Forensic Social Worker

Forensic social work is a rewarding career in a dynamic and emerging field. Forensic social workers typically engage with the justice, corrections, and social services systems, often acting as expert consultants and advocates. In these roles, social workers interface with law enforcement officers, healthcare professionals, lawyers, families, and other members of the community. Potential social workers enjoy strong job prospects. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects jobs for social workers to grow 11% through 2028.

What Does a Forensic Social Worker Do?

Forensic social workers may act as consultants and expert witnesses in the civil and criminal legal systems. They apply social work principles and practices to evaluate cases and make recommendations to police officers, corrections officials, lawyers, and judges. Forensic social workers may offer insight into issues of psychological competence, criminal responsibility, and victim impacts. Many of the cases these professionals deal with involve child custody disputes, child abuse and neglect, spousal abuse, and substance abuse.

By connecting clients with resources, forensic social workers help people impacted by family violence, abuse, and crime take positive steps toward recovery.

Forensic social workers may also advocate on behalf of civil plaintiffs and defendants, criminal defendants, and victims of abuse and neglect. They liaise with agencies and institutions, including hospitals, mental health centers, addiction recovery services, and victim support services. By connecting clients with resources, forensic social workers help people impacted by family violence, abuse, and crime take positive steps toward recovery.

Additionally, forensic social workers advise law enforcement and corrections officials on issues surrounding probation and the reintegration of criminal offenders. They also provide training to police officers and other frontline personnel, build and develop social services programs, and diagnose causes and create possible solutions to systemic social problems and crime trends.

How Do I Become a Forensic Social Worker?

Education Needed to Become a Forensic Social Worker

Forensic social workers need comprehensive knowledge of social work principles and best practices and a thorough understanding of the criminal justice and correctional systems. Candidates typically need at least a master's degree in social work; however, relatively few universities offer dedicated forensic social work programs. Instead, aspirants typically earn a master's in social work and explore the corrections and criminal justice systems through concentrations and electives.

Some forensic social workers practice without a master's degree. Candidates interested in this path can pursue a bachelor's in social work before completing a specialized forensic social work certificate program. Regardless of the educational path they choose, students interested in a forensic social work career can find opportunities to study on campus, online, or in hybrid formats that combine both options.

Most reputable social work programs include practicum, internship, and/or fellowship requirements. These opportunities deliver invaluable practical experience and allow students to make professional connections that can help them secure employment.

Bachelor's Degree in Forensic Social Work

Bachelor's in social work programs introduce students to core principles of social work practice. Students can supplement learning with electives that explore disciplines like social policy, sociology, psychology, human behavior, and criminology.

Master's Degree in Forensic Social Work

A master's degree in social work focuses on specialized areas and advanced social work principles and practices. At this level, students can pursue concentrations, such as child welfare and case management. Credit requirements vary by program, but full-time students can typically complete the program within two years.

Doctoral Degree in Forensic Social Work

A doctoral degree in social work typically involves intensive research and independent study, which often focus on the overlap between theory and practice. Learners usually study one or two highly specific topics, which they explore in advanced detail. Doctorate programs typically comprise 60-70 credits, representing a commitment of 3-4 years.

Accreditation for Forensic Social Work Programs

Students should only consider accredited social work programs, as a degree from an accredited institution represents a core requirement for professional licensure. Institutions may receive national or regional accreditation. National accreditation typically applies to for-profit schools and vocational institutions, while regional accreditation applies to nonprofit, academic institutions. Regional accreditation is generally considered more prestigious than national accreditation.

A third type of accreditation, known as programmatic accreditation, applies to particular academic programs rather than entire institutions. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) offers accreditation to social work programs. CSWE endorsement signals elite academic quality, which gives graduates advantages in the labor market since their credentials carry more prestige. CSWE endorsement also prepares graduates to meet state-specific licensure requirements.

Licensure and Practicum Requirements to Become a Forensic Social Worker

All states require social workers to hold a license to practice. Licensure requirements vary by state, but there are several commonalities across most state licensure processes. Candidates typically must hold an accredited degree and pass a standardized examination that tests mastery of key concepts and proficiencies. Independent agencies administer these exams.

Most programs build practicums and internships into graduation requirements, which usually occur in the final year of a program.

The academic components of social work programs provide the knowledge needed to pass these exams, but students who complete practicums and internships tend to display higher levels of preparedness. Most programs build practicums and internships into graduation requirements, which usually occur in the final year of a program.

While the U.S. lacks a nationwide interstate social work license transfer program, many states hold reciprocity agreements that allow practitioners to transfer their license to another state. Students should also consider license renewal regulations, which vary by state. Most jurisdictions include continuing education requirements to ensure practicing professionals possess up-to-date skill sets and meet current ethical, practical, and cultural sensitivity standards.

Optional Certifications for Forensic Social Workers

Optional professional certifications provide opportunities for more forensic social work jobs. These endorsements, available from organizations like the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Credentialing Center, signal a candidate's advanced skills in a specialized area. We cover four examples of relevant certifications for forensic social workers below.

Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW)

Administered by the NASW, the ACSW designation represents one of the most recognizable and prestigious social work certifications. Candidates need a master of social work from a CSWE-accredited school, two years of professional experience, and multiple professional recommendations. They must also meet continuing education requirements.

Certified Children, Youth and Family Social Worker (C-CYFSW)

This ACSW endorsement certifies expertise in working with people under age 18. Candidates need at least a bachelor's degree in social work, 20 or more hours of family-oriented continuing education training, state licensure, and one year or 1,500 hours of paid professional experience.

Certified Advanced Children, Youth and Family Social Worker (C-ACYFSW)

This advanced credential also signals expertise in dealing with children under 18 but is only available to candidates with a master's degree, two years or 3,000 hours of professional paid experience, valid state licensure, and at least 20 hours of youth-oriented continuing education training.

Employment and Salaries for Forensic Social Workers

Candidates trained in this emerging social work specialization enjoy many employment opportunities as their integration into the court and social service systems continues to grow. Forensic social workers practice in many settings beyond legal institutions, such as hospitals, schools, government agencies, mental health clinics, correctional facilities, and faith-oriented organizations.

Though most professionals already consider forensic social work a type of specialization, practitioners can focus their expertise further by concentrating on areas such as youth outreach, mental health, substance abuse, and family violence. Salaries vary by experience and compare favorably with nationwide median annual earnings. The following table summarizes current salary data for forensic social workers at various stages of their careers:

Average Salary by Experience Level for Social Workers (MSW)
0-12 Months $42,000
1-4 Years $45,000
5-9 Years $49,000
10-19 Years $53,000
Source: PayScale

How to Find a Job as a Forensic Social Worker

Most accredited forensic social work programs include practicum and internship requirements. These opportunities help candidates forge professional relationships that may lead to employment.

Students can also consult their school to access career-building resources, join professional organizations that host job listings, and earn professional certifications to enhance their appeal to employers. Additionally, the civil and criminal court systems are major employers of forensic social workers, so job seekers with backgrounds in civil law, criminal law, and corrections enjoy competitiveness in the job market.

Forensic Social Work Resources

  • National Organization of Forensic Social Work This advocacy and professional development organization offers continuing education resources and best practice guidelines for forensic social workers. It also hosts an annual conference.
  • Association of Social Work Boards Collectively operated by the social work regulatory authorities of all U.S. states and Canadian provinces, this organization administers mandatory licensing examinations and optional certification training programs for North American social workers.
  • National Association of Social Workers The world's largest social work professional organization, NASW was established in 1955 and hosts more than 120,000 members. It offers professional development and career advancement resources, including continuing education opportunities, specialist practice resources, and job listings.
  • International Federation of Social Workers This professional organization maintains a global focus, prioritizing international sociopolitical issues as an integral part of social work practice.
  • Society for Social Work and Research With a membership comprised of representatives of more than 200 accredited colleges and universities, this research organization focuses on the academic advancement of the social work discipline.