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Forensic Social Work —
You’re Probably Doing It,
So Learn More About It

By Sue Coyle, MSW

For many, the legal system may seem abstract and distant. Yes, it dictates how quickly we drive and how we interact and respond to others, for example, but it does so almost indirectly.

“The average person knows that we have all these rules, but they don’t understand how it truly governs our lives,” says Viola Vaughan-Eden, PhD, MJ, LCSW, an associate professor and PhD program director at The Ethelyn R. Strong School of Social Work at Norfolk State University and president of the National Organization of Forensic Social Work (NOFSW).

Without that understanding, navigating and working within the legal system if or when it does come to the forefront of one’s life can be difficult if not seemingly impossible. For those struggling with mental health issues, abuse, criminal or civil charges, or the end/beginning of familial relationships, guidance, support, advocacy, and effective services are tantamount. That’s where social workers come in.

“Whenever there is some type of legal system connected with a problem—whether it’s something criminal or civil—social workers are often actively engaged,” Vaughan-Eden says. The services they provide in these situations fall under the umbrella of forensic social work, though the social workers may not realize it.

Forensic Social Work

“I think there’s a misconception,” says Joseph J. Harper, LCSW, DCSW, ACSW, MBA, an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Southern California School of Social Work. “A lot of people think that forensic social work is like the crime shows that you see on TV—that you do lab work; [in fact,] forensic social work is working with people who are involved in any aspect of the legal system.

“People who work in child welfare with families who are involved in court, that’s forensic social work. Social workers who work with defendants in cases, that’s forensic social work. I work in a psychiatric hospital that is a forensic psychiatric hospital,” he says. “The majority of the patients have been found not guilty by reason of insanity or they have pending charges.”

Vaughan-Eden further stresses that forensic social work covers a broad spectrum of individuals of all ages and in all situations. “I deal with child abuse,” she says, “but I have colleagues who deal with sex offenders. [Another colleague] has done some work with elder prisoners and what it means for people who are incarcerated to the point that they are dying in prison. One of our [NOFSW] board members works in juvenile justice. We have another in the public defender’s office. We cut across all aspects of society.”

Harper provides a more specific example of forensic social work in explaining some of what happens when an individual’s ability to participate in a trial is questioned. “The court assesses the patient and makes a finding about whether that defendant is going to be found unfit to stand trial. [If found unfit], the defendant is sent by court order to a hospital to restore them to fitness. We assess if they do have a mental health issue and if so, how can we treat them?” he says. If through treatment a patient’s fitness is restored, a report is sent to the court and another hearing is scheduled. At that time, it is possible that the social worker’s role will extend to testimony.

Speaking Legalese           

Though Harper describes only one example, the possibility of testimony or of communicating with lawyers and the courts in other ways is very real in all of forensic social work and can be intimidating. In truth, the law in general can be intimidating. And while it would be nice to believe that the highest quality services could be provided with little more than a cursory understanding of the legal system, it would also be naïve.

“There’s this sense that social workers are supposed to know the right thing to do,” Vaughan-Eden says. “But back in the day, what we were finding was that social workers were going to court and weren’t really prepared for that aspect of managing the case.”

One of the challenges is that social workers and lawyers don’t often share the same perspective or goals, she explains. “[Social workers] are trained to mediate and resolve differences. We take this very open ended cooperative stance. We try to engage through empathy and support. Our goal is to help problem solve. Lawyers are trained to navigate this adversarial system. They are singularly focused. They’re very competitive. They are trained to manipulate the truth, because they’re required to win.

“We have to take a bigger step toward the middle to say, ‘Okay, this isn’t about you winning your case and this isn’t about me being the client’s best friend. This is about what is in the best interest of the client and society, and how do we reach mutual common ground,’” she says.

Learning More

That step, on the social work end, starts with social workers learning more about the legal system and what is expected of them. There are a few ways to do that. Vaughan-Eden earned her MJ, or Master of Jurisprudence, a degree for those who won’t be practicing law but want to develop a deeper understanding of it. “I was regularly getting subpoenaed because I had evaluated a child or parent,” she says. “Not just my coworkers but the attorneys would say, ‘Oh, you just show up and tell them what you know.’ I said ‘No. There has to be more to it than that. If I’m going to court, if I’m going to testify, I need to know that I’ve done the best job I can.’”

For those who may not want to dive back into graduate work, there is, of course, learning on the job—drawing from more seasoned colleagues and the tools that they have created. “Generally what we do is, we allow new employees to shadow skilled social workers who have testified in the past,” Harper says. “We also developed a set of questionnaires containing the typical questions you would be asked by attorneys and ask you to think of how you would respond to these questions.”

The questionnaires aren’t scripts for how hearings or trials will go, he explains, but they’re a good foundation. “The line of questioning remains the same,” Harper says. “But in terms of the nuances of the attorneys, they may do it differently. Being able to adapt and being able to think about things from a different angle than what you’re used to is necessary. You have to be cognizant of how you respond.”

In the Classroom

But prior to a master’s degree outside of social work and prior to learning in real time, the ideal situation involves learning about forensic social work—about the law and its intersection with social work—prior to leaving the social work classroom. Unfortunately, that has not happened as often as it should.

 “When I was in grad school, I never heard of it,” Harper says.

Vaughan-Eden agrees that it has not been an oft-discussed topic. “The NOFSW was created to provide that stopgap measure, so that people felt like they have a place to go [for more information],” she says.

But that could be changing. “More and more universities are reaching out to us,” Vaughan-Eden says of the NOFSW. “They want to offer a social work class or a social work track in forensic social work.”

It’s a good sign, but it’s just the beginning, not the end, Vaughan-Eden says. “Until we can train our workers to have that deeper understanding of the impact of the legal system on our clients’ lives, we’re doing a disservice.”

In the meantime, Harper encourages upcoming social workers to take advantage of what coursework is offered. “I think it’s important to have coursework that is specific to mental health symptoms and diagnosis. It’s important to have a good grasp on that. Take advantage of coursework you can get on working with involuntary clients.”

And remember that once you get out into the field, if you’re working in forensic social work, you aren’t alone. “I don’t know the statistics,” Harper says, “but I bet the number of social workers who are employed in settings like child welfare, prisons, jails, and psychiatric hospitals is pretty high. It’s probably one of the biggest employers in social work.”

— Sue Coyle, MSW, is a freelance writer and social worker in the Philadelphia suburbs and a frequent contributor to Social Work Today.