Guide on Becoming a Forensic (Criminal Justice) Social Worker 2021

Forensic social work is the intersection of social work and the legal system. A forensic social worker, also sometimes called a criminal justice social worker, applies social work principles and expertise to law-related issues and litigation. The work of forensic social workers can have a direct impact on individuals involved in criminal and civil legal cases.

This guide explains how to become a forensic social worker, the education required, the work settings to expect and criminal justice social worker resources to check out.

Steps to Become a Forensic Social Worker

To begin a career as a forensic social worker, there are educational, experience, social worker licensure and certification requirements. These are some of the common steps you can pursue:

1. Earn a bachelor’s degree in social work or related field.

A bachelor’s in social work (BSW) degree may help you save time by completing some master’s level social work education requirements. If you’re interested in a BSW, look into programs that are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Most Master of Social Work (MSW) programs will consider this accreditation when accepting candidates. However, a BSW is not always required for MSW admission. BSW degrees help with admission to advanced standing MSW programs.

2. Earn a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree. 

An MSW is typically a requirement for forensic social work and is always a requirement for clinical social work licensure, which may be an area a forensic social worker works in. Again, look for programs that are accredited by the CSWE, since CSWE accreditation will likely be a requirement for state licensure. You can also search for MSW programs that offer specializations or courses related to forensic social work. If you already have a BSW, you may be able to apply for an advanced standing MSW program and complete your MSW in less time than non-BSW degree holders.

3. Get social work field experience. 

To become licensed, gaining field experience in social work is typically required. Some of this field experience occurs during your BSW and MSW program. If you want to provide forensic social work counseling in a clinical setting, it’s necessary to gain clinical experience to become a licensed clinical social worker. If you want to become licensed but don’t want to focus on clinical social work, you might look into supervised field experience in a different area related to criminal justice or legal settings. You can also look into volunteering in a criminal justice setting if you’re not able to get an internship with one.

4. Pursue state licensure. 

With the proper education and field experience, you can apply for a social worker license in the state you want to practice in. Social worker licensure is typically required for any social worker role that’s not an entry-level administrative or direct-service position. Each state’s social worker licensure will have different requirements. To become licensed, you’ll likely have to pass standardized exams administered by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB), which may be the advanced generalist or clinical exam.

5. Obtain forensic social worker certification. 

Clinical social workers can apply to become a Certified Forensic Social Worker (CFSW), which is a credential for those who hold a MSW or Doctorate of Social Work (DSW) degree who work with juvenile and/or adult criminal offenders. There are also advanced practice specialty credentials offered by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). These types of credentials can benefit social workers as they apply for jobs, since some roles may require a specific certification.

6. Apply for jobs. 

Once you have a social worker education, experience and licensure, you may apply for forensic social worker jobs you qualify for. Use your school’s alumni network and career services for job assistance. 

Should I Become a Forensic Social Worker?

Forensic social work can be a challenging and fulfilling field. Those who have both an interest in criminal justice and in working with those who deal with legal systems may want to consider pursuing a career in forensic social work.

There’s a diverse array of social worker jobs, including social workers who work in schools, in healthcare settings, in addiction centers and in private practice.

Before deciding to become a social worker in criminal justice, it helps to research and compare different types of social work careers to make sure what you choose is the right fit. If a career as a criminal justice social worker isn’t what you’re looking for, you have other options and social worker degrees to choose from. There may be options in the type of setting and population you want to work with.

What is a Forensic and Criminal Justice Social Worker?

Forensic social work is social work practice that relates to litigation and legal issues. Forensic social workers work in corrections, justice and social services systems. They interact with those involved with the legal system, like lawyers, law enforcement officers, lawmakers and individuals and families undergoing proceedings in the court system.

Criminal justice social workers may educate, train and consult legal professionals and law enforcement officials. They may also work with those going through the legal process (like criminals, parents and children), as well as may provide witness testimony as a social worker expert in court.

Forensic social workers are important in the legal system because they educate legal professionals who may not have social work expertise about the social and psychological factors impacting those in the legal system. They provide insights into what victims are going through, criminal responsibility and mental competence.

Educational Requirements

Forensic social workers are likely to be a LCSW and a MSW is required for state licensure.

However, education requirements for a forensic or criminal social worker graduate level program will vary. Based on the prerequisites you’ve completed, you may have different options. If you have a BSW, you may be able to apply for an advanced standing MSW. If you don’t, you may need to complete certain prerequisites before starting MSW advanced classes. Be sure to check with your desired program for more information.

Degree Programs

Typically, the minimum degree for a forensic social worker is a MSW, due to clinical licensure requirements. Some social work degree programs offer forensic social work concentrations or electives to prepare a social worker to specialize in this area. There are also concentrations like case management and child welfare that may relate to the field of forensic social.

Additionally, forensic social work graduate certificate options and DSW programs are available for those who are working toward or who have a master’s degree.

Master’s in Social Work (MSW)

It typically takes one to two years to complete an advanced standing MSW degree and traditional MSW degree programs may take up to four years, depending on type of course enrollment. 

MSW programs usually allow students to choose a specialty concentration, such as forensic social work. There are also online MSW programs and MSW programs with no GRE requirement available.


Forensic Social Work Graduate Certificate

Forensic social work graduate certificate programs are for MSW social worker students or full-time social workers who want to specialize in forensic social work. These programs may require work, field or volunteer experience in a forensic setting. 

Social workers specializing in forensic social work have typically undergone training on civil and criminal justice system operation. A graduate certificate in forensic social work prepares social workers to work in legal environments.


Doctorate in Social Work (DSW)

A DSW program may help to prepare social workers for advanced social work roles, in careers like research, policy development and training. Research is usually a significant component of a DSW program. 

DSW degree holders may go on to forensic social worker careers as administrators, evaluators, trainers and forensic social work leaders. Full-time DSW programs may require a MSW and typically take 3 years to complete.

Skills

Forensic and criminal justice social workers often work in stressful, high-pressure situations where important decisions must be made and livelihoods are on the line. Because of this, certain skills are necessary to be successful in forensic social work. 

Criminal justice social workers may find it important to be empathic and patient. They must be organized and have excellent time management skills. They also need to have exceptional listening and communication skills as they converse with a variety of clients and individuals in the legal system. Forensic social workers also need to be excellent at analysis and problem-solving. 

Students build on these skills during social work school to prepare to use them in their careers.

What is the Role of a Forensic and Criminal Justice Social Worker?

Criminal justice and forensic social workers may work with a variety of populations. Clients may include individuals and families who are in the court system. Criminal justice social workers may also collaborate with legal experts like law enforcement and lawyers. They also need to be able to effectively communicate to juries and the general population, as well as people working in government if the forensic social worker is advocating for policy reform.

Criminal Justice Social Worker

Criminal justice social workers may provide testimony and research for criminal and civil court cases. They may collaborate with adult and juvenile criminal justice systems in areas including:

  • Child custody issues involving divorce, neglect, parental rights termination and/or separation
  • Child abuse and neglect
  • Criminal risk assessment
  • Domestic violence
  • Juvenile and adult justice services
  • Mental health incapacitation
  • Spousal abuse
  • Substance abuse cases
  • Trauma assessment of victims

Forensic Social Worker

In a typical day, a forensic social worker may:

  • Advise on program, policy and social services development
  • Conduct behavioral science research and analysis
  • Consult, educate and train:
    • Attorneys, paralegals and law students
    • Correctional system, criminal justice and juvenile justice professionals
    • Law makers
    • Law enforcement personnel
    • Members of the public
  • Develop solutions for crime trends and systemic social problems
  • Diagnose, treat and make recommendations for:
    • Criminal and juvenile justice populations
    • Mental status, children’s interests, inability to testify and incapacities
  • Perform offender or community safety assessments
  • Provide legal matter guidance for victims
  • Provide mediation, arbitration and advocacy services
  • Serve as expert witnesses and provide evidence in court
  • Screen, evaluate and treat law enforcement and other criminal justice personnel
  • Teach, train and supervise forensic social workers

Criminal justice social workers must be familiar with the law, since any recommendations and testimony they provide will undergo critical review, including from opposing parties. Social worker contributions in court must be in language that relates to the legal system. Any recommendations that are made must be formed using objective criteria and thorough evaluation.

Work Settings of a Forensic and Criminal Justice Social Worker

A criminal justice social worker may work with criminal defendants in a clinic, correctional facility or psychiatric hospital environment. In this type of setting, a forensic social worker may perform intake coordination, mental health evaluations and care or risk assessments. Criminal justice social workers in jail environments may also help prisoners preparing for release to re-enter society by providing resource referrals.

Forensic social workers who are advocating for crisis and trauma victims may work for crisis centers for domestic violence and rape. They may also be employed by child welfare agencies and meet clients in a home or office setting.

Criminal justice social workers might work in offices or board rooms with lawyers and legal professionals. They might work in a counseling office, providing counseling to individuals and families who are in the court system. They might take the stand in a courtroom as an expert witness. Criminal justice social workers may also work in a traditional office setting working on policy reform.

How Much Do Forensic Social Workers Make?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the 2020 median pay for all social workers was $51,760 per year. The highest 10% earned more than $85,820. The 2020 median annual wages for social workers working for local government, excluding education and hospitals, was $57,660. Earnings will vary depending on state, type of work environment, experience, and education.

Social workers are in high demand. The BLS reports the job outlook for social workers is projected to grow 13% between 2019 and 2029, which is much faster than average compared to all positions. From 2019 to 2029, there are 90,700 new social worker jobs expected to be added to the 803,800 social worker jobs there were in 2019.

Forensic Social Worker Certification

You can pursue social worker licensure based on your state’s requirements. You can also obtain advanced practice specialty credentials related to forensic social work. The NASW offers credentials in areas like Certified Advanced Social Work Case Manager (C-ASWCM) and Certified Advanced Children, Youth and Family Social Worker (C-ACYFSW).

The National Association of Forensic Counselors (NAFC) provides more than a dozen forensic counselor board certifications, including the Certified Forensic Social Worker (CFSW). This clinical level certification is for addictions and/or behavioral/mental health professionals holding a MSW or DSW degree and who work with juvenile and/or criminal offenders.

Forensic Social Worker Resources

Forensic social workers have opportunities to connect with other criminal justice social workers and stay up-to-date on the latest news and developments in forensic social work.

The National Organization of Forensic Social Work (NOFSW) advances education in the field of social work through annual conferences, a newsletter, networking, political action and a professional journal.

The NASW is the world’s largest membership organization of professional social workers. The NASW provides professional growth opportunities, creates and maintains professional social worker standards, and advocates for social policies. It provides resources specifically for social workers who work in courts.

Information on this page was last retrieved in June 2021.