Domestic violence, spousal abuse and child neglect are harrowing family issues with significant legal implications. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, every minute, nearly 20 people in the U.S. are abused by an intimate partner, and the National Children’s Alliance reports that every year, nearly 600,000 children experience abuse or neglect. To help people in crisis, attorneys and law enforcement often call on experts in behavioral science and criminal justice, including forensic social workers.
Forensic social workers apply social work practices within the context of the legal system, lending their expertise in both criminal and civil cases. They may be involved in cases related to child custody or domestic abuse, provide diagnosis and treatment to individuals in the legal system (including juveniles), or serve as expert witnesses during a trial.
Learning more about what a forensic social worker is and their role in the legal system can help aspiring social workers determine whether this career path aligns with their values and skills. Pursuing an advanced education can also help prepare individuals for a career in forensic social work.
What Is Forensic Social Work?
Social workers often lend their expertise in court cases and other types of legal proceedings. Forensic social work applies the main principles of social work to cases litigated in the civil and criminal justice systems. In carrying out their duties, forensic social workers lean heavily on the profession’s core values, as outlined by the National Association of Social Workers:
- Social justice
- Dignity and worth of a person
- Importance of human relationships
Forensic social workers apply their skills and experience to civil disputes, adult or juvenile justice services, spousal abuse cases, cases relating to child abuse or child custody, and more. The proficiency that forensic social workers bring to the legal system has proven invaluable to attorneys, law enforcement, lawmakers and communities. Their ability to explain complex psychological concepts, coupled with their legal acumen, helps them contribute to more just outcomes.
What Does a Forensic Social Worker Do?
While forensic social workers may work in social services or mental health settings, their primary role is in situations involving litigation. They may be brought in to assist victims of crime and connect them with community resources, or provide guidance and support to children in the juvenile justice system.
Some of the typical duties of a forensic social worker include the following:
- Coordinate with individuals involved in legal proceedings such as police officers, attorneys, defendants, witnesses, and their families.
- Give expert witness testimony during court cases.
- Provide corrections personnel and members of law enforcement with advice pertaining to terms of probation and reintegration plans for criminal offenders.
- Diagnose individuals who are accused of committing a criminal offense to assess their mental status.
- Deliver treatment to juveniles and criminal justice populations.
- Serve as an advocate for plaintiffs, defendants or victims.
- Serve as a liaison between clients and various agencies such as mental health centers, addiction recovery centers and victim support organizations.
While these duties outline what forensic social workers do within the context of court proceedings, forensic social workers often have additional responsibilities. They may help conceptualize and develop social service programs and policies, or conduct behavioral science research. Forensic social workers may also provide education, consultation and training to law enforcement, attorneys, corrections officers and members of the public.
How to Become a Forensic Social Worker
Similar to other social worker roles, forensic social workers need to meet certain educational and experience standards before beginning practice. While each individual’s career journey will be unique, the following steps outline the ideal path to become a forensic social worker:
- Earn a Bachelor of Social Work degree. Students are encouraged to take coursework that examines the intersection between social work and the legal system.
- Gain experience via a forensic social work internship.
- Obtain a Master of Social Work degree. Forensic social workers may be called on to diagnose and/or treat individuals with mental health issues, which requires licensure in clinical social work. Having an M.S.W. is a prerequisite for practicing clinical social work.
- Earn certification through the National Organization of Forensic Social Work. While not always required, obtaining certification in forensic social work demonstrates an individual’s expertise in this particular branch of social work and may be beneficial for job seekers.
Forensic Social Worker Salary and Job Outlook
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the median annual salary for a social worker was approximately $50,390 in 2021; however, that figure accounts for the profession as a whole, encompassing all branches of social work.
Payscale reports that the average annual forensic social worker salary was approximately $47,300 as of November 2022. The salary range for the role was between $42,000 and $61,000. Education, experience, region and other factors can all affect salary.
Regarding job outlook, social work as a whole is a stable career choice. According to the BLS, employment of social workers will grow by 9 percent between 2021 and 2031, adding more than 60,000 new jobs.
Pursue a Career as a Forensic Social Worker
Forensic social workers serve as an important source of expertise in cases that involve child welfare, spousal abuse and mental health, and a wide variety of civil disputes. Their advanced training and education enable them to provide expert testimony as well as education and training to lawmakers, attorneys and law enforcement.
Becoming a forensic social worker entails getting the right education. The M.S.W. online format at Virginia Commonwealth University can help you develop the skills and knowledge required to work in the field of forensic social work, with coursework covering topics such as social justice and working with individuals who have mental, behavioral and emotional disorders.
Explore the program and learn how you can begin making a difference in the lives of individuals, families and communities with a career in social work.
Houston Chronicle, “How Do I Become a Forensic Social Worker?”
National Association of Social Workers, Read the Code of Ethics
National Association of Social Workers, Social Work and the Courts Specialty Practice Section
National Children’s Alliance, National Statistics on Child Abuse
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Statistics
National Organization of Forensic Social Work, Forensic Social Work
National Organization of Forensic Social Work, Forensic Social Work Certificate Program
Payscale, Average Forensic Social Worker Salary