A Guide to Forensic Social Work

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Social work positions are expected to increase 12 percent by 2024, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. With this faster-than-average growth rate, those who seek employment in the field can expect to choose from a myriad of specialties. Forensic social work represents just one of these many career prospects.

Forensic social work is a relatively new concentration. It is defined as “the application of social work to questions and issues relating to law and legal systems,” according to the National Organization of Forensic Social Work. Forensic social workers focus their efforts on examining issues related to social work and the legal system, and they advocate for clients within the legal process.

Functions of the Forensic Social Worker

As professionals who straddle two different fields, forensic social workers may address a number of issues. Some include child custody, abuse cases of both juveniles and adults, corrections and mandated treatment. They may operate in a variety of settings, including:

  • Court systems
  • Correctional facilities and prisons
  • Faith-based institutions
  • Child and family agencies
  • Hospitals
  • Mental health agencies
  • Substance abuse agencies

Just as their professional environments combine both human services and legal settings, so too do their responsibilities reflect this. According to the University of Pittsburgh, forensic social workers may:

  • Work with both victims and offenders of crime by providing risk assessments, expert testimony, mental health care and substance abuse treatment.
  • Provide assessment and treatment in cases of child maltreatment and domestic violence.
  • Work with juvenile offenders by providing both assessment and treatment for their needs.
  • Provide services to adult offenders who face issues regarding mental health, drug and alcohol abuse or medical issues.
  • Professionally involve themselves in programs designed to assist trauma survivors, provide victim-offender mediation and prevent battery.
  • Assist in restorative justice efforts, including giving expert testimony in child welfare and domestic abuse situations as well as death penalty cases.
  • Determine whether criminals are capable of change by weighing the issues of punishment vs. rehabilitation and deterrence.

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of forensic social workers to try and bring solutions to the complex struggles of individuals and families in the legal system.

Becoming a Forensic Social Worker

Originally, forensic social workers had no formal preparation in their specialty. They instead became educated through a confluence of workshops, seminars, mentorships and on-the-job training. Although formalized programs in forensic social work are now growing, there are a number of independent steps that individuals should take if they wish to go into this field.

Forensic social workers require a strong education. They must earn at least a bachelor’s degree, preferably in a related field such as social work, psychology or sociology. Although students who obtain this level of education may go into social work, they may only be eligible for assistant or associate jobs. To increase both job prospects and earning potential, more education and training are usually required.

Further instruction comes in the form of earning both a master’s degree and state license in social work. Students may enter specific programs related to forensic social work or obtain a Master of Social Work degree and seek additional training. Licensure may involve additional years of supervised clinical social work experience. Because each state requires different credentials, it is important for those seeking to become forensic social workers to understand the specific regulations for the state in which they plan to practice.

Finally, those who do not study forensic social work specifically may gain training or certification in related topics. This may include forensic interviewing, in which students learn how to interview offenders and victims or how to testify in court, or obtaining a certification through a national forensic association. Although these are not requirements, they help tremendously in terms of advancing responsibility and career growth.

Education for a Growing Field

As the demand for forensic social workers increases, there will be a greater need for professionals with the necessary skills. Brescia University’s online Bachelor of Social Work and Master of Social Work programs offer the opportunity for students at any stage in their education to follow their dreams of making a difference. The programs can take as little as two years to complete, providing students with a fast-track to a better career.