Forensic social work primarily involves working with individuals, both juveniles and adults, who are involved with the legal system. The following are a few examples of cases that a forensic social worker may be involved with.
- Spousal abuse
- Civil disputes
- Child neglect or abuse
- Child custody
- Correctional system abuse claims
- Interfacing with rehabilitation centers
These provide just a few examples out of the many instances where a forensic social worker may be required. Typically forensic social workers have more legal expertise than a “normal” social worker.
What is a forensic social worker?
Forensic social workers can testify in court, train police officers and other law enforcement personnel and diagnose mental health problems in a prison population. A forensic social worker may work at a juvenile detention facility or a mental health facility, especially a facility for criminal defendants who have pled not guilty by reason of insanity.
One of a forensic social worker’s most important roles is providing expert testimony in court. For example, a forensic social worker’s testimony may be a deciding factor in cases regarding child abuse, child custody, domestic violence or drug and alcohol abuse. After the fact a forensic social worker may work with the victimized person or persons to connect them to resources to help speed recovery.
In regard to law enforcement it’s often a forensic social worker who is responsible for training law enforcement personal and corrections officers about proper procedures for dealing with defendants with mental health problems. Forensic social workers also commonly work with parolees to help them reintegrate into society.
Most forensic social worker positions require a master’s degree in social work. However, only a handful of universities offer a dedicated forensic social work degree. Instead, students who are interested in working in the field of forensic social work typically pursue a master’s in social work and then take electives on the side related to criminal justice. In this way a candidate can prepare for their future role in the legal system.
Although a master’s degree is typically required there are some forensic social workers who have found work in the field with only a bachelor’s degree. In this case a candidate must usually acquire a forensic social work certificate in addition to their bachelor’s degree in social work.
While a bachelor’s is a possibility it is also likely to limit a candidate’s job opportunities as many positions require a master’s degree. A master’s degree offers the maximum flexibility. Master’s degree holders also tend to earn a higher wage and advance further within an organization.
Picking the right master’s program
When considering a master’s program for forensic social work it’s very important to only take a degree from a university that’s accredited by the CSWE (Council on Social Work Education). Many potential employers will only consider hiring graduates from CSWE certified institutions.
Another factor to consider when choosing a master’s is whether the program has an internship or other program to provide the candidate with hands-on experience in the field of social work. There are two benefits of an internship.
- It looks good on a resume and may help the candidate to make industry connections and/or secure a better position in the field of forensic social work.
- Almost all Ph.D. programs require the applicant to have a year or two of hand- on social work experience. Thus if a student would like to go from a master’s to a Ph.D., doing an internship will be an easy way to speed up that process.
While completing their master’s degree a candidate should be actively considering how to further their education. As mentioned, few universities offer a dedicated forensic social work degree. Thus it will be up to the student to take elective courses as well as attend seminars, workshops, complete certifications and other practical training that will prepare them for their future role as a forensic social worker.
Where forensic social workers work
The following are some of the most common environments that a forensic social worker might be expected to work in.
- Correctional facilities and juvenile detention facilities – Besides working with prisoners experiencing mental health problems, forensic social workers may also support at risk prisoners and otherwise provide support for the prison population. Forensic social workers may also continue to work with prisoners after they’ve been paroled. Inside of a prison it will typically be the forensic social worker who refers a prisoner to psychiatric services or to specialized housing.
- Psychiatric hospitals – A forensic social worker may perform a similar role at a psychiatric hospital as they do in a prison; working to rehabilitate patients as well as coordinating with families and the court.
- Community organizations – Many forensic social workers find a job at community organizations where they’re often tasked with outreach work. For example, if an abusive parent is jailed a forensic social worker may visit the household to ensure that the remaining parent is capable of providing good care. A forensic social worker may also help a family to apply for local or federal financial resources.
- Appearing in court – As mentioned, a forensic social worker will typically spend more time testifying in court than other social workers. Some cases may involve children affected by someone in the family being incarcerated.
Forensic social worker career outlook
As a niche vocation it is difficult to find career outlook information relating specifically to forensic social work. Instead, it can be instructive to look at the career outlook for social workers in general. Those projections are good! The last time the BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics) published data was in 2018 and these were their findings.
- The overall projected growth rate for social work positions is 11 percent from 2018 to 2028. The BLS indicates that this level of growth is, “much faster than the average for all occupations.”
- For mental health and substance abuse social workers (forensic social workers generally fall under this subset) the career outlook is even better: a projected 18 percent growth from 2018 to 2028. According to the BLS one major reason for this strong growth is that, “drug offenders are increasingly being sent to treatment programs, which are staffed by these social workers, rather than being sent to jail.”
Given that the projected job rate growth (for all jobs) in the United States is just 5 percent it’s easy to see how a degree in social work could be a very good investment. Also, it’s interesting to point out that the numbers are trending higher.
In 2016 the expected job growth rate in the social work field was 16 percent while just two years later that job growth rate had increased to 18 percent. If this trend continues by the end of 2020 the projected job growth rate will be 20 percent!
According to BLS, “The median annual wage for social workers was $49,470 in May 2018.” Further data reveals that, “The lowest 10 percent earned less than $30,750, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $81,400.”
Indeed.com has somewhat more up-to-date data that posits the average social worker salary as $59,417 per year. However, it’s important to note that BLS data is displayed as a median while Indeed.com data shows an average. An average salary figure tends to be distorted upwards by the top earners.
Unfortunately the median annual salary for mental health and substance abuse social workers is somewhat lower than average at $44,840. Having said that, this wage is still higher than the median annual wage for all occupations in the USA which is $38,640.
Naturally there is also a great deal of wage variance based on where the job is located. States like New York and California tend to pay more while states like Missouri and Georgia have a lower salary. The BLS has a really great resource which displays median annual social worker salaries by state.
Indeed.com also has a state by state breakdown. However, rather than displaying salaries Indeed displays how much more or less a social worker’s salary is as compared to the national average.
One final note, although social worker salaries may not appear that high, social workers tend to have excellent benefit packages such as access to top rate dental and health insurance plans.
Becoming a forensic social worker
Social work is an interesting field to work in as there are so many unique opportunities to choose a career path that suits a candidate’s interest. For a person interested in the legal system and helping at risk populations in the prison and juvenile detention system, working as a forensic social worker may be the ideal job.
Forensic social workers are crucial as they vouch for the rights of those who may not otherwise have a voice in the system. Also, when forensic social workers testify in court their testimony can have a meaningful impact on the outcome whether it’s a child custody battle or a spousal abuse situation.
While there are only a few specialized forensic social worker master’s degree programs, students interested in forensic social work can take a “normal” social work master’s degree and then specialize in forensic social work via internships, electives, seminars and other accreditation programs.