Social work is a field dedicated to social justice, therefore, work within the justice system in the United States is a natural calling for many social workers. Individuals and families involved with the criminal or civil justice system are often in need of intermediaries who can advocate on their behalf and support them in navigating legal processes. A Master of Social Work degree provides opportunities for students to gain extensive training in conducting bio-psycho-social assessments, connecting clients to needed resources, and intervening with various agencies to ensure that clients’ rights are respected. All of these skills are utilized on a daily basis by forensic social workers in a variety of job settings. Individuals with a particular interest in working with or transforming the justice system should consider pursuing a career in forensic social work.
Forensic social work is broadly defined by the National Organization of Forensic Social Workers as “the application of social work principles to questions and issues relating to law and legal systems.” In the forensic field, social workers are able to apply their advocacy, counseling, and case management skills to individuals interacting with the justice system, both victims and perpetrators, to safeguard their human right, support in recovery, and ensure that legal processes are carried out in ways that are just and respectful of human dignity. In order to engage with civil and criminal justice systems at the micro, mezzo, or macro level, forensic social workers should have specialized knowledge and training in legal processes and the issues that justice systems confront in order to ensure their competence and expertise.
A forensic social worker’s role is likely to include the following key areas of practice:
Liaising with the Justice System
Forensic social workers on many types of cases within the justice system. Possible cases might include working with:
- criminal offenders and/or victims
- families in child welfare, child custody, or child abuse/neglect cases
- juvenile offenders
- elder abuse cases
- domestic violence or spousal abuse cases
- divorce cases
Thus forensic social workers can expect to come into contact with a wide variety of individuals in varying circumstances who are in some way involved with the criminal or civil justice system. In all such cases, one of the forensic social worker’s key roles is to act as a liaison or intermediary between the client system and the justice system. Forensic social workers have the legal expertise to work within the court system, and other settings (correctional facilities, prisons, hospitals, child and family agencies), interfacing with various actors within the legal system to support clients’ well-being and progress toward justice and recovery. Forensic social workers may be called upon to give expert testimony in court cases, communicate with lawyers and law enforcement officials, provide professional opinions to legal representatives, and assist clients in understanding and navigating complex legal processes.
It is essential for forensic social workers to have advanced clinical skills, as they will be working with clients who have often experienced severe trauma or are placed in difficult circumstances. As clinicians, forensic social workers provide support services to clients throughout their involvement with the legal system. These activities may include:
- Conducting formal psychiatric evaluations, bio-psycho-social assessments, risk assessments, or social histories of clients for use in formal court proceedings
- Providing support services to clients in the form of individual counseling, group therapy, and intervention programs
- Providing emotional support and counseling services to families in crisis
- Creating care plans for clients specific to their setting
- Conducting regular mental health evaluations with clients
- Providing care coordination and case management services to connect clients to other resources
- Supporting clients as they transition into or out of legal facilities (psychiatric hospitals, prisons, etc).
Working with Interdisciplinary Teams
Because the legal system is so complex and crosses many disciplinary boundaries, forensic social workers almost always collaborate with individuals from other fields in service to their clients. Clients involved with the justice system are often working with lawyers, law enforcement officials, judges, psychiatrists, doctors, educators, and other professionals who provide specific services relevant to each case.Forensic social workers bring a unique perspective to legal proceedings that emphasizes client-centered approaches to the case, emphasizing treatment with dignity and respect within punitive processes that are often unfeeling and dehumanizing. Therefore, forensic social workers are often called upon to provide training to lawyers, law enforcement officials, and judges that foster empathy and new understandings of human behavior. Some forensic social workers work on interdisciplinary teams specifically designed to provide holistic support to clients. Others will not have formal connections to professionals in other disciplines, but will come into contact with those working on the case and will need to communicate and collaborate effectively with them.
The work of a forensic social worker is not limited to these roles. Many social workers employed in the forensic field address macro-level policy issues through policy and program development, or act in educational roles providing teaching, training and supervision. Forensic social workers may also engage in research and data analysis related to their areas of expertise, or take on roles in mediation, arbitration, or advocacy.
For social work graduates looking to employ social work skills and perspectives within the legal system, a career as a forensic social worker offers a diverse array of opportunities and settings in which to work toward justice.