The following guide is about the process of becoming a certified forensic social worker or earning an academic certificate in forensic social work. It also includes information about how to prepare for a career in forensic social work including courses you should take, joint degree programs you may want to consider, and fieldwork experiences that will help you prepare for this line of work.
Finally it provides information about continuing education for forensic social workers and the job outlook for social workers in general.In this guide
Forensic social work is a specialized area of social work practice. Those who work in this field interface with all types of legal systems including family court, probation, corrections, juvenile justice, and civil, criminal, drug, or mental health courts. They often work with families involved in the child welfare system, as advocates, or they may provide mediation for families affected by divorce and custody agreements.
Of course, forensic social workers are not lawyers (unless they’ve obtained a dual degree – read more below), but they provide an important point of view in legal proceedings and matters. In their interactions with lawyers and judges, and with legal systems, they view their clients holistically, not just as defendants or victims. They evaluate clients’ needs from an ecological perspective including looking at their family history, educational or employment opportunities, and the impact of government policies, and what disadvantages and barriers they may have experienced. They are keenly aware of social justice issues and systemic discrimination in legal and justice systems.
Forensic social workers work with victims of crime as well as defendants (e.g., sex offenders). The work is varied and social workers may specialize in working with certain client populations (e.g., juveniles, the elderly, families, sex workers, human trafficking victims, etc.) or in a specific legal or justice system (e.g., probation). They act as advocates by securing needed resources or services for clients. They also diagnose and assess, and provide treatment to, clients involved with legal, judicial, correctional, or child welfare systems.
Forensic social workers can also specialize in macro work such as policy advocacy or managing programs in organizations or government agencies. They may also collect data and get involved in forensic social work research or in evaluating programs for clients.
Forensic social work certification and licensing
The National Association of Forensic Counselors (NAFC) offers certifications in a number of forensic subspecialties. Their certifications can help professionals advance in their careers and earn higher salaries. Those with experience in their specific subfield, including social workers, psychologists, counselors, and other mental health professionals, can apply for certification by completing a detailed application. A course is not required, but NAFC does offer supplementary training and resources for members. NAFC offers the following certifications specifically for MSW level forensic social workers: Certified Forensic Social Worker (CFSW) and Master Social Work Addictions Counselor (MSWAC).
NAFC Certifications available to clinicians with any type of mental health or counseling degree include Certified Forensic Counseling, Certified Criminal Justice Specialist (CCJS), Certified Sex Offender Treatment Specialist (CSOTS), Certified Juvenile Sex Offender Treatment Specialist (CJSOTS), Certified Juvenile Treatment Specialist (CJTS), and Certified Cognitive Behavioral Therapist (CCBT) (“for mental/behavioral health and/or addictions professionals who work with adult and/or juvenile criminal offenders and have the required hours of CBT training and experience”).
They also have several clinical substance use counseling certifications. Non-clinical or unlicensed professionals may also obtain certifications in criminal or juvenile justice systems work, work with sex offenders, and work with domestic violence offenders. Certification requires a set number of hours worked in the field, a passing score on a written exam, references, and a completed application.
Another organization that offers a certification of interest to forensic social workers is The National Association of Certified Child Forensic Interviewers (NACCFI). Forensic interviewing of children by social workers involves speaking to them about alleged abuse that occurred or a crime that they witnessed. The process of being certified as a child forensic interviewer by this organization includes taking a 40-hour online course or a 32-hour in-person course (in Virginia), completing a detailed application, and passing an exam. The course and credentialing process is evidence-based and follows national professional certification standards. Those who earn the credential are listed on the organization’s website as a resource to local agencies seeking forensic child interviewers.
Forensic social work certificate programs
Several schools of social work offer certificate programs in forensic social work. According to the Council on Social Work Education, four BSW programs and seven MSW programs offer a certificate in this social work specialty. Schools offering an MSW level forensic social work certificate include Long Island University, Seton Hall University, Universidad Ana G. Mendez, University of St. Francis, University of Maryland, and University of Tennessee. Certificate programs provide participants with preparation beyond what they would receive in their regular course of studies.
MSW level forensic social work certificate programs can take as little as one year or less to complete depending on participants’ experience in the field and whether they have already taken several required courses. Required credit hours range from 14 to 23. Per credit tuition generally is the same as MSW degree program courses. Some programs are only offered to students enrolled in the school’s social work program while others are also open to MSW level social workers. MSW students already concentrating in forensic social work may only have to take an additional course or two to earn the certificate. Mode of course delivery varies from in-person to hybrid and fully online.
Certificate programs generally provide participants with an opportunity to obtain hands-on training in forensic social work such as practice testifying in court. They also require participants to complete a volunteer or field work placement in a relevant setting. These placements may be in government departments such as probation, child welfare, or corrections, or in hospitals, court systems, public defender offices, or private law firms. Courses vary by program but often focus on legal issues in specific areas (e.g., elder law, child welfare, juvenile justice, family law, criminal law, etc.), ethics, domestic violence, addiction, and treating victims or offenders. Some programs have a particular focus on social justice.
Preparing for a career in forensic social work
Forensic social workers should have an MSW so they can engage in advanced practice, as this career requires some specialized knowledge. An MSW level field placement in a legal or court setting or an advocacy organization is an important prerequisite for a career in forensic social work. Students might also intern in a government agency, a jail or prison, a hospital, or a private law practice. Students may want to attend an MSW program that offers a concentration or a certificate in forensic social work.
According to CSWE, there are about eight MSW programs that offer a concentration in forensic social work. Furthermore, students may consider obtaining a dual degree in social work and law. Approximately 60 MSW programs have dual social work/law degree programs. A dual degree in social work and public policy might also be of interest to students.
Students interested in pursuing a career in forensic social work should be prepared to fight for social justice on behalf of their clients. In addition to taking any forensic social work courses offered, students should also take courses related to the particular populations (e.g., children in the child welfare system, elders, adolescents) they are interested in working with. They also should develop cultural competency through course and field work to prepare for working with clients from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. They should study systemic discrimination in arrests and incarceration, juvenile justice, child welfare, and other systems. Forensic social workers must abide by all of the established standards of practice for the profession at large as well as the social work code of ethics.
Continuing education for forensic social workers
Like all specialized areas of practice in social work, there are abundant opportunities for forensic social workers to obtain continuing education and training. The NOFSW offers a two-day, online, continuing education certificate program. Schools of social work may also offer continuing education. NASW’s online continuing education institute and state NASW chapters also offer continuing education on a range of topics including forensic social work. In the speciality practice section of its website, NASW provides valuable information about forensic social work and resources for those working in this field.
The National Association of Forensic Counselors offers webinars, a newsletter, and continuing education and training opportunities. Training topics offered by these organizations have focused on substance abuse, elder abuse, veterans in the criminal justice sytem, domestic violence, human trafficking, and forensic interviewing
Job outlook for forensic workers
The demand for forensic social workers is strong and growing. Specific subspecialties of forensic social work that have the highest projected job growth rate include work with children and families involved in child welfare, victims of elder abuse, and clients who interface with legal systems due to mental health or substance use challenges. Forensic social work is still a relatively new social work speciality and is still evolving and growing.
The overall social work employment growth rate is projected at 16%, with close to one million jobs being added between 2016 and 2026. View more employment outlook data for social work in general, as well as in speciality areas of practice, provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Earning a certification or a university-based certificate in forensic social work will boost aspiring forensic social workers’ employability. It adds to their list of credentials and reflects that the individual has been well trained in professional forensic work practice. University school social work certificate programs provide specialized skills that may not be readily obtainable through the regular social work curriculum. Having experience preparing and delivering court testimony and assessing, diagnosing, and treating clients involved in legal systems, for example, are skills that are widely sought out by employers Forensic social work students and practicing social workers can find professional opportunities on job sites such as Indeed or Glassdoor, as well as the NASW job link and NOFSW employment opportunities pages.