In recent decades, forensic social work has evolved into a separate profession as a result of the growing gap between social work and the legal field. That’s why forensic social workers have the difficult but important task of ensuring that their clients' voices are heard in the legal justice system, which can be a minefield for anyone attempting to navigate these issues alone. 

Specifically, these social workers assist individuals who are going through court proceedings, such as children who have undergone abuse, the elderly who have been mistreated, juveniles charged with crimes, and others in need of professional guidance during a legal case. So, be sure to read on as we delve deeper into what forensic social work is all about.

What Is Forensic Social Work?

Any level of social work that assists people involved in the criminal justice and legal systems is referred to as “forensic social work,” which is a broad and diverse field of practice.

Forensic social work is defined by the National Organization of Forensic Social Work as “the application of social work principles to questions and issues relating to law and legal systems.”

What Is a Forensic Social Worker?

A forensic social worker, also known as a criminal justice social worker, is a professional who uses their knowledge of social work to assist with legal matters. As the term suggests, a forensic social worker is someone who applies the social work skills they've acquired during the course of their university studies to the realm of criminal justice.

What Does a Forensic Social Worker Do?

Forensic social workers are in charge of family law cases that concern child abuse, child neglect, child custody issues, as well as spousal abuse. Moreover, these social workers are a crucial part of any lawsuit in the juvenile justice system, adult justice services, inmate reintegration, and substance abuse cases, though they are not limited to these matters.

It is the obligation of forensic social workers to assist those in need, like individuals who have been incarcerated or recently released, juveniles involved in the juvenile justice and court systems, and victims of sexual or domestic violence.

Essential in the fields of civil and criminal law, corrections, and social services systems, forensic social workers interact with all the professionals who are involved in these processes. Namely, they consult with judges, lawyers, and prosecutors so as to best help their clients. What’s more, forensic social workers collaborate with law enforcement officers, government employees, corrections officers, and other criminal justice personnel on a regular basis. As a result, their responsibilities vary depending on the environment in which they work and the people they are to assist.

Simply put, criminal justice social workers have substantial roles that include:

  • Testifying as experts
  • Instructing law enforcement personnel
  • Counseling vulnerable people
  • Conducting mental health evaluations 
  • Carrying out criminal population assessments
  • Working with children in child custody cases
  • Connecting criminal defendants with community resources
  • Developing advocacy programs, and
  • Participating in various civil rights organizations.

To ensure a comprehensive approach to each legal case, interdisciplinary teams of social workers frequently consult with lawyers, law enforcement, correctional staff, as well as medical and mental health professionals.

Forensic Social Work - Skills

Social workers in the forensic and criminal justice fields frequently work in high-stress situations where many people's lives and careers are at stake. In line with this, specific skills are required for success in the field.

Social workers engaged in criminal justice must be well-organized, have exceptional time management skills, and be able to maintain their composure under pressure.

Also, analytical and problem-solving skills are essential for aspiring forensic social workers. They need to be able to listen attentively and articulate clearly as they interact with a wide variety of clients and people in the course of their work.

Where Do Forensic Social Workers Work?

Forensic social workers are needed in a variety of settings and institutions, including courtrooms, juvenile detention centers, child welfare agencies, as well as shelters for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Here are some of the most common places where forensic social workers can be found:

  • Prisons and other correctional facilities: Forensic social workers are able to provide assistance to those who have been incarcerated, as well as those who are currently housed in a correctional facility or who will soon be released.

  • Programs for victim support and crisis centers: Victims of abuse and other forms of mistreatment can benefit from the close collaboration between forensic social workers and other professionals, who can offer them legal advice, therapy, and access to community resources.

  • Psychiatric hospitals and mental health agencies: Other examples of forensic social work settings include hospital psychiatric wards, where many have units specifically designed to help severely mentally ill adults or youth involved in the criminal justice system.

  • Legal advocacy organizations: Forensic social workers may choose to work for political and legal advocacy organizations to make long-term improvements for vulnerable people caught up in the criminal justice and court systems.

How to Become a Forensic Social Worker

We'll go over the fundamentals of what it takes to become a forensic social worker, which unifies a deep understanding of both the norms and practices of traditional social work and the procedures and protocols of the criminal justice setting.

Most Master of Social Work (MSW) programs look for a bachelor's degree in social work from an accredited institution or a degree in a related field when admitting students. For MSW forensic social work programs, a BSW is typically expected but not always required.

In your search for a Bachelor of Social Work degree, make sure to focus on schools that have been granted accreditation by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).

Step Two: Complete a Master of Social Work (MSW) Program

As mentioned, check for CSWE-accredited programs, as this is often a prerequisite for obtaining a license in your state. Also, look for MSW programs that focus on or include a forensic social work degree in their curriculum.

If you want to work with clinical social workers, you'll need a master's degree in social work to get licensed.

Step Three: ​​Gain Field Experience in Social Work and Seek State Licensure

Gaining social work field experience is typically required for licensure, though some of this experience is gained during BSW and MSW studies.

If you're interested in acquiring a license but don't want to specialize in clinical social work and mental health counseling, you can gain experience in another area of the criminal justice or legal system through supervised field work.

The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) typically administers the standardized exams necessary to earn a license. Each state has its own requirements for forensic social work certification and licensure, so check those before applying for a license in the state where you intend to work.

Step Four: Become a Certified Forensic Social Worker

Consider applying for the NOFSW-approved Forensic Social Work Certificate Program in addition to meeting state licensing requirements for social workers, as it is widely regarded as the gold standard for those pursuing a career in social work in criminal justice.

Once you have attained the required education, experience, and certifications that we previously mentioned, you can begin submitting applications for forensic social worker positions that interest you.

Conclusion: The Importance of Forensic Social Work

All in all, forensic social work is the application of social work theories to contemporary issues related to the nation's legal systems. Although social work is not without its challenges, it is a growing field that can provide qualified social workers with the opportunity to make a positive impact on the criminal justice system.

Individuals who want to work as social workers in criminal justice must not only be able to work efficiently under pressure, but also have compassion for the people they are helping, as they must frequently deal with adversity and injustice.