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Forensic social work can be defined as the application of social work as it directly relates to issues involving the legal and law systems both criminally and civilly. A forensic social worker generally demonstrates competency in specialized skills in guiding clients through the ever-evolving complex legal system.
Forensic social workers usually have the capacity to work in numerous areas of the legal system. They are often involved directly with victim assistance programs, forensic mental health hospitals, law enforcement and correctional facilities (prisons and jails) along with the juvenile justice system. This includes in a residential or probation setting.
The Need for Forensic Social Workers
The need for social workers in the field of forensics has been on the increase over the last couple of decades. This is due to the extensive demands from the criminal justice system. The social workers perform their duties on numerous levels including working directly with families, individuals and groups within community and institutional systems. Forensic social workers have brought about a positive impact on the system through empowerment, advocacy, and through the benefit of therapeutic interventions for victims and offenders in a variety of settings.
To be successful as a forensic social worker, the individual must obtain a firm understanding of the criminal, juvenile and civil justice systems. In addition, they must achieve deep knowledge of how culture, religion and social economic situations involving their clients might directly impact necessary access to pertinent legal services.
The National Organization of Forensic Social Work (NOFSW) defines the practice of social work more broadly. Social workers in the field of forensics are typically involved in child custody issues that often involve neglect, divorce, separation, and the termination of a parent’s rights. They also directly handle the implications and outcome of spousal and child abuse. They work closely with adult and juvenile justice services and corrections, along with effective treatment mandated by the court system.
The social worker provides training, education and consultation to lawmakers, paralegals, attorneys, law enforcement personnel, juvenile justice and criminal justice in the correctional systems within their state. They might also be involved in the diagnosis, treatment and recommendations concerning children’s interest, mental status, incapacities, and the inability or ability to testify.
A forensic social worker is often called upon to serve as an expert witness in a case. In addition, they help screen, evaluate and treat criminal justice personnel including law enforcement. They also serve other functions including program and policy development along with arbitration and mediation. They often serve as an advocate for a client.
It is imperative that forensic social workers become familiar with the ins and outs of adversarial legal processes. They must understand exactly how the entire process works as it relates directly with their responsibilities as a social worker. They must also maintain a strong familiarity with all functions of criminal and civil court cases.
As a Consultant
Forensic social workers often take on jobs as a direct consultant in numerous aspects of the state’s legal system. They are often called upon to share their experience and professional expertise with lawyers, judges, lawmakers and law enforcement personnel. Typically, their work as a consultant is to create a firmer understanding of how social work relates directly to a particular legal situation.
It is often up to the forensic social worker to assess and evaluate the mental capacities of individuals participating in a trial before they are allowed to take the stand. This could include witnesses, defendants, law enforcement personnel, and literally anyone that could be directly involved with a particular court case at trial.
As an Expert Witness
More often than not, forensic social workers can be called to court to serve in the capacity of an expert witness during the trial. Their testimony is usually required to provide assessments and evaluations of domestic or mental situations as they pertain directly to the court case.
Usually, the professional responsibility called upon by the forensic social worker is to ensure they respect the limitations or boundaries of their profession. The limitations are often challenging when the individual becomes heavily involved in trial work or casework.
Social work at a forensic level is considered a prominent profession within the community of criminal justice. A successful social worker performs their duties on the fundamental principles and standards of restorative justice. This includes principles of accountability, competency development and community safety.
Having the duties of a treatment provider, a forensic social worker follows basic ethics and values as it relates to the criminal and civil justice system. They are typically professional exposed to social issues in the community in which they have a direct impact on the positive outcome of individuals moving through the criminal or civil courts.