.

Social work is a calling, and we should encourage and support those who have a passion for this work however we can—including by increasing mobility and breaking down barriers.

The Association of Social Work Boards offers licensing exams that provide an objective measure of competence to practice safely and ethically across all jurisdictions. These exams provide quality assurance and protection for the public. Clients everywhere know that a licensed social worker has demonstrated the minimum competency needed to practice.

As a result, if social workers are taking the same exam, we can make the case that licenses resulting from passing scores on that exam, in conjunction with education and required supervised practice experience, are transferable to various locations around the country.

That’s why some states, including California, are implementing greater mobility, making it easier for out-of-state licensees to continue practicing when they move.

As the past chair of the California Board of Behavioral Sciences, I have seen the benefits of this increased mobility. Our policy change increased the number of social workers in the state and opened doors for a more diverse population of social workers. It has helped our state improve client services and focus more on the core of social work—helping others.

I’ve also seen the benefits of mobility on a personal level. In my time in the social work field, I’ve served in many different roles in different locations, including Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, and now California. Without the ability to transfer my license, I would not have been able to have such a meaningful and impactful career in social work. I believe other social workers should be able to experience the same easy transitions, successes, and satisfaction in their careers.

Social work is a calling, and we should encourage and support those who have a passion for this work however we can—including by increasing mobility and breaking down barriers. Uniformity in licensure requirements, including the exam, and greater mobility across jurisdictions are critical for ensuring that social workers are fulfilled, our clients are supported, and the profession continues to move forward and be a pioneer in mobility and expanding services.

Christina Wong, LCSW, a Hong Kong native and proud immigrant, came to the United States in her thirties. She has more than 30 years of experience in micro, mezzo, and macro levels of social work practice—public mental health, private practice, clinical supervision, program administration, grant writing, higher education administration, social work education, and policy making. She has worked with clients of all ages in Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, and the United States. In May 2011, Wong was appointed by Governor Jerry Brown to the California Board of Behavioral Sciences as a licensed clinical social worker member. She served two terms as board chair, three terms as vice-chair, and chair of the Policy and Advocacy Committee and member of other committees.