Both a forensic psychologist and a social worker can be called to the stand as an expert witness to provide court testimony during the trial. However, there are unique differences that are specific to both forensic psychology and forensic social work.
A Career in Forensic Psychology
Forensic psychologists are typically portrayed in TV shows and movies as having psychic abilities in tracking down and capturing criminals. Others use their highly advanced psychic skills to instantly solve crimes. While this makes for high drama and interesting storytelling, the portrayals are not very accurate. In fact, the outcomes of court cases are not always as intense or high-stakes as perceived in storytelling as the forensic psychologist uses inference to help convict guilty criminals.
The reality is that many involved in forensic psychology are not actually forensic psychologists. They could be involved in the field in a variety of other capacities including as a school psychologist, clinical psychologist, counselor or neurologist that all share one thing in common. They typically will serve at a trial as an expert witness. At its most basic form, forensic psychology typically relates to applying practices and theories based on proven psychology in the arena of the justice system, both civilly and criminally.
However, there are psychologists that specifically work only in the criminal justice system. Others work in various areas directly related to the court system that include civil and family law. The Society for Police and Criminal Psychology indicates that a forensic psychologist may assist the court in a custody hearing, work with very young witnesses, help with insurance claims or determine whether a defendant can stand trial or serve as a witness on the stand.1
The overall scope of the field of forensic psychology is usually much different from traditional clinical psychology. Counselors and clinical psychologists tend to treat all of the patient’s mental and emotional needs over an extended length of time. Alternatively, a forensic psychologist is usually called upon to perform their duties in a very narrow scope. In addition, it is generally the court system that directs the forensic psychologist to see the patient or client usually against their own free will. When these individuals resist, it can often make the job as a forensic psychologist extremely challenging.
A Career in Forensic Social Work
A forensic social worker tends to work directly in the community with families, individuals and the homeless as a liaison to the criminal civil justice system. They will often assist those that are exposed to parental divorce, poverty, community and family violence, juvenile offending, criminal activity and the hardships that people often endure. The professional aspect of a forensic social worker is considered to be different than a traditional social worker, in that they work as an interface between human services and society’s legal system.
They are often directly involved with law enforcement personnel, attorneys, nurses, doctors and victim advocates. In addition, they work closely with family members, clients and judges along with nearly every aspect of the court system.
They typically work with numerous interdisciplinary teams that could include those that consist of:
- A common purpose
- Interaction and coordination
- Professionals making decisions from different perspectives
- Professionals of different disciplines
In fact, a forensic social worker must be highly skilled in diversity. They must understand all the aspects of vulnerable populations, cultural competence and how religion and other social factors play a key role in the problems of a society as it pertains to the court system.
They often work with family and children, child custody, child maltreatment, and juvenile custody and arrest. On an adult level, they work with civil disputes, divorce, separation and criminal offending. They need to be highly skilled at handling older adult situations including elder abuse, criminal offense and imprisonment.
They often work in a variety of contexts including with the court system, education, in hospitals, and family and child agencies, facilities for substance abuse, adult and juvenile correction centers, faith-based institutions, court systems, hospitals, and other health care facilities.
Forensic psychologists and forensic social workers play a key component in helping society operate smoothly. Both professions work in many of the same areas providing a valuable service to the community. They work with a variety of legal issues in both criminal and civil cases and in the legislative arena in helping to develop effective laws.