In reflecting on how my career has formulated, particularly in the fields of criminal justice, human services and social work, I often wondered where I fit in; particularly when discussing traditional social work models, practices and approaches. I knew I always wanted to work in the criminal justice environment, not necessarily as a sworn law enforcement official, but in a capacity that addressed the needs of delinquents, adult offenders and prisoners. This venue, during the early to mid-20th century, unfortunately wasn’t always readily available to social workers, let alone forensic social workers.
Clinical work, specifically, was geared towards counselors and psychologists in criminal justice settings. The role of the social worker, if any, represented that of a case manager at best. Further, when attempting to market or explain what a forensic social worker was, the responses in most instances were either of confusion or an unawareness that the practice existed.
What is Forensic Social Work
Ironically, social work has a long standing history of practice in the justice sector, as well as the other more noted, child welfare and social services roles. According to the National Organization of Forensic Social Work website (www.nofsw.org),
” Forensic social work is the application of social work to questions and issues relating to law and legal systems. This specialty of our profession goes far beyond clinics and psychiatric hospitals for criminal defendants being evaluated and treated on issues of competency and responsibility. A broader definition includes social work practice which in any way is related to legal issues and litigation, both criminal and civil. Child custody issues, involving separation, divorce, neglect, termination of parental rights, the implications of child and spouse abuse, juvenile and adult justice services, corrections, and mandated treatment all fall under this definition” (NOFSW website).
As one can gauge, forensic social work has long been a practice in various traditional social work capacities. Though early in application, forensic social work was commonly associated with the legal field (Barker & Brannon, Forensic Social Work Legal Aspects of Professional Practice, 2000); it now encompasses a much broader representation in the criminal justice system and ancillary justice related services.
Forensic Social Work Today
Forensic Social Work in the 21st century continues to be a critical component of not only traditional social work and criminal justice systems, but it has expanded to cover more globally related human rights and social justice concerns. As various academic institutions are now incorporating forensic social work courses into their respective curriculums, BSW and MSW students are becoming more aware and interested in pursuing this specialization. Dr. Yolanda M. Byrd, LCSW, Director of Field Education at Winston-Salem State University stated “she has seen a continued interest from her BSW students in forensic social work; particularly in obtaining field education placements.”
As the latter part of the 20th century dealt with establishing the practice of Forensic Social Work, the 21st century will reflect more of a presence in various venues encompassing micro and macro approaches to the field, not only within the United States but more globally. In speaking with the National Organization of Forensic Social Work President, Dr. Tina Maschi, LCSW, Associate Professor of Social Work, Fordham University, she noted “in the 21st century the complex social issues, such as mass incarceration, necessitate that we use an integrated approach that incorporates clinical, policy, and community organizational skills to build the capacities of individuals, families, and communities to address them.”
Forensic Social Work in the Future
Looking ahead, you will see more forensic social workers represented in all aspects of society representing not only clients in criminal justice practice settings, but as administrators, social activists, academicians, and social justice change agents internationally. As social work curriculums, both undergraduate and graduate, continue to broaden their course offerings and specializations to include forensic social work, you will see a continued increase in diplomas, degrees and certifications being obtained by future social work students. Here in North Carolina, the need to have forensic social workers represented in the criminal justice system, specifically the penal system is a growing need and viable area of interest for local and state legislators. For those interested, I strongly encourage you to attend the NOFSW annual conference in July.
Jack S. Monell, PhD, MSW is a Forensic Social Worker and Assistant Professor of Justice Studies at Winston-Salem State University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He is the author of "Delinquency, Pop Culture and Generation Why" “Delinquency, Pop Culture and Generation Why”.