Forensic social work applies concepts and philosophies within social work to questions and issues relating to law and legal systems. It includes social work practice related to legal issues and litigation—both criminal and civil law—having to do with child custody issues, the juvenile and adult legal systems, corrections and mandated treatment. Forensic social work training requires specialised training over and above normal training in social work.
Forensic social work practitioners are expected to perform many duties. They provide training, education and consultation to the criminal and juvenile justice and correctional systems, for lawmakers, law enforcement personnel and attorneys. They make diagnosis and treatment recommendations regarding mental status and children’s interests. They also often serve as expert witnesses. Other duties of a forensic social worker are mediation, advocacy and arbitration.
Forensic social workers must be familiar with the law and have specialised knowledge in social work principles having to do with legal issues. The traditional training of social workers, however, has not included ensuring its graduates have familiarity with the adversary process inherent in the legal system, nor has it included issues in the civil and criminal justice system. Their conclusions and recommendations must be objective enough to withstand the opposition’s critical reviews and rebuttals.
Without specialised training preparing them to deal with legal issues, social workers can be at a disadvantage when called upon to give their opinion in court. Many social work training programs across the country have attempted to remedy that situation. Solutions range from requiring coursework in legal issues to providing degrees in forensic social work. Some training programs provide specialisations in forensic social work, often in the form of a special certification.
A high-quality training program in forensic social work promotes the research and evaluation of forensic social work practice, educates and informs both social workers about the law and lawyers about social work matters. It should conduct research about the assessment, classification and treatment of both adult and juvenile offenders. Good forensic social work training researches mental health issues in the civil and criminal justice systems, and seeks to improve the mental health, treatment and diagnosis of offenders and prison populations.
The Arizona State University (ASU) social work training program trains social workers to work within the legal justice system. ASU offers a Master’s degree in Forensic Social Work, in conjunction with its law school, because the university recognises that forensic social work is one of the fastest-growing sub-specialities in the social work field. ASU’s program studies the interactions between professional social work expertise and legal issues.
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