As principal advocates for disenfranchised, marginalized, and disaffected communities, social workers must operate in different environments and settings to best serve their clients. At the intersection of social work and the law is the rapidly growing field of forensic social work. To best apply the core tenets of social work through the legal system, forensic social workers ultimately serve their clients in any way that is connected to civil and criminal court systems.
What Is Forensic Social Work?
As the National Organization of Forensic Social Work (NOFSW) defines the profession, the field is “based on specialized knowledge drawn from established principles and their application, familiarity with the law, painstaking evaluation, and objective criteria associated with treatment outcomes.” Because of their importance across a variety of cases given attention in criminal and civil courts, forensic social workers must have an advanced knowledge base of the legal system to provide the most effective support.
What Does a Forensic Social Worker Do?
A forensic social worker must practice in a variety of capacities and contexts in and around the legal system. As a result, these kinds of practitioners “engage only in forensic activities within their areas of competence and expertise,” according to the NOFSW. Some of these competencies include:
- Mental health diagnosis
- Expert witness testimony
- Private consultation
- Behavioral analysis
- Policy amendments
Different kinds of forensic social workers have different focuses. And through these different approaches to the role, these kinds of social work practitioners can provide proactive support to diverse communities.
Forensic Social Work Cases and Responsibilities
Forensic social workers operate in different capacities in the legal system to ensure that the people they serve receive the resources and support they need. Some of these responsibilities include:
- Assisting with rehabilitation: To help curb higher recidivism rates and to support the formerly incarcerated in their entry back into society, forensic social workers must work to provide necessary rehabilitation and mental health resources. In this capacity, those assisted by social workers will be in a significantly better position to find the help they need and build a sturdy support network.
- Civil disputes: Forensic social workers often intervene in civil disputes known as the adversary process. Forensic social workers must carry with them an established set of legal tools to offer expert testimony, advocacy, or mediation strategies to different parties.
- Child custody: When child custody hearings are introduced in the courts, forensic social workers may at times play a pivotal role in determining which party will best serve the needs of the child or children. Especially in instances where one or both parents are found to be unsuitable guardians for their children, social workers will have to find the best avenues to aid in the welfare of the child.
- Child abuse or neglect: In instances where Child Protective Services (CPS) have already intervened and have introduced child custody proceedings in the court system, forensic social workers must make assessments to best support the needs of the child. Forensic social workers, in these instances, must work to find the best solutions that benefit the safety and welfare of the victim or victims.
- Correctional system abuse: When abuse is suspected to be taking place at correctional facilities, forensic social workers must investigate to make an informed, measured assessment. As advocates for victims, forensic social workers will offer support to people who are incarcerated if a correctional officer or officers have been reported for inmate abuse or mistreatment.
- Parolee reintegration into society: Outside of the mental health and substance abuse resources that they provide, forensic social workers also offer materials that help parolees find housing, jobs, food, and other essential resources to help them integrate into society more comfortably and equitably.
- Spousal abuse: In cases involving domestic violence, forensic social workers aid victims in finding new housing situations, securing mental health services that will have an immediate impact, and advocate as practitioners for their clients’ welfare.
- Training law enforcement and corrections personnel: Especially in instances where legal personnel are called to manage defendants with mental health issues, forensic social workers can step in to provide in-depth and hands-on training.
Forensic social workers operate across an array of environments largely in legal capacities. To practice social work and advocacy operations effectively, forensic social workers offer their services primarily in the following areas:
- Civil and criminal courtrooms: As social justice advocates and support systems for vulnerable communities, forensic social workers intervene in criminal and civil court proceedings to offer expert testimony, mental health assessments, and legal recommendations.
- Psychiatric and mental health hospitals: As trained crisis interventionists and as mental health practitioners, forensic social workers enter psychiatric and mental health hospitals to support those who have experienced trauma or are suffering from mental illness. In these areas, forensic social workers intervene to provide treatment plans, therapy and counseling services, and materials to support their clients.
- Legal advocacy organizations: To help support especially vulnerable populations and communities navigating the criminal justice system, forensic social workers will often aim to coordinate with other legal practitioners to ensure that disenfranchised individuals receive the representation they need. In this capacity, marginalized people can receive the legal help to which they otherwise might not have access.
- Agencies that provide victim support: For victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and/or child abuse, forensic social workers help victims navigate their trauma. In this specific role, forensic social workers provide counseling services, legal advice, trauma-based education, community resource materials, and emotional support.
- Corrections facilities: To serve people who are incarcerated, forensic social workers ensure their clients receive the treatment they need. From mental health evaluations and assessments, counseling and care services, and materials to help the formerly incarcerated enter society safely and appropriately, forensic social workers are helpful assets to those residing in correctional facilities.
The demand for social workers across the board is rising. From mental health services to community advocacy, the need for social workers across environments is continuing to grow. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, social worker positions are expected to grow by 12% through 2030. In other words, 89,200 social worker positions will be created in the next decade. This means that as social workers continue to have an increased presence in agencies and organizations that serve different populations, different kinds of practitioners will be needed to serve different people. Because forensic social workers offer support to all kinds of people navigating the civil and criminal justice system, the need for those positions will continue to increase as well.
Forensic Social Worker Salary
The current average annual salary for a social worker, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is $51,760 breaking down to $24.88 per hour. This rate changes based on the kind of position, how much experience the social worker has accumulated going into the role, and the geographic location of the position influenced by the local economy. For example, urban areas, because of their typically higher cost of living, traditionally offer a greater compensation package than a rural counterpart.
How to Become a Forensic Social Worker
There are several avenues for forensic social workers to enter the field. While some social workers may be able to find their way into entry level positions after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) , most will complete a master’s degree to gain the necessary educational experience required by many organizations. Because the vast majority of BSWs programs and MSWs programs will require a practicum field work component or an internship, students will be able to gain critical experience with working as a social worker.
Only a few programs that exist right now offer a specific course of study focusing on forensic social work. To help mitigate this barrier to entry, many programs offer students the ability to take electives in disciplines that include criminal justice or pre-law study.
Bachelor’s Degrees in Social Work
BSWs in general can be viewed as great points of entry to the field of social work. And when students are able to apply a more interdisciplinary approach to their study, BSWs can also be excellent launch pads for a greater focus on forensic social work. The following social work bachelor’s programs all have practicum field work or internship requirements, meaning that students can also use that opportunity to learn from other practicing forensic social workers.
King University’s Online BSW
With a physical campus located in Bristol, Tennessee, King University is a Presbyterian-affiliated university that features a Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredited online Bachelor of Social Work. The program’s more general approach to social work means that you’ll have the opportunity to gain a broader view of the expectations governing social workers across environments and contexts. As a result of the wider concentration of social work practice, students will learn more about mental healthcare, child protection, welfare, and advocacy, case management, policy analysis, and substance abuse counseling. Because many of these aspects and expectations feature in the career activities of a forensic social worker, King’s online BSW can serve as an excellent introduction into the profession.
The program requires 400 hours of field practicum education, which means students are able to gain vital industry experience at the location or locations of their choosing. For students aiming to gain an advanced understanding of forensic social work, it would be in their best interest to work with an organization that offers services tied to that field.
For major coursework, students can expect to complete their core, degree-focused classes in a few as 16 months. The program is split between major coursework and general education or elective classes. While 52 semester hours, or 11 courses, are required to complete the degree, students are able to transfer in most if not all of the other 72 required hours, depending on departmental approval. Through the program’s comprehensive view of social work, students are invited to learn the foundational tenets of forensic social work. Topics that cover this focus include community and organizations practice, social welfare policy, and human diversity and ethical issues. Through this guided coursework, students can expect to receive the training necessary to sit for a licensing exam after graduation.
Greenville University’s Online BSW
The online BSW offered by Greenville University offers a two-pronged focus: to prepare social workers to enter the field or to begin a master’s degree in the field after graduation. With a generous transfer credit policy, students can enter the program with 69 of the total 120 credits required for graduation. When students take advantage of this degree-completion component, they are typically able to graduate in two years. Under the guidance of practitioner-faculty members, students are supported as they seek post-graduation career placement or graduate study.
Through the program’s 46-credit major-specific course load, students will dive into an integrated focus that covers both the foundational principles of social justice and criminal justice. In this capacity, the program is excellent for aspiring forensic social workers. The program’s Upper Division Elective specifically gives students the opportunity to learn more about the intricacies and policies governing the civil and criminal court systems. This means students will be able to graduate with an already pronounced and developed grasp on what it takes to serve as a social worker in the legal system.
Greenville University’s online BSW also requires 400 hours of in-person practicum field work. Because the program is online, students are given greater flexibility on where and when they wish to complete this portion of the degree. Again, those interested in pursuing a career in forensic social work should consider working with an agency or organization that specializes in supporting individuals and their families as they navigate court proceedings. The online BSW is accredited by the CSWE, so graduates will gain the necessary preparation and confidence to sit for their licensure exam.
Campbellsville University’s Online BSW
Campbellsville University’s online BSW features a comprehensive overview of the foundations of social work practice and policy. In its broad approach, students are invited to gain an advanced understanding of areas that cover marriage and family relationships, social and legal policy, and crisis intervention strategies. In the 51-credit major-specific curriculum in the fully online BSW, students are able to tailor their advocacy concentration through social work area core courses and approved cognates / electives. This means that students will develop the tools necessary for practice or graduate school after graduation.
The program feeds into Campbellsville’s online MSW, which is an excellent opportunity to refine the skills required for licensed social work practice. The BSW is accredited by the CSWE, and the online format of the degree offers students a flexibility that affords a healthy work, life, and school balance. With faculty that also has a breadth of experience working with non-traditional, returning students, the program welcomes new students from all backgrounds. Additionally, the small class sizes that the degree track features make for a more interactive, engaging experience.
While the program doesn’t highlight any specific coursework on forensic social work, the degree does feature 28 credits of free electives, all of which can be completed in another discipline. For social workers aiming to gain a greater understanding of the legal system, it’s recommended that they choose to pursue courses in criminal justice. These will provide a helpful platform with which to dive deeper into underpinnings of what makes for a successful forensic social worker.
East Central University’s Online BSW
With 8-week courses and a competitively priced cost-per-credit of $264.25, East Central University’s online BSW is an immersive introduction into the field of social work. In the online classroom, students can expect to engage with a curriculum that focuses on community advocacy, diversity, and research methods. Accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), East Central University’s online BSW features competitive internship opportunities in place of required practicum field work touted by other programs.
As a generalist program, the online BSW from East Central University does not contain specific courses or topics that focus on forensic social work. But as an introduction into the field, students can balance their BSW coursework with electives in criminal justice. By taking these relevant courses, students will gain a greater understanding of how to practice social work in legal contexts and settings. As far as the core social work courses go, students can expect to gain a greater understanding of human rights, social, economic, and environmental justice, practice-based research methods, and the intersection of diversity and social work policy.
To support returning students, the program accepts up to 94 transfer credits. When students take advantage of the generous transfer credit policy, they can graduate in less time. It’s estimated that students typically need between two and four years to complete the program.
Notre Dame College’s Online BSW
A dynamic entry point into the field of social work, Notre Dame College’s online BSW trains aspiring social workers through a generalist approach. Across 77 major-specific credits, students will learn the foundational skills required for entry-level roles, graduate school, or licensure after graduation. The curriculum in the program balances social work theory with research derived from practical, real-world situations. To give students the training they need to enter the field, the online BSW covers topics that include:
- Social work policy
- Human behavior and mental health
- Generalist practice
- Crisis intervention
Of the required 71 major-specific credits, 16 are dedicated to field practicum and seminar study. Students go out into the field and engage with a community and organization of their choosing, coming back to constructively and practically reflect on their experiences in classes to inform their foundational understanding of the work and build hands-on experience. This component of the degree prepares students for real-world social work practice. For budding forensic social workers, it’s recommended that students choose a relevant agency or organization that promotes progress in the field.
Our Lady of the Lake University’s Online BSW
Our Lady of the Lake University’s online BSW features a unique focus: advocating, supporting, and serving the growing Hispanic population in the United States. As the first school of social work in Texas, founded in 1942, OLLU features a dedication to preparing social workers through an interdisciplinary approach. In the program, students can expect to engage in coursework that covers economics, statistics, psychology, government practice, and sociology. As a result, students are prepared with an advanced knowledge base to serve individuals and families, particularly those identifying as Hispanic.
The program prepares students to sit for the Licensed Social Worker (LSW) exam at a bachelor’s level. From this focus, OLLU is also accredited by the CSWE, meaning that students will cover the core competencies laid out by the accrediting body. With a generous transfer credit that allows students to transfer up to 72 previously completed credits and with dynamic local field work placement opportunities, the program is designed to prepare the next generation of social workers. From the required 450 field placement hours that students complete over three academic terms, students will gain hands-on experience as a social worker.
Point University’s Online BSW
The online BSW from Point University features a three-pronged approach to prepare tomorrow’s social workers:
- An overview of the physiological, psychological, sociological, and spiritual growth in humans.
- A research-based, ethical approach to serve individuals, families, and communities.
- The effective assessment and case management strategies that comprises social work practice.
The flexible, fully online program also features a substantial transfer credit policy, allowing students to enter the program with up to 90 credit hours, depending on departmental approval. The program’s faith-based foundation equips students to enter into their social work practice with a biblical basis, serving their community from a spiritual perspective. Smaller class sizes provide a 13-to-1 student to professor ratio allowing students an immersive relationship with a faculty dedicated to preparing students to become leaders in the practice of social work.
To train future forensic social workers, the program contains an interdisciplinary approach that produces graduates who are more familiar with operating within the legal system. Students in the program will likely have to take courses in other disciplines like criminal justice to gain the advanced knowledge required for practicing forensic social work.
Forensic Social Work Master’s Programs
While many social workers will be able to find entry-level employment with a BSW, many who choose to become licensed as social workers will ultimately complete their MSW. The following MSWs feature coursework that focuses on forensic social work practice.
Widener University’s Online MSW
Widener University’s online MSW offers several tracks for students to take as they seek graduate study. The CSWE-accredited program provides students with two central admission types:
- Regular Admission: The flagship 57-credit program admits students who have completed an undergraduate degree in any discipline. Applicants do not need to have graduated with a BSW to be considered for entry.
- Advanced Standing: The 36-credit program is designed to support applicants who have completed a BSW within the last six years. The shorter program can typically be finished in two years.
The online MSW at Widener University contains an overall focus on trauma. Because of this concentration, students will develop practices based in response to trauma and the mental health challenges that surround it. This focus factors into the ways that the MSW prepares future forensic social workers. In the program’s course Social Work in Prisons and Community Reintegration, students learn how to work with and support people who are or have been incarcerated. Students must investigate the systems of oppression that make incarceration more likely and more frequent for certain populations and communities. The course includes an emphasis on how social workers can help reform correctional facilities and the systems that govern them in order to more equitably serve currently or formerly incarcerated people.
Sacred Heart University’s Online MSW
The online MSW at Sacred Heart University is CSWE-accredited and features two specialization tracks from which students can choose. The Direct Community Practice specialization promotes a deeper understanding of social welfare, mental health counseling, and social behaviors, while the Direct Clinical Practice specialization focuses on the treatment options that graduates can provide after finishing a clinical practicum and research study. Both concentrations can apply to the skills students need to pursue a career in forensic social work.
Outside of the two specializations, the program features regular admission and advanced standing tracks. Students who navigate the program through its regular standing avenue must complete 60 credits typically over 3.5 years, while those in advanced standing must only finish 60 credits usually through 20 months. The program also contains a 500 to 1,000-hour field work requirement, which students can complete with organizations of their choosing over four courses.
The program features a course specifically on forensic social work, where students grapple with the theory and practice of the specialized kind of social work. Through this course, students learn how macro, mezzo, and micro systems are influenced and directly affected by criminal justice institutions, with a concentration on legal and political advocacy for marginalized communities. By taking this elective, students gain a greater understanding of what’s to be expected by becoming a forensic social worker.
Aurora University’s Online MSW
With one of the only outright forensic social work specializations, Aurora University’s online MSW offers a customizable curriculum taught by expert social work practitioners. The CSWE-accredited program mirrors the graduate-level program administered on campus. While the generalist curriculum, which does not have a specialization track, includes 27-credits, the specialist curriculum covers 33 credits. The program requires that students have completed any undergraduate degree from an accredited institution, not necessarily a BSW.
In the forensic social work specialization, students are granted the opportunity to learn how to apply the tenets of social work practice to legal situations. Over nine credits, students will dive into the intersection of social work and the law. Additionally, students dive deeper into how different clinical strategies can benefit marginalized and disenfranchised populations. The concentration features coursework on subjects which include forward-thinking mediation practices and how best to serve vulnerable populations equitably.
Other Concentrations in Forensic Social Work
- University of Kentucky: Online MSW with Concentration in Individualized Plan of Study. As a leader in social work education that prioritizes crucial community engagement, the program at UK has also been recognized as a Diversity Champion and as a Top 30 LGBTQ-friendly college.
- George Mason University: Online MSW with Specialization in Children, Youth, and Families. George Mason’s focus on integrating intersectionality and diversity into social work practice has made it a top destination for aspiring practitioners.
- Northern Arizona University: Online MSW with Specialization Behavioral Science Cognate in Justice Studies
- University of Tennessee: Online MSSW with Concentration in Evidence-based Interpersonal Practice
Doctoral Degrees in Social Work (DSW)
For students aiming to contribute as researchers and professors of forensic social work, DSWs may be a compelling choice. As the apex of social work scholarship, students must typically enter with an MSW and with direct work experience in the field.
Sacred Heart University’s Online PhD
The online PhD in social work from Sacred Heart University is structured to accommodate students who aim to serve as thought, research, academic, and community leaders in the field. For those considering a career as a university educator and social work researcher, the online PhD in social work can be completed in a part-time, asynchronous capacity. Sacred Heart University also features an on-campus version of the PhD, where students can participate in a graduate teaching assistantship that helps offset some of the costs of the degree.
The PhD program features expert faculty who strive to build inclusive learning environments that ultimately promote the models of anti-racist approaches to education, research, and the practice of social work. The program contains 39 coursework credits, 3 credits dedicated to proposing a dissertation, and 12 credits to creating the dissertation. These credits typically take 3 or more years to complete.
The course on forensic social work is administered in practically the same capacity as it is in the school’s MSW program. By earning an online PhD in social work, graduates will be able to pursue leadership positions in a variety of settings. These include:
- University or college professor
- Nonprofit organization director
- Community-based researcher
Forensic Social Work Certification
For those who have completed some level of higher education in social work but wish to gain a greater focus in forensic social work, some certification options are worth consideration. Each of these, administered by the National Association of Forensic Counselors (NAFC), can prove different competencies and skills to employers and to eventual clients.
Certifications that forensic social workers should consider pursuing include:
- Certified Forensic Counselor (CFC)
- Certified Criminal Justice Specialist (CCJS)
- Certified Sex Offender Treatment Specialist (CSOTS)
- Certified Juvenile Sex Offender Treatment Specialist (CJSOTS)
- Certified Juvenile Treatment Specialist (CJTS)
- Certified Cognitive Behavioral Therapist (CCBT)
- Certified Domestic Violence Counselor (CDVC)
- Certified Forensic Social Worker (CFSW)
- Certified Forensic Interviewer (CFI)
Outside of these important certifications, the NAFC also offers several options centering on addiction. There are clinical and non-clinical levels to each of these certifications offered by the NAFC.
Across the country, there are state-specific licensing requirements to become a certified practicing forensic social worker. Different states have different requirements that forensic social workers must complete before they can practice legally. Be sure to check with your state’s licensing board to understand the clear expectations for facilitating forensic social work services. For more information on the process to becoming a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), reference our accessible guide.
While these licensing requirements are different from state to state, there are some basic industry similarities candidates can expect to encounter. Most prominently, candidates traditionally need to prove they’ve completed an accredited degree and passed a standardized licensing test to prove their social work eligibility and expertise.
Begin Your Forensic Social Work Journey
Forensic social work is a field growing in both open positions and demand. Because some of the most vulnerable populations and communities continue to have to navigate the United States’ sometimes incomprehensible legal system, trained social workers are needed now more than ever. By becoming a forensic practitioner, you will have the opportunity to promote more equitable policies that support disenfranchised individuals.
In a similar vein, some social workers are called to practice in related fields like child welfare or criminal justice spaces. Social workers in each of these roles often must collaborate to offer the most forward-thinking and compassionate solutions possible. Request more information about schools that can equip you with the skills to join this expanding field today.