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: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0164


The forensic sciences involve many different disciplines and professions. Forensic social work is a subspecialty of social work that focuses on the application of social work knowledge, skills, and other forms of professional expertise to legal issues in civil, criminal, and administrative matters. The practice of social work is inextricably linked with having knowledge of law and lawlike systems of governance. Harriet Bartlett wrote that the social work profession started in many ways by helping individuals who “fell through the cracks of the medical and legal systems” (Ashford 2009, cited under General Overviews). Indeed, many social workers exercise their duties without having to practice in courts or in lawlike administrative forums. However, forensic social work is the subspecialty in social work that takes place in explicit legal contexts (Slater and Finck 2010, cited under General Overviews). “The explicit legal context of social work practice refers to those times when clients have legal issues that are being addressed or could be addressed in a civil, criminal, or administrative forum” (Slater and Finck 2010, p. 68). The practice of social work in various legal forums is consistent with narrow definitions of forensic social work (Ashford 2009, cited under General Overviews). Broader definitions of this subspecialty include the provision of social work services in contexts that do not involve disputes about claims in legal forums but support the implementation of court- related matters in correctional contexts, forensic mental health facilities, and victim settings (Ashford 2009, cited under General Overviews). This article examines literature from the forensic sciences that can inform the practice of forensic social workers in performing investigations, assessments, and other interventions with a primary focus on explicit legal contexts.

General Overviews

Some of the articles and books that attempt to clarify the boundaries between forensic social work and ordinary social work are increasing in the social work literature (Ashford 2009, Barker and Branson 2000). In addition, there are books that provide an overview of the history, breadth, and scope of practice in this burgeoning area of social work practice (Barker and Branson 2000; Mashchi, et al. 2009), including an edited handbook that examines the interface of mental health and forensic practice with offenders and victims in the justice system (Springer and Roberts 2007). The handbook by Springer and Roberts also includes a history of forensic social work. Moreover, there are several publications in this area that describe forensic issues within a broader context of the role of law in social work practice in Australia (Swain and Rice 2009), in Canada (Regehr and Kanani 2010), in England and Wales (Brayne and Carr 2010), and in the United States (Slater and Finck 2010).

  • Ashford, J. B. 2009. Overview of forensic social work: Broad and narrow definitions. In Social workers’ desk reference. 2d ed. Edited by A. R. Roberts, 1055–1060. New York: 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. 2000. Forensic social work: Legal aspects of professional practice. 2d ed. Binghamton, NY: Haworth.

    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.

  • Brayne, H., and H. Carr. 2010. Law for social workers. 11th 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.

  • Mashchi, T., C. Bradley, and K. Ward, eds. 2009. 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.

  • Regehr, C., and K. Kanani. 2010. Essential law for social work practice in Canada. 2d ed. New York: 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.

  • Slater, L., and K. Finck. 2010. Social work practice and the law. New York: Springer.

    Links human rights and needs with law and demonstrates the important role that social work can play by establishing collaborative relationships with members of the legal profession. This book also offers students the important differentiation between practice in the subspecialty of forensic social work and the role of law in the day-to-day practice of professional social work.

  • Springer, D. W., and A. R. Roberts, eds. 2007. Handbook of forensic mental health with victims and offenders: Assessment, treatment, and research. New York: Springer.

    Consisting of twenty-five chapters, the book is divided into five sections: introduction and history of forensic social work in the 21st century; forensic risk assessment, roles, and specialized practices; juvenile justice process, assessment and treatment; forensic services and programs for adult offenders; and restorative justice and victim-offender mediation.

  • Swain, P., and S. Rice, eds. 2009. In the shadow of the law: The legal context of social work practice. Melbourne, Australia: Federated.

    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.

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