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Human services is an applied academic discipline that involves the holistic study of social technologies (models and methods of practice) and service technologies (programs and systems) that are designed to ameliorate human problems. The mission of the human services academic discipline and field is to advance the autonomy of service users, build civic engagement, promote advocacy for social change at all levels of society, and improve human service systems so they are more accessible, egalitarian, integrated, efficient, and effective (Herzberg, 2014).
The academic discipline of human services awards degrees at the associate level up to the doctorate level. Human services practitioners can focus on providing direct care services and advocacy, managing public agencies or nonprofit organizations that provide human services, or developing policies and human service programs.
In the 1660s, British North America was being settled by English colonists who were seeking religious freedom, economic opportunities, and liberation from their socially undesirable status (Trattner, 1999). With the help of Native Americans, like the Wampanoag, Agawam, Mohegan, and Merrimack tribes, the colonists were able to survive and thrive in America. Colonial communities, in the North and South, accepted the concept of a society based on Christian truths and teachings, but many communities were harsh and rejected outsiders who did not have the same values and beliefs. In the case of Native Americans, who rejected European beliefs and values, the majority were displaced from their homeland by the English colonists in the name of God and the British monarch (Friedman, 2003).
Over time, colonists in their prospering communities began to create formal governing systems for greater organization and stabilization of their society (Trattner, 1999). As these new colonial communities grew in number and population so did their social problems, such as a growing poor population of widows, orphans, elderly, and the disabled. Throughout the English colonies the Christian duty of charity was considered a social responsibility (Friedman, 2003). In the South, however, charity was also an ideological rationalization for social control and racial subordination. In the North, charity was a general attitude that led to the advancement of shared social obligations and goals in the community. As America evolved into a more independent society, abiding by British laws such as the Elizabethan Poor Law was met with opposition from colonists who believed that charity to the poor was a social obligation.
In Britain, the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 had been designed to punish and control the poor (Trattner, 1999). Due to social pressure the law also embodied concepts of humanism (Slack, 1995), which was demonstrated by the state offering care to the “deserving poor” via formalized and centralized poor relief. Thus, poor relief in Britain was made available through state-controlled workhouses in which the poor could receive food and shelter in exchange for laboring in outside industries. Workhouses were typically so deplorable that the poor would use them only as last resort.
In Colonial America, the colonists sought to independently care for the poor and needy in their communities without interference or support from the government and because there was less government bureaucracy, communities were able to establish their own voluntary associations. Voluntary associations were established and run by community members for the public good, which came in the form of educating the poor, feeding the needy, or ministering to lost souls (Trattner, 1999). Simultaneously there were publicly run almshouses—commonly called poor houses—which were established to offer care to society’s neediest members. In 1662, one of the first almshouses was established in Boston, Massachusetts (Nellis & Decker, 2001). But over the years, public almshouses often served as a “human dumping ground” for the mentally ill, physically disabled (like the deaf and blind), chronically ill, indigent, elderly, vagrants, criminals, prostitutes, unmarried mothers, and abandoned or neglected children. Inmates in almshouses often endured poor living conditions due to the lack of sanitation and health standards. Moreover, inmates received minimal medical care and were often neglected. The deplorable conditions found in Colonial almshouses became the norm for many public run institutions for decades. Concern about reforming American public institutions such as almshouses, prisons, and lunatic asylums, would not garner public attention until the mid-1800s when individuals like Dorothea Dix began advocating for the humane treatment of vulnerable groups in public institutions (Colman, 2007).
In 1776, independence came with a hefty price tag in the form of untold numbers of wounded soldiers, widows, and orphans who all added to the growing poor population in the country. Yet during the post-American Revolutionary period, there was an increased sense of individualism and humanitarianism among new American citizens. Individual rights and the right to privatize became the cornerstone to the newly formed American democracy (Marshall, 2011). The new American society rid itself of rigid British heredity rules that had impeded an individual’s economic and social mobility. Moreover, European politics and social order were replaced with a complex political system that had strict separation between church and state, limited government, and a clear separation of powers among the federal, state, and local levels (Trattner, 1999). Local governments became responsible for the education and social welfare of their community members, but the duty to work for the public good became secondary to individualism. This strong belief about preserving individualism did not however destroy charitable efforts and ideals in the new American culture. An enduring belief among Americans was that the poor needed to be supported. Secular voluntary associations continued to offer care to the poor and were generously supported with municipal funds. In addition, a growing number of religious groups began creating and maintaining their own social welfare institutions. For centuries to come, Americans voluntary associations and religious welfare institutions would provide care to the poor.
Due to the Civil War the infrastructure of the southern part of the United States was destroyed. Poor relief systems were established in 1865 to help people affected by the war to reestablish themselves; those who need help included white Southerners and freed slaves. U.S. President Andrew Johnson (1865-69) strongly objected to the federal government’s involvement in social welfare (Trattner, 1999). Yet Congress overrode Jackson’s presidential veto and established the first federal welfare agency for freed African American slaves. The federal agency established by Congress was called the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Land— known as the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Freedmen’s Bureau was put under the U.S. War Department because it was to be a temporary agency, but Congress funded it for a total of seven years.
If the Freedmen’s Bureau had not existed it would have been unlikely that freed slaves would have received any public or private social welfare during this period in history (Cimbala & Miller, 1999). The Freedmen’s Bureau had agency programs to help newly freed slaves adjust to their freedom. African Americans, for example, were taught to read and write, were given job training, and offered poor relief until they were established in their new lives. Once the Freedmen’s Bureau was disbanded, African Americans had little to no access to regular public welfare or public institutions to stave off poverty while relatively generous poor relief was given to whites in need. Over time, the poverty among African Americans was compounded because they had little to no financial resources due to racist policies that impeded or barred them from obtaining a living wage, securing employment, or qualifying for public welfare. Ultimately, African Americans had to rely on their families or social networks within their communities for poor relief.
Human services has its roots in charitable activities of religious and civic organizations that date back to the Colonial period. However, the academic discipline of human services did not start until the 1960s. At that time, a group of college academics started the new human services movement and began to promote the adoption of a new ideology about human service delivery and professionalism among traditional helping disciplines. The movement's major goal was to make service delivery more efficient, effective, and humane. The other goals dealt with the reeducation of traditional helping professionals to have a greater appreciation of the individual as a whole person and to be accountable to the communities they serve. Furthermore, professionals would learn to take responsibility at all levels of government, use systems approaches to consider human problems, and be involved in progressive social change.
Traditional academic programs such as education, nursing, social work, law and medicine were resistant to the new human services movement's ideology because it appeared to challenge their professional status. Changing the traditional concept of professionalism involved rethinking consumer control and the distribution of power. The new movement also called on human service professionals to work for social change. It was proposed that the reduction of the monopolistic control of professionals could result in democratization of knowledge and would lead to professionals advocating on behalf of clients and communities against professional establishments. The movement also hoped that human service delivery systems would become integrated, comprehensive, and more accessible, which would make them more humane for service users. Ultimately, the resistance from traditional helping professions served as the impetus for a group of educators in higher education to start the new academic discipline of human services.
Some maintain that the human services discipline has a concrete identity as a profession that supplements and complements other traditional professions. Yet other professionals and scholars have not agreed upon an authoritative definition for human services.
Chenault and Burnford argued that human services programs must educate and train students at the graduate or postgraduate level if human services hoped to be considered a professional discipline. A progressive graduate human services program was established by Audrey Cohen (1932–1996), who was considered an innovative educator for her time. The Audrey Cohen College of Human Services, now called the Metropolitan College of New York, offered one of the first graduate programs in 1974. In the same time period, Springfield College in Massachusetts became a major force in preserving human services as an academic discipline. Currently, Springfield College is one of the oldest and largest human services program in the United States.
Manpower studies in the 1960s and 70s had shown that there would be a shortage of helping professionals in an array of service delivery areas (Cohen, 1969; Kadish, 1969). In turn, some educators proposed that the training of nonprofessionals (e.g., mental health technicians)could bridge this looming personnel shortage. One of the earliest educational initiatives to develop undergraduate curricula was undertaken by the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), which was funded by the National Institute on Health. Professionals of the SREB Undergraduate Social Welfare Manpower Project helped colleges develop new social welfare programs, which later became known as human services (McPheeters & Ryan, 1971). Some believed that community college human services programs were the most expedient way to train paraprofessionals for direct service jobs in areas such as mental health. Currently, a large percentage of human services programs are run at the community college level.
The development of community college human services programs was supported with government funding that was earmarked for the federal new careers initiatives. In turn, the federally funded New Careers Program was created to produce a nonprofessional career track for economically disadvantaged, underemployed, and unemployed adults as a strategy to eradicate poverty within society (Grosser, Henry, & Kelly, 1969; Haskell, 1969; Pearl & Riessman, 1965; Riessman & Popper, 1968) and to end a critical shortage of health-care personnel (Steinberg, Shatz, & Fishman, 1969). Graduates from these programs successfully acquired employment as paraprofessionals, but there were limitations to their upward mobility within social service agencies because they lacked a graduate or professional degree.
Currently, there are academic programs in human services at the associate, baccalaureate, and graduate levels. There are approximately 600 human services programs throughout the United States. A new online directory of human services programs lists many (but not all) of the programs state by state in conjunction with their accreditation status from the Council of Standards for Human Services Education (CSHSE).
The CSHSE offers accreditation for human services programs in higher education. The accreditation process is voluntary and labor intensive; it is designed to assure the quality, consistency, and relevance of human service education through research-based standards and a peer-review process. According to the CSHSE's webpage there are only 43 accredited human services programs in the United States.
Human services curricula are based on an interdisciplinary knowledge foundation that allows students to consider practical solutions from multiple disciplinary perspectives. Across the curriculum human services students are taught to view human problems from a socioecological perspective (developed by Urie Bronfenbrenner) that involves viewing human problems as interconnected to a family unit, community, and society. This perspective is considered a “whole-person perspective”. Overall, undergraduate programs prepare students to be human services generalists while master’s programs prepare students to be human services administrators, and doctoral programs prepare students to be researcher-analysts and college-level educators. Research in this field focuses on an array of topics that deal with direct service issues, case management, organizational change, management of nonprofit human service organizations, advocacy, community organizing, community development, social welfare policy, service integration, multiculturalism, integration of technology, poverty issues, social justice, and social change strategies.
Currently, the three major employment roles played by human services graduates include providing direct service, performing administrative work, and working in the community. According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, published by the US Department of Labor, the employment of human service assistants is anticipated to grow by 34% through 2016, which is faster than average for all occupations. There will also be excellent job opportunities for individuals with post-secondary degrees. But salaries remain low, which might reflect employers’ lack of understanding of the human services profession.
The Center for Credentialing & Education (CCE) conceptualized the Human Services-Board Certified Practitioner (HS-BCP) credential with the assistance of the National Organization for Human Services (NOHS) and the Council for Standards in Human Service Education (CSHSE). The credential was created for human services practitioners seeking to advance their careers by acquiring independent verification of their practical knowledge and educational background. 
Graduates from human services programs can obtain a Human Services Board Certified Practitioner (HS-BCP) credential offered by the Center for Credentialing & Education (CCE). The HS-BCP certification ensures that human services practitioners offer quality services, are competent service providers, are committed to high standards, and adhere to the NOHS Ethical Standards of Human Service Professionals, as well as to help solidify the professional identity of human services practitioners. HS-BCPE Experience Requirements for the certification: HS-BCP applicants must meet post-graduation experience requirements to be eligible to take the examination. However, graduates of a CSHSE accredited degree program may sit for the HS-BCP exam without verifying their human services work experience. Otherwise experience requirements for candidates not from a CSHSE accredited program are as follows: Associates Degree with post degree experience requires three years, including a minimum of 4,500 hours; Bachelor’s Degree with post degree experience requires two years, including a minimum of 3,000 hours; Master’s or Doctorate with post degree experience requires one year,including a minimum of 1,500 hours.
The HS-BCP exam is designed to verify a candidate’s human services knowledge. The exam was created as a collaborative effort of human services subject-matter experts and normed on a population of professionals in the field. The HS-BCP exam covers the following areas:
1. Assessment, treatment planning, and outcome evaluation 2. Theoretical orientation/interventions 3. Case management, professional practice, and ethics 4. Administration, program development/evaluation, and supervision
There are several different professional human services organizations for professionals, educators, and students to join. The National Organization for Human Services (NOHS) is a professional organization open to educators, professionals, and students interested in current issues in the field of human services. NOHS sponsors an annual conference in different parts of the United States. In addition, there are four independent human services regional organizations: (a) Mid-Atlantic Consortium for Human Services, (b) Midwest Organization for Human Services, (c) New England Organization for Human Service, and the (d) Northwest Human Services Association. All of the regional organizations are also open to educators, professionals, students and each regional organization has an annual conference in different locations throughout their region.
Human services special interest groups also exist within the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) and the American Educational Research Association (AERA). The ASPA subsection is named the Section on Health and Human Services Administration and its purpose is to foster the development of knowledge, understanding and practice in the fields of health and human services administration and to foster professional growth and communication among academics and practitioners in these fields. Fields of health and human services administration share a common and unique focus on improving the quality of life through client-centered policies and service transactions.
The AERA special interest group is named the Education, Health and Human Service Linkages. Its purpose is to create a community of researchers and practitioners interested in developing knowledge about comprehensive school health, school linked services, and initiatives that support children and their families. This subgroup also focuses on interpersonal collaboration, integration of services, and interdisciplinary approaches. The group’s interests encompass interrelated policy, practice, and research that challenge efforts to create viable linkages among these three distinct areas.
The American Public Human Services Association (APHSA) is a nonprofit organization that pursues distinction in health and human services by working with policymakers, supporting state and local agencies, and working with partners to promote innovative, integrative and efficient solutions in health and human services policy and practice. APHSA has individual and student memberships.
Herzberg, J.T. (2014). Foundations in human services practice: A generalist perspective on individual, agency, and community. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education.