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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Joseph (Joe) T. Monahan, ACSW, JD
Joseph (Joe) T. Monahan

Pioneering Contributions

Joseph (Joe) T. Monahan, ACSW, JD, has had a social work career that is marked by tireless service, principled advocacy, and innovative leadership. Monahan established himself as a trailblazer in 1988 when he served as the plaintiff in the largest class action lawsuit brought on behalf of children in custody against the Department of Children & Family Services (DCFS) in Illinois. As the plaintiff, Monahan, through courage, collaboration and counsel brought attention to the need for extensive child welfare reform in the state of Illinois.

After two years of hard-fought litigation, Monahan was appointed by the Federal Court to serve as the Co-Chair of the Rule 706 panel which crafted a settlement leading to sweeping reforms in the Child Welfare System in Illinois. Monahan represented the plaintiffs on the Rule 706 Panel and held state-wide hearings for months where child welfare experts from across the country testified to needed reforms in the State of Illinois.

The work culminated in a written report with recommendations to the Federal Court resulting in a staged court ordered reform of DCFS. An article in the Chicago Tribune dated April 10, 2020 described the action as the “turning point,” stating that “the resulting 1991 consent decree brought the unified voices to the table to identify necessary reform measures that continue to guide Illinois’ child welfare system to this day.” It is fair to say that Monahan’s collaborative work and the subsequent reforms to the system helped save the lives of countless children within DCFS custody.

Four years later, Monahan served as trial counsel for the first same-sex adoption in Illinois. This trial and resulting appeal have permitted the creation of hundreds of new families in Illinois. In 1995 when this case was decided it was a pioneering case for same sex couples. It opened a whole new world for parents, children and families alike. “For the first time in Illinois, a court has declared that unmarried couples including gays and lesbians have the same adoption rights as married and single couples,” a Chicago Tribune article dated July 19, 1995 stated.

In 2011 in the case Johnston v. Weil 241 Ill.2d 169 2011, Monahan established an important precedent for the confidentiality of mental health records in domestic relations proceedings after arguing the case in the Appellate Court, winning the case in the Illinois Supreme Court. Today, this case is regularly cited by practitioners for the proposition that certain mental health records are not confidential when the court appoints an expert to do child custody evaluations. This precedent clarified for Judges, lawyers, and social workers when certain private information was and was not confidential.

Monahan’s deep personal commitment of service to NASW and the advancement of the profession is unmistakable and has impacted the profession as a whole. As a member of NASW for the past 44 years he has used his legal skill and social work values, volunteering on the state and national level. He has consulted with the national and state ethics committees, and was on the committee to rewrite the social work practice act in Illinois. He has regularly contributed legal opinions to Illinois chapter staff and has represented the Illinois Chapter in court.

On the national level, Monahan served as a Trustee of the Legal Defense Fund (LDF) for three terms and was the Chair for his last two years. After completing his service on the LDF, he was elected to the national board of NASW and served on its Executive Committee. During his service on the national board it was recommended that a Risk Retention Group (RRG) for NASW be created and Monahan, in collaboration with other pioneers, lead the efforts. When his service ended on the national board, he was invited to serve on the RRG Board of Directors. He was the first elected President of the Board of directors and has been reelected by the policyholders for three consecutive three-year terms. He has served as President of the Board for the past eight years. As President of the RRG Monahan has led the board with a steady hand. He has served an innovative group that reduced prices to policyholder by 10% while expanding critical coverage benefits for social workers.

Additionally, Monahan marshalled unprecedented growth in number of policyholders, created additional products of cyber liability and general liability, has maintained solid performance and excellent results for its policyholders. The company has grown to more than 70,000 policyholders nationwide and continues to grow approximately 10% each year.

Monahan has served on formal and ad hoc state and local committees that have drafted significant mental health legislation in Illinois for the past 25 years. This legislation has impacted mental health practitioners throughout Illinois, making it easier and more efficient to deliver mental health services to individuals in need. This legislation has impacted not only the client who receives the mental health services, but the professionals who serve them and the families and friends who support them. For example, his work was pivotal in the development of mental health legislation impacting how voluntary admissions to the hospital would be defined, how people who were refusing psychotropic medication could be lawfully medicated and expanding the way in which people could be committed to hospitals.

Career Highlights

After receiving his MSW in 1978, Monahan served as an Executive Director of a child welfare agency, after which he returned to school and achieved his JD. Subsequently, Monahan worked as a staff attorney for the State of Illinois in the Guardianship and Advocacy Commission. In 1990, he founded Monahan Law Group and has established himself as one of the preeminent mental health law attorneys in the country. He has built a unique law firm and practice like no other in the state and possibly the country, which weaves his social work ethics into the practice of law.

Under the guidance of Monahan, Monahan Law Group represents more than 80 hospitals and numerous mental health, child welfare, and social service agencies. The firm provides advice, counsel, and risk management services to protect clients’ rights and reduce risk for social services providers. Monahan’s leadership and innovation in his law firm has impacted thousands of clients, family members, social work professionals, and other social service professionals. His leadership and commitment to his community is evidenced by the expectation that all lawyers employed in the firm will be engaged in community service. His commitment to giving back to the community has been life long and infectious.

Monahan has been an educator for the past 27 years. He taught psychiatry in law at Northwestern University School of Law and has taught Mental Health Law at Loyola University College of law for the past 27 years. He also served as a faculty member of the Loyola Master of Jurisprudence (MJ) program teaching students all over the world to provide training for administrators and supervisors in social service agencies and departments to develop leadership skills for new health and social service opportunities through distance learning. His former students are prosecutors, public defenders and lawyers in private practice who work as advocates and administrators of health corporations and hospitals throughout the country. Monahan’s unique teaching style, innovation, and dedication to the social work profession has produced mental health leaders.

In addition to his formal teaching in law schools, Monahan has lectured throughout Illinois and the country for decades. He has regularly presented at NASW statewide conferences on risk management, the business of social work, recordkeeping and transitions to and from private practice. His approach to estate planning for private practitioners retiring from private practice protects both social workers and their clients. Monahan also has been a regular lecturer for social work organizations and bar association groups educating professionals on practical legal issues related to social workers. He has held leadership positions in the Chicago and Illinois State Bar Associations where he has regularly participated and led seminars on important issues for social workers and social service providers.

Biographic Data

Monahan was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, to Kathleen and Joseph T. Monahan, Sr. In his family of eight, he was surrounded by his five sisters and parents and was raised to value service, hard work, faith, and family. He developed a love of social work and emulated his sister, Mary Jo, by pursuing a degree in social work. He received his MSW from University of Illinois, Champaign, and his JD from DePaul University College of Law, Chicago. Monahan is married to the love of his life, Kathy, and is the father of four children and grandfather to two. 

Significant Achievements and Awards

  • 2014—Almost Home Kids, "Share the Care, Volunteer Extraordinaire”
  • Christ the Healer Award, Alexian Brothers
  • Excellence in Teaching” Award, Loyola University Chicago
  • 2013—Most Valuable Volunteer of the Year Award, Illinois Institute for Continuing Legal Education,
  • Selected to Leading Lawyers, 2008-2019
  • Selected to Super Lawyers, 2005-2020
  • Appointed the ISBA representative on the Senate’s Committee to revise the Mental Health Code
  • Contributor and Chair of the Competency Nine Task Force of the ASWB
  • Member, National Taskforce Steering Committee

Significant Publications

  • Co-Author, Final Consolidated Report of Rule 706 Panel of Experts, In Re: B.H., Northern District of Illinois, Case No. 88 C 5599
  • Author, 28:7 to 28:27, Chapter 28, Mental Health Issues, Law of Medical Practice in Illinois, 3rd, Vol. 22 (Illinois Practice Series), 2008
  • Author, Elder Abuse: Legal Definitions and Mandatory Reporting of Elder Abuse, Social Work Networker published by the NASW Illinois Chapter, May 1, 2009
  • Author, Legal Issues Affecting Elderly Clients - Medicare and Medicaid for the Elderly, Social Work Networker published by the NASW Illinois Chapter, October 1, 2009
  • Author, Legal Issues Affecting Elderly Clients - Incompetent Elderly Clients: Powers of Attorney and Guardianship, Social Work Networker published by the NASW Illinois Chapter, August 1, 2009
  • Author, Life Sustaining Treatment and the Law: The Evolution of Informed Consent, Advance Directives and Surrogate Decision Making". Beazley Institute for Health Law and Policy Annals of Health Law, Vol. 19, Issue 1, Special Edition, 2010, 107-113
  • Author, Powers and Duties of a Guardian of the Person: Guardianship for Disabled Adults,
  • Advance Directives, and Mental Health Law, Chapter 3, IICLE, 2011
  • Author, 28:7 to 28:27, Chapter 28, Mental Health Issues, Law of Medical Practice in Illinois 3rd, Vol. 22 (Illinois Practice Series), 2014 and 2015 Supplement
  • Curricular Guide for Licensing and Regulation, November 2018
  • Competency 9, Evaluate Practice with Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations and Communities
  • Author, Chapter 11, Mental Health Issues, Law of Medical Practice in Illinois, 3rd, Vol. 21-22 (Illinois Practice Series), 2020

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!  2020 & 2021 Pioneers will be inducted at the 2022 Annual Program and Luncheon. Full biographies and event details coming soon.