Government agencies across California employ social workers and licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) in various roles.
Whether you are committed to equity among all people, regardless of their race, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, or disability, passionate about protecting people from environmental hazards, devoted to victim advocacy or criminal justice reform, or driven to positively influence public policy, you’ll find abundant career opportunities with state and local government agencies.
Initiatives and programs throughout the state make California a prime location for social workers.
For example, in 2021, California became the eighth state in the nation to be accepted into the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities. According to AARP California State Director Nancy McPherson, by 2030, California will be home to 10.8 million people aged 60 or over. These individuals are served by the California Department of Aging, which employs social work professionals at various levels.
And following the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, the Berkeley City Council vowed to reform public safety by funding non-police response teams that address behavioral health crises with money from the police department.
The resulting Specialized Care Unit (SCU) is a mobile unit designed to respond to Berkeley community members facing mental health or substance use crises. Licensed clinical social workers are part of an SCU team that responds to non-violent crisis calls that would previously be handled by law enforcement.
The Role of the Social Worker in California State & Local Agencies
The government of California comprises the executive, legislative, and judicial branches as well as local governments — counties, cities, special districts, and school districts — and independent entities.
Cabinet-level agencies, sometimes called superagencies, include:
Many of these offices employ social workers in come capacity. Regardless of your specialization or preferred work environment, government entities in California need your skills and experience.
Health Care, Social Services, Public Assistance and Rehabilitation
The California Health and Human Services Agency (CalHHS) operates multiple departments that provide health care, social services, public assistance and rehabilitation to Californians.
These services include:
Departments under CalHHS include the California Department of Social Services (CDSS), which protects children and adults in California families, and the Department of Rehabilitation (DOR), which aims to help people with disabilities gain employment and live independently.
CDSS employs social work practitioners in various social service programs, including child welfare services, adult protective services, and programs for individuals with disabilities.
The Department of Rehabilitation relies on social workers to ensure the success of Californians with disabilities through services that include peer support, transition services, skill development, and housing assistance. Career opportunities with DOR require a master’s degree in counseling or a closely related field, which includes a Master’s of Social Work (MSW).
CalHHS also oversees the following departments:
CalHSS social workers and LCSWs may work as case managers, foster care home study specialists, family support workers, adoption counselors, child welfare investigators, outreach specialists, patient advocates, and behavioral health coordinators, among others.
Social workers and LCSWs who work with CalHHS programs provide the much needed social and mental health services to people and families in the communities.
For example, the Department of State Hospitals runs the Conditional Release Program (CONREP), which treats patients who have committed criminal offenses and been deemed not guilty by reason of insanity, incompetent to stand trial, mentally disordered.
The services that medical social workers provide to CONREP patients make them less likely to commit additional crimes, which increases public safety in the state.
California Government Operations Agency (CalGovOps)
The California Victim Compensation Board, under CalGovOps, relies on LCSWs, supervised associate clinical social workers and other psychiatric, psychological, or other mental health counselors to provide mental health services to victims of violent crime.
California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA)
Environmental social work in California under CalEPA addresses community-specific issues and advocates for the rights of people unfairly shouldering the weight of ecological injustices.
Through CalEPA’s Environmental Justice Program, environmental social workers promote environmental justice, focusing on fairness and community in regard to environmental laws that “affect every community’s natural surroundings, and the places people live, work, play and learn.”
Other government agencies that support environmental social work in California include:
California Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency (BCSH)
One department under BCSH that employs social workers is the California Civil Rights Department (CRD), formerly the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH).
CRD is a state agency responsible for enforcing California’s civil rights laws, including those related to fair employment and housing. Social workers in the department investigate and address reports of discrimination, harassment, and other civil rights violations.
Since 2021, California has spent more than $200 million on non-law enforcement anti-hate initiatives. The Civil Rights Department administers the CA vs Hate non-emergency hate incident and hate crime reporting hotline, which launched in May 2023. As of August 2023, the hotline had received 361 calls, which underscores its need for qualified social workers who can support people experiencing hate crimes and incidents.
The department is also home to the California Interagency Council on Homelessness, which delivers services to address homelessness in accordance with Housing First guidelines.
Department of Education (CDE)
Social workers and LCSWs may work in the educational system, providing support and counseling services to students and their families, especially in addressing social and emotional challenges.
In addition to school social workers, social work roles within the California Department of Education include:
Social workers within the Department of Education help students by promoting their educational, emotional, and personal development.
California Tribal Communities
The Governor’s Office of Tribal Affairs handles “government-to-government consultation between the Governor’s Administration and California tribes on policies that affect California tribal communities.”
The state’s compliance with The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) depends on field liaisons — tribal social workers — to provide Tribal Government 101 training to county staff and identify problems with child welfare services.
This is such an important specialization in social welfare that UC Davis offers a regional ICWA Specialist Training Program for county child welfare agencies. In partnership with the California Tribal Families Coalition and CDSS, the university developed the program to train social work professionals to serve tribal communities within county child welfare agencies.
California Military Department & Veteran Affairs
With headquarters in Sacramento, the California Military Department relies on social workers to assist service members and their families with personal and social problems, including mental health assessment and treatment, community and family support, and crisis intervention.
The Joint Behavioral Health Office employs full-time behavioral health civilians for each wing of the California Air National Guard and uniformed behavioral health clinicians who are available 24/7 to all regions of California.
The California Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet), which oversees veterans’ services and programs in the state of California, is not under the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). CalVet is a state-level agency, and it operates independently from the federal VA.
CalVet provides a wide range of services and support to California veterans, including assistance with education, employment, healthcare, housing, and veterans’ homes.
Social Work Careers in Counties & Municipalities
Each of California’s 58 counties operates its own department of social services. These county agencies often employ social workers and LCSWs to provide direct services to residents, including welfare and public assistance programs.
Becoming a Social Worker in a California Government Agency
Once you’ve completed your Master of Social Work program, including the field education requirements, and obtained any necessary licensure, you’ll follow California’s state hiring process.
Steps for Applying to a California State Social Work Position
With the highest employment levels and annual salaries of social work professionals in the public and private sectors across the United States, California is teeming with opportunities for social workers seeking employment with a government agency.
2022 US Bureau of Labor Statistics job market trends and salary figures for child, family, and school social workers, healthcare social workers, mental health and substance abuse social workers, and social workers (all other) are based on national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed December 2023.
Discover more about other social work specializations in California.