In the 21st century, crime TV shows such as Law and Order: SVU, Criminal Minds and CSI: Miami have captured the public’s fascination with the legal and criminal justice system. An episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit that was aired in 2015 brought to light the impossibly high caseloads required of Child Protection Services (CPS) workers. The caseworker supervisor—played by comedian, TV talk show host and Oscar Award-winning actor Whoopi Goldberg—voiced the challenges of working in a field that is often times used as a scapegoat for society’s major problems such as poverty, drug addiction and crime, often leading to child abuse and neglect.
However, social workers employed by CPS are not as closely connected to the legal system as forensic social workers who—on the other hand—apply social work theories to real-world issues that are being addressed in the nation’s legal system. The field emerged in the past few decades out of a vital need to provide a bridge between the legal system and social work. The National Organization of Forensic Social Work (NOFSW) defines forensic social work as the application of social work to questions and issues relating to law and legal systems. Today, forensic social workers fulfill demanding job responsibilities to ensure the voice of their client is heard and respected within the legal justice system.
Responsibilities of a Forensic Social Worker
Forensic social workers are involved in both criminal and civil cases that can include termination of parental rights, juvenile and adult justice services, corrections, and mandated treatment. They fight against oppression that is exhibited through exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, violence, criminalization, and cultural dominance or imperialism. Forensic social workers assist individuals of all ages, handling child custody, juvenile arrest, and child maltreatment, elder abuse, divorce, civil disputes and criminal offending and imprisonment. The wide reach of the field of forensic social work touches the fields of healthcare, education and immigration.
Forensic social workers are responsible for providing diagnosis, treatment and recommendations for the criminal and juvenile justice populations and take part in the process of screening, evaluating and training law enforcement and other criminal justice personnel. They work to diagnose, treat, or make recommendations about mental status, incapacities, the best interests of minors, and a witness’s inability to testify—or they may serve as an expert witness themselves.
As counselors they may provide psychosocial counseling, group counseling or mediation services. As a case manager or liaison they link the legal world with the field of social work and as an expert witness providing court testimony they must demonstrate a deep understanding of the law—especially when facing critical review and rebuttal from the opposing counsel.
They must understand the legal environment since they may need to provide consultation, education or training to lawmakers, law enforcement personnel, criminal justice and correctional systems, attorneys, paralegals, law students and members of the public.
Other responsibilities of forensic social workers can include policy and program development; behavioral science research and analysis; and providing their professional opinions regarding mediation, advocacy, and arbitration. They may be employed across a wide variety of settings such as court systems, mental health agencies, rehabilitation centers, correctional facilities, hospitals, child and family agencies, prisons, and faith-based institutions.
One of the main challenges faced by forensic social workers today is working with lawyers. While the goal of social workers is to engage their clients through empathy and support and solve their problems, lawyers are competitively driven by a desire to win—often disregarding the cost. The challenge for forensic social workers—and lawyers—is therefore to reach a mutual common ground that would benefit both the client and society.
Education and Licensing Requirements
Obtaining a job in forensic social work will require at a minimum a Master’s Degree in Social Work. An MSW with a concentration in forensic social work will include classes that cover mental health symptoms and diagnosis as well as the criminal and juvenile justice systems. Upon completion of the degree, graduates should follow state licensing requirements and obtain the necessary national licensing through the American Bard of Forensic Social Workers (ABFSW). The National Association of Social Workers’ ACSW certification is another option for social workers, though the certification does not grand the legal authority to practice but rather serves as an added badge of accomplishment.
The job outlook for social workers is expected to grow at a rate faster than the national average—15 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics— with an average salary of $56,300 that varies based on location, experience, and education.
As forensic social workers continue to work alongside law enforcement, the legal system, and the vulnerable and disadvantaged, a TV episode highlighting the field’s accomplishments will be the least of the rewards. The highest and immeasurable reward for forensic social workers is the privilege to make an impact while walking with the few, on a path that is far from the spotlight.