Gerald Vest, ACSW/LISW, Kerry Pruett ACSW/LISW, and Brad Holmgren, LISW

The primary skills identified in the generalist and family preservation social work practice framework can now be supported by using a personal computer to help guide clients to resources and to interact with other service providers and consumers. Planning, organizing, communicating, promoting, consulting, referring and informing are primary generalist practice functions that can be facilitated by using computer technology.

Our School of Social Work has been involved with technology for the past 22 years while managing the Dona Ana County, Information and Referral Center and also Professor Vest and Mr. Mike Connealy established the first international Human Services Bulletin Board System in 1986 that provided networking opportunities prior to the advent of the Internet. Currently, Emeritus Professor Vest and former Field Education Director serves as Co-Host and founder of an international Listserv - SW-FIELDWORK. Over 300 participants are subscribed to this special interest group and students are invited to subscribe as well

Perhaps the most important data base that every social worker must have is an updated Information & Referral directory of services. Unfortunately, Dona Ana County does not have an updated listing of social service programs.

While referral may seem a simple and straight forward task, it is actually a complex process requiring skill, timing, and knowledge on the part of the social worker. Often workers are surprised to learn that a resource has not provided the needed service to a client system. Weissman reported that in a given group of individuals referred to an agency for service, 32% had no contact with the agency, and an additional 20% had no involvement beyond the initial contact. Thus, 52% of those referred were not linked to the agency (Sheafor, Horejsi, and Horejsi, 1988).

Six Stages of Referral

The successful referral can be described as an appropriate match between a client system and a needed resource. This matching is a six stage process. If any one of the stages is overlooked, the referral may fail (McMahon, 1990). The stages can be described as:


Clarifying and stating problem or need for which help is sought and of the goals to be accomplished.


Researching appropriate and available resources and informing the client system about them.


Discussing options and selecting resources with the client system.


Planning the means of contact with the selected resource which includes the initial contact, sending information, providing transportation, scheduling client-resource meeting.


Initial contact between the client system and the selected resource.


Follow-up by social worker to see if goal is being or has been accomplished.

A successful match can be further insured when the social worker promotes the client system's right to self-determination throughout the referral process. To ascertain readiness for a referral, the social worker elicits the client's feelings, which may involve doubts, apprehension, and misconceptions about receiving services (Hepworth and Larsen, 1990). Only after the problem has been clearly identified can the worker make an appropriate referral. The client system must recognize and agree that the problem for which the referral is made is one for which she or he wants help, or the referral will fail. However, it is important to note that the more threatening a problem is to the person asking for help, and the more disorganized and confused he/she is, the less able that person is to follow through on complicated directions or repeat his/her story for multiple intake interviews at agency after agency. The social worker then must support the self-determination of the client during this vulnerable period.

Information and Referral

Information and referral as a service which connects people with any type of problem to an appropriate agency has been in existence since the 1870's. However, with the growing complexity and specialization of social services in a time of scarce resources, information and referral has become an increasingly important service to the client system.

As few as five years ago, the generalist social worker as a community resource specialist could maintain an effective information and referral system by completing and updating a manual rolodex or file system. The time of the rolodex or file as an effective information and referral system has passed. The community resource specialist now requires updated information available within seconds on a wide range of complex and difficult problems. This is possible by using the latest technology and personal computers for information and referral and computer networking (Manikowski, 1990).

Even social workers with no previous computer experience can learn to use this technology in a 20-minute tutorial session. Yet the overwhelming majority of social workers do not use this resource that is available to them. Jones and Chandler note in their article, "Automating Information and Referral Systems," (1989) that "change in the workplace is usually accompanied by anxiety and resistance." To reduce this reaction, it is suggested that staff be allowed to participate in planning and implementing the technology.

Misconceptions about the nature of computers and the use of computer technology add to the anxiety and resistance. Two commonly held misconceptions are that the computer will take the place of a staff member and that it will eliminate work. Mutual planning, mutual task assignments, and worker's own sense of autonomy and accomplishment in learning to use the new technology can reduce the effect of the negative misconceptions about computer use.

It is important to note here that agencies, social workers, and the client systems we serve benefit most when information and referral systems go beyond mere automation of existing processes to create new processes that capitalize on the technology.

Ethical Responsibility

The social worker's ethical responsibility to the client system is clearly stated in the Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers:

The social worker should serve clients with devotion, loyalty, determination, and the maximum application of professional skill and competence (Sec. 11 F., 1).

For the generalist social worker as a community resource specialist, the maximum application of professional skill and competence can be no less than the use of the latest technology and computers for information and referral. To insist upon the continued use of out-dated, slow, inefficient, and incomplete information systems such as a manual rolodex of a file system is not meeting the ethical obligation to the clients we serve.

The Internet

The Internet is an enormous network of networks connecting you and your computer with computers around the world and, by extension, with the people sitting at those computers. Governments, schools, companies and individuals make information available on the Internet to everyone who wants it. There are more than 20 million people connected to the Internet and it is expanding daily. (Parade Magazine, Nov. 19, 1995)

The primary communication features that social workers can access on the Internet are as follows:

Electronic Mail: Also known as e-mail, electronic mail allows you to send text--and in some cases voice messages or even images over a network to another computer. Most e-mail systems make it easy to reply to or forward a message or to send it out to dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people. Unlike the "snail mail" sent via the Post Office, e-mail is not completely private. Never send anything over a network that you would be afraid to see posted on a bulletin board in your office.

Gopher: An Internet navigation tool which allows you to "tunnel" through networks without having to learn any complicated commands. With a gopher, you can browse through menus of resources, looking at text files, exploring library catalogs and saving anything you find to your "home" system where your Internet account resides. The modern library worker is very acquainted with this system and are most willing to assist the novice with this activity.

FTP: FTP stands for File Transfer Protocol and is a way of sending and receiving text files, graphics, sound recording and software over the Internet. FTP sites have been set up to make public domain material of all types available for free to users of the Internet. These systems allow anonymous logins to outside users.

Listservs: As mentioned earlier, a Listserv is designed so that a special interest group, like SOCWORK, SW-FIELDWORK, INTSOCWORK, HOMELESS, etc., can make group communication easier. A message is posted to the entire group and the file server (computer) directs the mail to all of the participants. Each listserv requires individual subscription; however, there are common instructions to follow that generally makes it easy to subscribe and to sign off. Other commands are available to assist the participants through a HELP request.

Recommended Listservs for Social Workers:

1.scwk-1: Student Social Work List (listserv@ist01.ferris.edu)
2.socwork: Social Work (Listserv@uafsysb.uark.edu)
3.sw-fieldwork: Social Work Field Education (listserv@nmsu.edu)
4.swmg-list: Social Work Measurement Group(listserv@stat.com)
5.nmsocwork: New Mexico Social Work (listserv@nmsu.edu)
6.intsocwork: International Social Work (listserv@nisw.org.uk)
7.homeless: Homelessness (Listproc@csf.colorado.edu)

World Wide Web (WWW)

The Internet also includes graphical presentations called Homepages. In a recent article from the US News & World Report it was reported that the Web is stocked with more than 22 million "pages" of content, with over 1 million more pages added each month. (US News & World Report, April 29, 1996) The programing of a homepage requires the use of HTML (Hyper Text Mark-up Language) that allows computer users to receive text, graphics, video and sound at the same time. A "link" is a connection to other websites or homepages that is included in the text of most graphical presentations. For example, the NMSU School of Social Work Homepage has several links that will assist the viewer to connect with other sites, e.g., Congress, NM Legislature, and other pages as listed below.

Recommended Homepages for Social Workers:

1.NMSU School of Social Work
2.NASW New Mexico
3.NASW National Office
4.Social Work Access Network (SWAN)
5.National Institute for Social Work (UK)
6.WebMD - A Resource for Health Related Information, Programs and Services
7.The New Social Worker - a journal for students and recent graduates
8.OnLine County-Wide I&R Program-an excellent prototype of a United Way Program in Colorado
9.A Knowledge Base on Early Child Development and other Programs
10.Dr. Holden has received many special awards for developing WWW Resources for Social Workers

We are proud of our Social Work Homepage. A great deal of time and energy have been devoted to making it attractive and informative. Our webpage was originally developed by Loreta Skukas, LMSW, a 1996 graduate of the program, and it was originally administered by Professor Gerald Vest and now by Webmaster, Yoshi DeRoos.


Jones, George and Barbara R. Chandler. "Automating Information and Referral Systems: Establishing an Effective Partnership Between System User and System Developer," Information & Referral. V.11, No. 1-2. 1989, pp. 1-11.

Hepworth, Dean H. And Jo Ann Larsen. Direct Social Work Practice. 3rd. Ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1990, p. 613.

Mankowski, Dick. "Choosing and Automated Referral System." Information & Referral, V.12, 1990, pp. 1-27.

McMahon, Maria O'Neil. The General Method of Social Work Practice. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1990. p.205.

Sheafor, Bradford, Charles R. Horejsi and Gloria A. Horejsi. Techniques and Guidelines for Social Work Practice. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1988, p. 199.

NOTE: This article was initially published in the NMSU School of Social Work, MSW Field Manual and the BSW Field Resource Guidebook as a resource for advancing the use of technology for our student social workers.

Written By: Gerald Vest
Website: http://www.nmsu.edu/~socwork/jerry.html