School of Social Welfare’s Mary McCarthy Lauded with National Career Achievement Award

A smiling Mary McCarthy holds her award while standing in front of a panel with photos and posters
McCarthy was officially inducted into the Pioneer program on Saturday, Oct. 14, at a ceremony in Washington, D.C.

By Erin Frick 

ALBANY, N.Y. (Oct. 17, 2023) — Mary McCarthy, an instructor at the University at Albany’s School of Social Welfare, has been recognized as a “Social Work Pioneer” by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). The honor celebrates social workers who have explored new territories in the field of human services and created platforms to put their work into practice. McCarthy is among 25 NASW Pioneers to be inducted this year.

“For nearly three decades, the NASW Foundation has recognized the outstanding achievements of Social Work Pioneers, individuals who have truly elevated the profession,” said Brian Williams, acting assistant director of the NASW Foundation. “These pioneers have left an indelible mark on social work, spearheading the development of countless human services programs and government policies, which have positively impacted the lives of individuals from all walks of society.”

McCarthy was officially inducted into the Pioneer program on Saturday, Oct. 14, at a ceremony in Washington, D.C.

“It is a huge honor to be recognized and invited by other social work colleagues to be recognized as a Pioneer,” McCarthy said. “My identity as a social worker is core to me; it’s who I am and having others recognize the impact of my work and commitments as a social worker says ‘I see you.’ It is also a huge honor to be recognized at this time when the Foundation is also recognizing the work of W. E. B. DuBois. It is humbling to be part of an event honoring such a brilliant, courageous person who provided a foundation for equity and justice that we stand on today.”

McCarthy has been with UAlbany’s School of Social Welfare since 1987. Her first position was in the school’s field office, where she directed graduate and undergraduate field programs. Since then, she has served as interim associate dean and established the student support services position. As a faculty member, she has been deeply involved in teaching and student advising at undergraduate and graduate levels.

“Dr. McCarthy is a passionate social worker in every aspect of her life,” said Victoria Rizzo, interim dean of the School of Social Welfare. “Since 1980, she has served the National Association of Social Workers in various roles at the local, state and national level. She has also been a tireless social justice advocate, researcher and leader in the promotion of child welfare reforms through partnerships across the nation on behalf of vulnerable children and their families.

“McCarthy has always been, and will continue to be, a change maker who has made extensive contributions to the field of social work with a specific passion in child welfare. She is the epitome of a social worker who breaks barriers. I can think of no one more deserving for this distinguished status as a Social Work Pioneer."

Building global networks with New York roots

McCarthy’s current work focuses on child welfare and the child welfare workforce, with longstanding collaborations with the New York State Office of Children and Family Services. McCarthy has also served as a co-principal investigator of the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute (NCWWI) since 2008. The Institute is currently wrapping its 15th year of funding by the Children’s Bureau.

At the NCWWI, McCarthy’s team has developed a rich portfolio of resources designed to move the child welfare workforce forward. These include workshops, curricula, infographics, print materials and other resources covering topics such as anti-racist work in child welfare, fostering equity and justice in social work agencies and practice, leadership development, and ways to improve recruitment and retention within the child welfare workforce. They have also done extensive educational work around the Indian Child Welfare Act.

“Our efforts over the last 20 years at the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute have significantly raised the profile of the importance of developing the child welfare workforce, while creating an international network that uses our resources and materials and participates in webinars,” McCarthy said. “This work has been so important to me, for many reasons, not the least of which is the importance of social work knowledge and skills as a foundation for child welfare practice. Our profession has done well in elevating and integrating social work principles and values into training the child welfare workforce and improving services, but there remains much to do.”

Embedding racial equity in child welfare agencies

As a signature project, McCarthy and her NCWWI team identified and distributed race equity tools to help guide child welfare agencies. As a starting point, resources are identified that help agencies take stock of their internal understanding of racial equity and how it applies to their practice.

“Beyond internal assessment, our resources offer tools and techniques for embedding attention to racial equity and justice into social work. An example of this would be how to effectively use data to answer questions such as: How do we look at removals [of children from parents]? How do we look at reports of child abuse and neglect? Is there a bias in reporting? How many children and families who are reported —depending on their racial and ethnic background — have their children removed? Knowing how to interpret this data can reveal whether an agency has a bias with removals.

“These sorts of strategies can help states and jurisdictions think more deeply about racial equity and begin to put practices in place that will help them learn about, understand and address racial justice within their organization.”

McCarthy has also advocated for social work agencies to embrace a “bottom-up” approach to management. Bringing staff at all levels into discussions around organizational structure and practice affords caseworkers and supervisors greater agency over their practice and their role within the agency. This not only improves outcomes for those they serve, but it also helps improve staff satisfaction and retention.

“Integrating robust evaluation into what works best for families and children has been slow to evolve. While anti-racist goals have been talked about for a long time, committing to the deeper structural and personal work that allows for greater justice and equity has been slow in coming. I am very proud of the work that our NCWWI sites and staff are doing around anti-racist, decolonizing practice, to change the narrative about child welfare thereby laying the foundation for tomorrow.”

Social work as a flexible and interdisciplinary career pathway

The field of social work is strongly interdisciplinary and requires close collaboration among people from many different fields. Social workers play a critical role in bridging across these different professions to ensure the best possible outcomes for clients. The intersection of research, social work programs and policy making offers a prime example of how social workers build critical connections that enhance care. 

“We have a great deal of data showing the intersection of poverty and involvement in the child welfare system,” McCarthy said. “For too long child welfare reporting has served as the access point for services to support families in need. There is now a national movement to focus on services first before reporting a family to the child abuse hotline. NYS has revised their mandated reporter training to focus on family support first. This effort to 'narrow the front door' into child welfare services is the opportunity for policymakers and service providers to prioritize services that are community based and responsive to the families in our communities.”

For those considering a career in social work, McCarthy also underscores the versatility of a social work degree – both in terms of the variety of careers you can pursue, as well as geographic flexibility.

“Social work is one of the most flexible career paths that a person could choose. If you like working with people, if you care about communication, if you value research as informing practice and you care about how policy affects everyday people, social work is an ideal career. Plus, once you get your degree and become licensed, you can work in all fifty states and in most European countries.

“While many licensed social workers become therapists, the field is much broader than many realize. For example, social workers are now working in banks to help stop people from falling victim to scams. Social workers are employed by the FBI as behavioral analysts. We have social workers working in libraries to help people use computers and connect with informational resources. You can become a community organizer. You can get into politics – running campaigns, working for legislators in constituent services or even running for office. You could become an investigative journalist because you know how to ask questions. The skills you develop while undertaking a social work degree are applicable in many different – and rewarding – professional environments.”