With the popularity of CSI shows, the word "forensic" has wormed its way into our everyday conversations. No one, however, seems to know what it means. "Forensic social work", therefore, is an even deeper mystery. We decided to ask a real "forensic social worker" exactly what forensic social workers do. Here's what she told us.
GVT: What is forensic social work?
FSW: "Forensic social work is an area of practice that involves working with individuals, groups, and communities around issues related to the law and legal services. We are involved in both criminal and civil cases over such issues as termination of parental rights, juvenile and adult justice services, corrections, and mandated treatment."
GVT: It seems that all social workers handle similar issues. What was the circumstance that required the "forensic" specialty to be created?
FSW: According to 2020 statistics from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 51.5 million adults suffer from mental illness, 14.5 million have an alcohol use disorder, 8.3 million have a drug use disorder, and another 2.4 million have a dual alcohol and drug use disorder. Additionally, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence indicates that 10 million people a year report physical abuse by a partner.
Clearly, society has too many complex problems for just one profession to solve alone. The police interact with nearly every one of these cases (75 million sufferers) at one time or another. Police, however, are trained to offer emergency assistance to protect people and property, enforce laws, investigate crimes, and make arrests. It is not their job to understand or treat the underlying causes of their interactions with the public.
Forensic social workers are tasked with supporting and educating police at the point of interaction and, because the position requires them to respond to emergency calls with officers, a police social work career also requires specific training in crisis intervention. Forensic social workers also provide follow-up services for residents including assessment, crisis intervention, mediation, conflict resolution, education, advocacy, and consultation. Together, social workers and police officers can provide a piece of the puzzle that may lead to a stronger, comprehensive solution to policing.
GVT: The recent spate of police shootings of unarmed black men has raised a public outcry for police reform. How do you see the role of forensic social workers in reforming police departments?
- Forensic social workers are responsible for providing diagnosis, treatment and recommendations for the criminal and juvenile justice populations and take part in the process of screening, evaluating and training law enforcement and other criminal justice personnel.
- They fight against oppression that is exhibited through exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, violence, criminalization, and cultural dominance or imperialism.
- Forensic social workers assist individuals of all ages, handling child custody, juvenile arrest, and child maltreatment, elder abuse, divorce, civil disputes and criminal offending and imprisonment.
- The wide scope of forensic social work touches the fields of healthcare, education and immigration.
The biggest problem forensic social workers face is that we are simply outnumbered. There is not enough of us to help both retrain police, accompany them to interactions that get out of hand, and provide follow-up services to the citizens involved.
The most important police reform that communities should consider is to shift funding away from advanced weaponry and hire thousands of social workers trained in the forensic specialty. In my opinion, that is the vital first step to reforming policing in this country.