What is Forensic Social Work?

With today’s increasingly daunting and ever-changing legal system, forensic social work is rapidly rising as a vital public service for offering psychological and behavioral services in the criminal justice system.

Although the field of forensic social work is relatively new, the rising number of court cases and growing prison populations nationwide are creating a large demand for qualified social workers to enter this specialized profession.

In order to help determine whether you would be a good match for taking advantage of the growing national interest in forensics, read on to learn more about the field of forensic social work as well as get a better look at the typical week in the life of a forensic social worker.

Definition of Forensic Social Work

While many mistakenly believe that forensic social work is limited to evaluating and treating criminal defendants in psychiatric hospitals, it is important to realize that the field is much more broad to encompass all social services within the civil and criminal justice systems, whether defendant or client-based. According to the National Organization of Forensic Social Work (NOFSW), forensic social work is defined as the “application of social work principles to questions and issues relating to law and legal systems.” Under this definition, forensic social work is concerned with various types of litigation, including child custody issues, child neglect, spouse abuse, juvenile or adult justice services, corrections, and civil disputes.

Functions of Forensic Social Work Practitioners

Forensic social workers typically use their legal expertise to work within court systems, child and family agencies, hospitals, mental health agencies, substance abuse agencies, correctional facilities, prisons, and faith-based institutions. In most cases, social workers provide consultation to law enforcement personnel, law makers, attorneys, paralegals, community members, correctional officers, doctors, and psychiatrists on interdisciplinary teams. Within their essential role, forensic social workers are usually responsible for diagnosing criminal populations, making recommendations about mental status, serving as expert witnesses, training law enforcement personnel, referring defendants to community resources, and developing advocacy programs in the criminal justice system.

How to Start a Career in Forensic Social Work

In order to successfully practice forensic social work, qualified individuals must possess advanced knowledge on the established principles of social work as well as the processes associated with the criminal justice system. After earning a bachelor’s degree in social work, it is typically required that aspiring forensic social workers obtain a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree from an institution accredited by the CSWE. While there are few programs that offer a formal academic concentration in forensic social work, it is recommended that you supplement your learning with courses, workshops, seminars, internships, and on-the-job training that is specifically relevant to the criminal justice system. Along with earning a state license to practice social work, forensic social workers are also encouraged to pursue certification through the American Board of Forensic Social Workers (ABFSW) for the best career credentials.

Overall, the emerging field of forensic social work consists of the application of social work theories to current real-world issues that are related to the nation’s legal systems. Since forensic social workers often are placed in stressful situations, individuals must possess strong problem-solving, time management, organizational, listening, and communication skills as well as compassion and empathy for their clients. Despite its obvious challenges, forensic social work is an in-demand field that provides qualified social workers with the rewarding opportunity to truly make a difference in today’s changing criminal justice system.

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