NASW Pioneers Biography Index

The National Association of Social Workers Foundation is pleased to present the NASW Social Work Pioneers®. NASW Pioneers are social workers who have explored new territories and built outposts for human services on many frontiers. Some are well known, while others are less famous outside their immediate colleagues, and the region where they live and work. But each one has made an important contribution to the social work profession, and to social policies through service, teaching, writing, research, program development, administration, or legislation.

The NASW Pioneers have paved the way for thousands of other social workers to contribute to the betterment of the human condition; and they are are role models for future generations of social workers. The NASW Foundation has made every effort to provide accurate Pioneer biographies.  Please contact us at to provide missing information, or to correct inaccurate information. It is very important to us to correctly tell these important stories and preserve our history.  

Please note, an asterisk attached to a name reflects Pioneers who have passed away. All NASW Social Work Pioneers® Bios are Copyright © 2021 National Association of Social Workers Foundation. All Rights Reserved.

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Shirley E. Cox

Specific Pioneering Contributions

Shirley E. Cox, DSW, MSW, LCSW, ACSW, has been a visionary leader, researcher, teacher, mentor, and advocate at the local, state, national, and international levels for nearly 60 years. Cox was a pioneer in preserving and expanding NASW through difficult times in the 1970s and in advocating for and securing licensure laws across the United States.

In 1969, within two years after graduating with her MSW from Howard University, Cox was elected to the NASW National Board as the representative for the Intermountain Region where, along with Pioneers  Chauncey Alexander (NASW Executive Director), and board members Mark Battle and Barbara White, she cast the deciding vote to save NASW from bankruptcy and dissolution. While a member of the national board (1969-1973), Cox helped NASW slim down financially, by closing its Manhattan headquarters and moving to Washington, D.C.

In addition to helping NASW thrive, Cox helped the organization shift from a profession-focused organization toward a more advocacy-focused organization, providing a more effective national policy voice for clients’ rights and protection. The move to D.C. helped NASW increase its interaction with political powerbrokers and strengthened its advocacy efforts ten-fold. One of the key client protections for which Cox advocated was state licensure for social workers as a means of ensuring that those calling themselves social workers and working with clients would have to meet and maintain high standards of education, training, competence and conduct.

Throughout her four years on the national board, Cox served as chair of the NASW Licensing Committee, lobbying and working with state and state leaders to formulate, propose, and move bills through the legislative process until all but two states had obtained licensure or certification of some type for social workers.

Career Highlights

Cox began her social work career in June 1962 while completing her BA in English. While doing direct practice –  first, with the Utah Department of Public Welfare and then at the Arlington County (Virginia) Division of Family Services during the time when no training or professional licensing was required to provide such services – Cox learned firsthand how challenging the work was. This later gave her the drive to ensure that licensure/certification should be required for all caseworkers and managers, particularly those working with vulnerable and volatile public service clients.

Cox's level of service and capability often exceeded her peers. For example, during her first year MSW internship, Cox worked as a school social worker in the inner city in Baltimore, Maryland. While there, she secured and managed a grant from President Johnson's "War on Poverty" funds for individual and group counseling, interracial mediation, and special advanced standing educational courses for students and for parents.

During her second year MSW internship (1966), Cox helped develop one of the first federally-recognized foster-adopt programs in the country. In addition to greatly increasing the permanent placement of hard-to-place children, her pilot program was able to reduce child custody workloads from 75-100 cases per worker down to no more than 25 cases per worker within the year.

Following her MSW graduation in 1967, Cox moved to Idaho, where she worked with her church to set up a clinic to provide services for adoption, foster care, and clinical services to a remote, rural population. In 1974, the governor of Idaho asked Cox to move to the state capitol where she directed a state and federal government partnership to deinstitutionalize state-run teenage secure care treatment centers, juvenile probation and parole services, and to move youth into small 2-8 child specialized treatment homes in their local communities, near their families.

Achieving success in Idaho with these programs, Cox was asked by the governor to lead and implement similar programs in that state in 1976. In Utah, her management assignments (developing, funding, and implementing state-managed child and family programs for enhancing or expanding mental, emotional, medical and or employment services for underserved populations) resulted in a large increase in federally-matched funding for both state government and nonprofit community agencies and the deinstitutionalization of thousands of youth, moving them out of centralized state facilities and into more localized group homes near their communities of origin.

Following completion of her DSW degree from the University of Utah in 1986, Cox began teaching: first, at Weber State University (Ogden, Utah), then at the University of Nevada, Los Vegas (UNLV), and finally at Brigham Young University (BYU, Provo, Utah) where she remains a professor emeritus.

Throughout her time teaching, Cox volunteered in a variety of social work organizations to further the reach, capacity, and esteem of the social work profession locally and nationally.

At NASW, in addition to her initial service on the National Board (1969-1973), she served as vice president of the Utah Chapter (1981-83), on the National Board Executive Committee (1992-93), as the NASW representative to the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW, 1995-97), and chair of local branches (Southern Utah Branch, 1997-99; and Central Utah Branch, 2006-08). In the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), Cox has chaired numerous accreditation site visits to many universities (1999-2012), served as the BSW faculty representative to the CSWE House of Delegates (1988-89), on the CSWE Executive Board (1993-94), on the CSWE Ethics Committee (1993-1995).

Internationally, not only has Cox had an influence on social education and practice through her international students and overseas student practicum assignments, she served as the CSWE delegate to Russian schools of social work in 1993, following the fall of the "Iron Curtain," and from 2000-2011 served as an executive board member with the International Association of School of Social Work (IASSW) performing site and assistance visits to a wide variety of countries including Bangladesh, China, Mexico, Italy, South Africa, Japan, Russia, Barbados, Brazil, and Chile.

Cox also served from 1997-2014 on the International Consortium on Social Development (ICSD), and served as a delegate to Mexico, Hong Kong, Bangladesh, Egypt, Israel and Wash. D.C. By invitation, Cox participated at four United Nations "Year of the Family" events from 1999-2004.

Since Cox's retirement from teaching in 2015, she has continued in social work service by serving multiple full-time missions for her church. Cox served from (2015-2017) in Brazil as the first Area Mental Health Advisor for her church stationed outside the United States. In that capacity, she organized, trained, and oversaw the mental health services for the missionaries -both local and international -- in 32 missions (about 3400 missionaries) across all of Brazil. This resulted in a dramatic (80%) decrease in the number of missionaries returning home for stress-related or relational issues. Returning to the U.S., Cox became the Mental Health Advisor for the North America Southwest Area (covering 27 missions and about 5000 missionaries in Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and part of California) from 2017-2020. Since 2020, she has been serving a mission in Salt Lake City, Utah, where she advises leaders and travels throughout the world gathering oral histories on international interdenominational humanitarian influencers.

Biographic Information

Cox was born in Portland, Oregon while her father was serving as a chemist in WWII. She grew up, the oldest of three children in the Idaho Falls, Idaho area, where her father served the small community as a dentist and her mother as an elementary school teacher. Cox attended Brigham Young University (BYU) where she received her BA in English and Sociology in 1962, her MSW from Howard University in 1967, and her DSW from the University of Utah in 1986. Cox is the mother of four children – three MSWs and one psych nurse – and has been a member of NASW since October 1965.

Significant Recognition and Awards

Cox has received numerous academic awards, including: Merit Award for Teaching, Outstanding Teaching Award (1990), and Outstanding Faculty Award (1993) at UNLV; and Excellence in Teaching Award (1995) at the BYU School of Social Work along with the Educator of the Year Award (2003) from the BYU Alumni Association.

NASW’s Nevada Chapter has awarded her with Social Worker of the Year (1991) and Social Work Educator of the Year (1992)

Significant Publications

Cox, S.E. (2017, Oct). “Decoloniality in Brazil” reality or camouflage: What Brazil has to inform South Africa. In the Proceedings of the International Federation of Social Work Conference 2017, Tambo Conference Center, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Pehrson, K.L., Panos, P.T., Cox, S.E., Sorensen, A.L., & Perkins, M. (2010). Social workers’ postgraduate use of the IFD Interpersonal Communication Model. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 20(1), 88-103. DOI: 10.1080/10911350903256739.

Byrd, A.D., & Cox, S.E. (2007). Strict scrutiny of prospective adoptive parents: What children really need. In A.S. Loveless & T.B. Holman (Eds.), The Family in the New Millennium: Vol. 1. Strengthening the Family (pp. 204-220). New Jersey: Praeger Press. ISBN-13: 978-0275992392.

Cox, S.E., Panos, A.Panos, P.T, & Sheffield, W. (2005, Feb). The impact of "Stay Alive": An

HIV/AIDS educational program in Africa. Refereed paper presented at the 51st Annual Program Meeting (APM) of the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), jointly held with the 8th South Carolina University Technology Conference. New York, NY.

Pettys, G.L., Panos, P.T., Cox, S.E., & Oosthusen, K. (2005). Four models of international field placement. International Social Work. 48(3), 277-288. DOI: 10.1177/0020872805051705.

Panos, P.T., Pettys, G.L., Cox, S.E., & Jones-Hart, E. (2004). Survey of international field education placements of accredited social work education programs. Journal of Social Work Education, 40(3), 467-478. DOI: 10.1080/10437797.2004.10672301.

Sheffield, W. & Cox, S. (2004) Family enrichment program: A guide for strengthening families through weekly family night (2nd Ed.). Salt Lake City, UT: LDS Family Services and Latter-day Saint Charities.

Cox, S.E. (1995). Juvenile justice and delinquency prevention. In Social Work Speaks: NASW policy statements (3rd Ed.). Silver Spring, MD: NASW Publications.

Newly Inducted NASW Social Work Pioneer Hortense McClinton 2015

Nominate A New NASW Pioneer

Please note, Pioneer nominations made between today’s date through March 31, 2023, will not be reviewed until spring 2023.

Completed NASW Pioneer nominations can be submitted throughout the year and are reviewed at the June Pioneer Steering Committee Meeting. To be considered at the June meeting, submit your nomination package by March 31. To learn more, visit our Pioneer nomination guidelines.

New Pioneers 

Congratulations newly elected Pioneers!  Pioneers will be inducted at the 2023  Annual Program and Luncheon. Full biographies and event details coming soon.