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 Department of Social Work MSW Field Program

Rural Practice Issues and Field


Learning Objectives

  • To understand the issues facing rural practitioners
  • To understand the skills necessary to practice in rural settings

Preparing social workers for practice in rural communities is a focus of the UMD MSW Program. One way our program accomplishes this is by providing students with an advanced generalist knowledge base. Resources are limited in many rural communities, so the advanced generalist social worker may assume a variety of roles in an agency and work on numerous system levels.

Green (n.d.), notes that rural social workers must be able to:

  1. Understand the connectedness of individual, family, collective and institutional levels of practice
  2. The ability to work with Native American families and incorporate cultural competence
  3. Use multiple methods to understand multiple levels of analysis and practice
  4. Understand the impact of being an "actor" within the community
  5. Focus on redressing disadvantage
  6. Utilize collaborative approaches where possible
  7. Redress the negative effects of distance on service provisions
  8. Understand and work within dense social networks
  9. Develop strategies to access scarce resources
  10. Manage the personal and professional issues when high visibility in a community can impact personal privacy
  11. Juggle multiple roles with integrity and awareness of potential role conflicts

Please inform the student about rural social work issues. Just because a student is working in a rural community, does not mean that he/she is aware the special considerations when working in this type of environment.


Key Concepts about Rural Social Work

As a supervisor it is important to stress to your field interns that rural social workers frequently work with a variety of problems including scarce resources, lack of public trans-portion systems, and isolation from resource providers. It is important to talk to your intern about how living in rural areas can be difficult for newcomers to fit in. Often rural areas have a lack of heterogeneity and local residents tend to rely on themselves for problem solving, value high levels of autonomy, and prefer informal to formal resource systems when help is needed. Listed below are a few good questions to have your intern ask themselves when working in a rural community.


Questions that will help your intern understand the rural community they are working in…

-What are the needs? How would your community respond to meeting these needs?

-How big is the community?

-Where are you geographically located?

-What type of industry/business defines your community?

- How does the community work with individuals who have different abilities, who are people of color, people with different religious beliefs than the whole?

-Is the community individual or collective?

-What does the power structure look like?

-What does the political atmosphere like?

-Do agencies often exhaust their resources? Is there a lot of competition for scarce resources?

-How much collaboration takes place between agencies? Is there a break down in communication between some of the agencies?

-Do you have an action plan in the event of coming across a dual relationship with a client?


Rural Community Characteristics

-defined boundaries, interaction among members, shared sense of identity, socialization, production/consumption of goods and services, social control, lack of preventative services.


Dual Relationships

- Often found in rural communities where the social worker may come into contact in another setting outside of their professional role as a social worker.

-Often times, a social worker may know their client through another type of interaction, whether it be a school function or community event. Social workers must be certain to maintain confidentiality and establish professional boundaries when dealing with these types of situations. It may be impossible to avoid a dual relationship when working with clients in rural areas; boundaries must be established in order to avoid further conflicts.

-Speaking with your intern and reviewing scenarios where dual relationships may be present is important when working in rural areas. Identifying possible ethical dilemmas and using the code of ethics are two ways in which you and your intern can find answers to working with dual relationships that are present in your scenarios.


When working in rural communities, it is also important to inform your field interns of the important agencies that are involved with networking with one another.

-Take the time to inform them of agencies that you receive referrals from.

-Allow your interns the opportunity to meet other agencies in order to understand where they may be sending their future clients.

-Introduce your field intern to the dynamics of the rural community that you are working in. (i.e. the political atmosphere, influential people, large families, Native American families)

-Resources are spread few and far between in rural communities, and networking is essential to meeting the needs of clients in these areas.


Safety is a concern when working in rural areas.

Safety is critical to consider when working in rural areas. Since traveling is not uncommon in these positions, reliable transportation is recommended. It is also important to let co-workers know where you plan to be and what time you plan to return. Often times, cellular phones will not function in remote locations. Do not rely on your cellular phone! Lastly, exercise caution. Social workers in rural communities tend to work alone. Be aware of your surroundings at all times, and plan for the "what ifs".


Other Rural Community Characteristics

- Rural areas tend to have more isolation, a larger geriatric population, more agriculture, lower socioeconomic status, limited resources, have a lot of community based programs.

-in looking at the following characteristics, it may be helpful to review these with your field intern in order for them to have a better understanding how this community may differ from another community that they lived/worked in.

Ginsberg, L.H. (1998). Social work in rural communities. Alexandria, VA: Council on Social Work Education.

See what the Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics has to say about ethics in rural social work.


The NASW's current Policy Statement regarding rural social work taken from the Rural Social Work Caucus.

NASW continues to lobby for recognition of and the delivery of services to racial and ethnic minorities, migrant workers, women, people with disabilities, lesbian and gay people, older people, and other people at risk who have been lift out of the mainstream of existing service delivery systems or funding patterns.  In the 21st century, social work should play an important role as advocate for the empowerment of people in rural areas.

The profession must influence the public policies of the federal, state, and local governments that affect the development and reorientation of the service delivery system in rural areas.  Social work must stress the unique needs of local communities and work for legislation and regulations whose administration is flexible and can be adjusted to the specific needs of a locality.  The profession also must continue to work for the development of legislation on licensing in rural states and for the implementation of the requirements for continuing education in licensing.

NASW supports rural social work educators’ efforts to incorporate rural content into the curricula of schools of social work, within the context of the present or future accreditation requirements of the Council on Social Work Education.  The content of this curricula should additionally address the unique needs of physically and mentally impaired, ethnic and cultural minorities, women, lesbian and gay people, older people, religious minorities, people who are unmarried, children, those who live alone, and those with language barriers in the rural environment.

Social work should continue to work for appropriate and broadly based legislation and regulations on health care, transportation, employment, and housing for rural American.  Social work must develop further expertise in and become more involved in issues related to the ownership and retention of land.   It must advocate for the needs of disadvantaged rural populations on these issues.  Moreover, the profession must refine its position vis-à-vis rural development, taking into account social issues and the survival of rural lifestyles, as well as those of economic growth.  Thus, it is incumbent on the profession to have appropriate knowledge of the diverse needs, norms, and values of rural men, women, and children. (Taken from the Rural Social Work Caucus at


Web Casts on Rural Social Work

Provided in the link below are multiple web casts that specifically target effective practice in rural social work. If you wish to have more in formation on articles written about rural social work, please contact Kathy Heltzer at

View web cast page

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