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If you’re interested in getting involved in the legal system and helping others, you may want to consider a career in forensic social work. But what is a forensic social worker? We have the answers! Take a moment to learn about this career path to determine whether it’s a good fit for you and better understand the valuable role these professionals play in society.

What Is Forensic Social Work?

Forensic social work is any social work that involves the legal system. Social workers help people involved in the criminal justice system or civil legal proceedings by offering counseling, referring them to helpful resources, representing juveniles in court, and more.

What Populations Do Forensic Social Workers Serve?

Forensic social workers can work with a variety of populations. For example, they may assist:

  • Children or families involved in custody disputes.
  • Defendants in criminal trials with a mental health defense.
  • Currently incarcerated youth and adults.
  • Newly released inmates striving toward rehabilitation.
  • Survivors of domestic abuse or other crimes.

What Does a Forensic Social Worker Do?

As with other types of social work, forensic social work is varied. Forensic social workers can work in numerous settings with varied populations and responsibilities.

For example, as a forensic social worker, you might:

Diagnose mental disorders

Licensed clinical social workers who perform forensic social work can diagnose and treat mental disorders. Understanding a person’s mental health challenges can help the social worker and, in turn, law enforcement and criminal justice professionals understand potential factors affecting their behavior.

Provide legally mandated treatment

With the right credentials, forensic social workers can also treat disorders through evidence-based methods like psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy. They may work with clients individually or lead group therapy sessions. In some cases, this treatment will be mandated by the court as part of the terms of a person’s sentence or as a condition of probation or parole.

Give expert testimony in court

Forensic social workers are often called on to present expert testimony in court during legal proceedings. For example, they may speak to an individual’s mental state or family dynamics as it pertains to the case at hand. They may also represent minors and advocate for the outcome they believe is in the minor’s best interest.

Educate and consult with criminal justice personnel

As a society, we’re increasingly becoming aware that social and criminal issues are often deeply intertwined. Forensic social workers can use their expertise to serve as a resource for others. For example, they may train or consult with law enforcement officers, elected officials, lawyers, and others involved in the legal system to better inform their practices.

Develop public policy

Forensic social workers can work on promoting and developing public policy related to the legal system. They may focus on how people are treated in the criminal justice system, recommended rehabilitation methods, child welfare measures, or other important issues.

Advance the field through research

Social work is a constantly evolving field. New research allows current and future social workers and policymakers to better understand the dynamics of legal and criminal issues. If you want to advance the field, being part of a research team is a great way to do so.

What Are the Benefits of Being a Forensic Social Worker?

There are many reasons to consider becoming a social worker, and forensic social work offers particularly valuable benefits. Whether you’re new to the field or a seasoned social worker looking for a new specialization, consider these reasons you may want to pursue this career path.

Apply your skills in exciting new ways

If you’re interested in the legal or criminal justice system but don’t think a career in law or law enforcement would suit you, forensic social work is an excellent choice to consider. If you’re already a social worker and want to shake things up in your career, forensic social work can draw on your existing skillset while providing new avenues to apply those skills.

Serve vulnerable populations

In most instances, when someone is navigating the legal system, they’re at a particularly challenging point in their lives. They may even be in a state of trauma and in desperate need of professional help. As a forensic social worker, you can serve as a counselor, advocate, and resource for your clients, making this part of their lives less stressful and more empowering.

Dive in to a high-demand career

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), social workers are in high demand, with 74,700 projected job openings every year from 2021-31. Over this period, employment of social workers is expected to grow by a faster-than-average rate of 9 percent. Forensic social workers offer a specialized skill set that will always serve a valuable purpose. As long as people interact with the legal system, there will be a need for social workers with legal expertise.

What Is the Highest Salary for a Forensic Social Worker?

With the right credentials and experience, forensic social workers can earn a fairly lucrative salary. According to the BLS, the median salary for a social worker is $50,390.

The highest earning 10 percent of social workers in 2021 earned more than $82,840. According to ZipRecruiter data, as of July 2023, forensic social workers earn an average salary of $68,313 per year. With higher credentials, you could earn even more.

What Degree Do You Need to Become a Forensic Social Worker?

Forensic social workers usually hold an advanced degree in their field. A master’s degree in social work and the appropriate state licensure will equip you with the expertise and skills you need to succeed. You can also earn a forensic social work certification to further boost your credentials.

The first step is to earn a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree. You may even be able to enter the field with your bachelor’s degree, and you can pursue a master’s degree when you’re ready to advance your career.

Want to learn more? Download our e-book, Earning Your Accredited Online Social Work Degree, and take the first steps toward a fulfilling career where you can make a real difference.

Online degree programs from Mount Vernon Nazarene University are designed with working adults in mind.

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