Social workers are increasingly required to appear in court as key expert witnesses. What does this involve and how do social workers become “court ready”?
In recent years, social workers have become increasingly valued as expert witnesses across a wide range of areas including domestic violence, child welfare, parental rights, sexual assault, guardianship, mental and physical personal injury, disability, competency and criminal culpability.
For those who work in child welfare or the juvenile or criminal justice system, going to court may be part and parcel of the job. In court, there are important opportunities as a social worker to provide support for clients and, hopefully, improve the system.
The Role of Social Workers as Expert Witnesses
Social workers play a critical role as expert witnesses, using their skills, training, and experience to interpret complex information and make recommendations. Courts rely on this information as the basis for decisions and their testimony can sometimes be the only major evidence provided at trial.
There are many times when judges and courts need to be educated by someone with greater expertise in order to make sound decisions. For example, in family law cases a judge needs information from experts who are more intimately acquainted with the child, the family’s specific circumstances and their history in order to make decisions about where a child should live or who should have custody.
In the U.S. Supreme Court case of Wiggins v. Smith, the court overruled Wiggins’ original death sentence in a capital murder case due to Wiggins’ psychosocial history, which was prepared by a licensed social worker and was not presented to the jury in the original sentencing proceedings.
How to be Court Ready
Social workers must present to court as credible, informed and reliable witnesses. Preparation is key and should be an ongoing part of how social workers practice day to day, keeping their notes and case files always court-ready.
Social workers must always keep in mind considerations around social worker-client confidentiality and privilege laws, as well as exceptions made by the courts.
The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics states: “Social workers should be alert to and avoid conflicts of interest that interfere with the exercise of professional discretion and impartial judgment.”
Social workers preparing to serve as expert witnesses should read up as much as possible about the litigation, evidence, due process and expert witness testimony involved, and consult with experienced social work expert witnesses. It’s also a good idea to seek a range of mentorship and development opportunities, whether that’s shadowing expert witnesses or investing in further education and training.
Learning How to be an Expert Witness
Social workers required to be expert witnesses must understand a range of legal terms and processes, including documentation, discovery, deposition, subpoenas, testifying, examination and cross-examination.
They need to have advanced knowledge of the established principles of social work as well as the processes associated with the criminal justice system.
Social workers must be able to convey information in language that is meaningful in a courtroom and their conclusions and observations must be able to withstand critical review. This requires ongoing education in both social work and legal proceedings.
Learning on the job plays an important role, with agencies often getting employees to shadow skilled social workers who have testified in the past.
The required education for a social worker to be considered an expert witness typically includes a bachelor’s degree in social work, followed by a Master’s of Social Work (MSW) degree from an institution accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).
An MSW provides a more solid foundation of knowledge about the intersection of social work and the law, with concentrations available in forensic social work.
To find out more about an MSW degree and how it could help you become an expert witness or a forensic social worker, visit our Find an MSW Program page and use our degree comparison table to discover the right program for you.