In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Forensic Social Work

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Court Caseload Statistics
  • Testifying in Court
  • Forensic Assessment
  • Forensic Treatment
  • Juvenile Justice
  • Mediation and Alternative Dispute Resolution

Social Work Forensic Social Work
José B. Ashford
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0164


The practice of social work is inextricably linked with having knowledge of law and law like systems of governance. Social work has a long-standing history of providing services to individuals falling through the cracks of our legal systems. Forensic social work is a subspecialty of social work that focuses on the application of social work knowledge and skills to legal issues in civil, criminal, and administrative forums. The practice of social work in these legal forums is consistent with narrow definitions of forensic social work. Broader definitions include interventions that support the implementation of court and legislative mandates in community and organizational settings. This article examines literature in social work and in the behavioral and social sciences that can inform the practice of forensic social workers in performing investigations, assessments, and other interventions within narrow and broad definitions of forensic social work. This article also focuses on describing classic and emerging scholarship in forensic social work practice, including some scholarship on the intersection of law in social work practice, and on the education and certification of forensic social workers.

General Overviews

Articles and books exist that focus on clarifying boundary differences between the subspecialty of forensic social work and ordinary social work (Ashford 2015, Barker and Branson 2014). However, the application of generalist principles of social work practice is an area often neglected in research and writings about forensic social work. Much more is written about specialized forensic assessment, and treatment issues than other client needs. Naessens and Raeymaecker 2020, a study of Belgian forensic social workers, describes the value of also maintaining a generalist approach when working with clients in forensic contexts. Conversely, Sheehan 2014 examines cross disciplinary forensic issues from a social work lens germane to the Australian context. In addition, there are edited books that provide an overview of the history, breadth, and scope of practice in this burgeoning area of forensic social work in the United States (Mashchi and Leibowitz 2018; Rapp-McCall, et al. 2022). Several publications also describe forensic issues within a broader context of the role of law in social work practice in Australia (Rice, et al. 2018), Canada (Regehr, et al. 2016), England and Wales (Brayne, et al. 2015), and the United States (Barker and Branson 2014). Vaughan-Eden 2022 also reviews the history of the formation and evolution of the National Organization of Forensic Social Work, which serves as the primary professional organization for forensic social workers in the United States.

  • Ashford, J. B. 2015. The changing face of forensic social work practice. In Social workers’ desk reference. 3d ed. Edited by K. C. Corcoran and A. R. Roberts, 1115–11121. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Examines the history of forensics as a distinct subspecialty and how social work joined with psychology and other professions in challenging medical dominance in forensic practice, including the recognition of forensic social workers as expert witnesses. The author also clarifies the shift in the field from narrow to broader definitions of forensic social work practice.

  • Barker, R. L., and D. M. Branson. 2014. Forensic social work: Legal aspects of professional practice. 2d ed. New York: Haworth.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315821573

    Introduces social work students to the legal and ethical issues they are likely to encounter in the practice of forensic social work. The book also clarifies the roles and function of forensic social workers and guidelines for handling conflicts between the law and ethics in implementing professional social work duties in explicit legal contexts. It also provides guidance on how to establish a forensic social work practice, testify as a fact and expert witness, prepare for litigation, credential requirements for forensic social workers, and a review of distinctions between implanted memory and recovered memory when completing assessments.

  • Brayne, H., H. Carr, and D. Goosey. 2015. Law for social workers. 13th ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A primary resource for social workers in England and Wales. It offers a description of the place of social workers in all areas of relevant law. It also provides a comprehensive overview of various court systems and adjudicative processes in England and Wales. This edition addresses changes in laws resulting from Brexit and the harms of COVID-19 on adult social care in England and Wales.

  • Johns, R., and J. Harry. 2023. Using the law in social work. 9th ed. London: SAGE.

    This book is in SAGE’s Transforming Social Work Practice series. It provides practical treatment of law, legislation, and legal processes reflected in services for children and families, vulnerable adults, youth justice, court work, professional regulation, and human rights in Britain. It also contrasts the duties of social workers with the duties of lawyers and the importance of maintaining the profession’s focus on human rights.

  • Mashchi, T. C., and G. Leibowitz, eds. 2018. Forensic social work: Psychosocial and legal issues in diverse practice settings. New York: Springer.

    Places significant emphasis on the nexus between human needs, rights, and law, including several chapters on the significance of collaboration in implementing the aims of forensic social work objectives. It includes separate sections focusing on forensic social work in different systems of care: adult protective service, criminal justice system, immigrant justice system, and the juvenile justice system. There are also chapters in this section dealing with distinct populations, such as veterans and persons without housing involved in the justice system. This edited book also contains a section on core skills, such as motivational interviewing, forensic interviewing, restorative justice, and the role of evidence-based practices in forensic social work practice.

  • Naessens, L., and P. Raeymaecker. 2020. A generalist approach to forensic social work: A qualitative analysis. Journal of Social Work 20.4: 501–517.

    DOI: 10.1177/1468017319826740

    While forensic social work typically is seen as a specialty area of practice, the results of this qualitative study show that the clients of forensic social workers have complex needs that also benefit from five roles representative of a generalist rather than a specialist practice. The article relies on interviews of forensic social workers in Belgium practicing in forensic social work organizations.

  • Rapp-McCall, L., K. Corcoran, and A. R. Roberts. 2022. Forensic social work. In Social workers’ desk reference. 4th ed. 1235–1252. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Section 15 includes thirteen chapters addressing different areas in forensic social work practice. Topics include issues like testifying in child-abuse cases, experts in family court, and topics covering broad implementation of court mandates in community and extra-court organizational settings.

  • Regehr, C. K., J. Kanani, J. McFadden, and M. Saini. 2016. Essential law for social work practice in Canada. 3d ed. Don Mills, ON: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Examines the essential Canadian law and legal processes for practice as a social worker in Canada. This book links law to the roles and functions of social work in various fields and areas of practice. It exposes students to legal rights and obligations and to know what one can expect when testifying in court. The book also covers Canadian law and legal processes germane to child abuse, family violence, adoption issues, health care, mental illness and immigration status.

  • Rice, S., A. Day, and L. Briskman. 2018. Social work in the shadow of the law. Annandale, Australia: The Federated Press.

    Covers a number of issues involving the interface of law and social work in Australia. The book is divided into five sections: foundation for practice, legal considerations in social work practice, practice with diverse populations, practice within diverse jurisdictions, and a concluding section that reconciles the practice of law and social work. It also has a new chapter on human rights and multidisciplinary practice. In addition, it includes updated content on being in court and on working with Indigenous Australians, LGBQI individuals, and other populations.

  • Sheehan, R. 2014. Practicing in the forensic context: A cross-disciplinary perspective through the social work lens. In Working within the forensic paradigm: Cross-discipline approaches for policy and practice. Edited by R. Sheehan and J. Ogloff, 9–24. London: Routledge.

    This chapter is in an edited book that explores how the context of forensic practice shapes the experience of practitioners in different service contexts. This chapter in the book applies the social work lens to practice across disciplines and practice contexts with a special emphasis on Australia.

  • Vaughan-Eden, V. 2022. National Organization of Forensic Social Work in the 21st century: A historical retrospective of the last 10 years. Journal of Forensic Social Work 6.1: 4–10.

    DOI: 10.15763/issn.1936-9298.2022.6.1.4-10

    The article describes the inception of the National Organization of Forensic Social Work in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1983 to clarify the relationship between social workers and lawyers in serving client needs. It represents a follow-up to a prior summary of the organization in the first issue of the Journal of Forensic Social Work. The journal has the primary aim of improving and developing the capabilities of the organization’s members and informing the public on issues that forensic social workers face in their day-to-day practice.

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