Forensic social work is a demanding, highly rewarding, and critical profession within the field of social work. How can social workers pursue this line of work, and what education and training is required?

Forensic social work is now a vital public service within the criminal justice system. Although the field is relatively new, thanks to today’s increasingly complex legal system, there is ever-growing demand for social workers skilled in this specialized profession.

What Is a Forensic Social Worker?

Forensic social work is the intersection between social work and the legal justice system. Forensic social workers apply their knowledge to help answer questions and issues relating to the law, by providing research and testimony in civil court and criminal court cases.

They work with populations in the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems across a wide range of areas, including child custody issues, domestic violence, mental health incapacitation, risk assessment of criminals, and trauma assessment of victims.

According to the National Organization of Forensic Social Work (NOFSW), functions of forensic social work practitioners can include providing consultation, education, or training to:

  • Criminal justice, juvenile justice, and correctional systems.
  • Law makers.
  • Law enforcement personnel.
  • Attorneys, law students, and paralegals.
  • Members of the public.
  • Policy and program development.
  • Mediation, advocacy, and arbitration.
  • Teaching, training, and supervising.
  • Behavioral science research and analysis.

Social Workers as Expert Witnesses

Prior to 1980, social workers rarely qualified as experts in legal proceedings. However, since the mid-1980s social workers have increasingly been recognized as valuable experts in courts of law.

This has greatly enhanced the professional standing and career outlook for social workers, placing them on par with other professionals, such as psychologists and psychiatrists, who are qualified to give evidence in court.

Educational Requirements for Forensic Social Workers

Forensic social workers must have advanced knowledge not only of the established principles of social work, but also of the processes associated with the criminal justice system.

This area of social work requires highly specialized knowledge, taken from established principles of social work and their application, as well as the ability to expose this knowledge to rigorous evaluation.

Social workers must be able to convey information in language that is meaningful in a courtroom, and their conclusions and observations have to be able to withstand critical review and rebuttal from opposing counsel. This requires a robust and ongoing education in both social work and legal proceedings.

Degree Requirements for Forensic Social Workers

After earning a bachelor’s degree in social work, aspiring forensic social workers are typically required to obtain a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree from an institution accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).

Throughout their career, forensic social workers will be expected to continue their education through courses, workshops, seminars, and on-the-job training relevant to the criminal justice system. Along with earning a state license to practice social work, forensic social workers are encouraged to pursue certification through the American Board of Forensic Social Workers (ABFSW) to obtain the best career credentials. 

While this field can be emotionally and highly demanding at times, forensic social workers value the capacity it gives them to make a significant contribution to society. Learn more about the difference you could make and start exploring your career in social work today.


Article Name
How to Become a Forensic Social Worker
What’s involved in the profession of forensic social work, and what education do social workers need to pursue this exciting career?