How to Become a Forensic Social Worker

Learn how to become a forensic social worker. This field can be a solid option for students interested in a helping profession with a legal component.

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by James Mielke

Updated July 29, 2022

Reviewed by Melissa Russiano, LCSW, LISW

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How to Become a Forensic Social Worker
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Forensic social work is an emerging specialization within the broader social work field.

These professionals work in the space where social work and the legal world meet. They offer expertise to law enforcement, provide services to incarcerated individuals, offer guidance and support to those dealing with legal issues, and help community members.

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Ready to start your journey?

Read on to learn about this emerging social work specialization, the steps it takes to begin a forensic social work career, and what these professionals can expect when entering the workforce.

What Is a Forensic Social Worker?

Forensic social workers — also known as criminal justice social workers — utilize their expertise in the criminal justice field.

These professionals offer expert testimony in litigation. They also collaborate with attorneys and law enforcement and work with individuals dealing with various legal issues, both in placement as well as in the community.

Forensic social workers have a strong working knowledge of the law and legal issues. They commonly work in areas relating to:

Forensic social workers often provide their expertise to guide law enforcement personnel, attorneys, and other professionals in the psychology of the criminal justice system. Other professional functions may include program development, behavioral science research, and client advocacy.

Steps to Become a Forensic Social Worker

While professional requirements vary slightly between states, they all require social workers to meet professional and academic benchmarks.

The section below highlights the academic and licensure requirements and how forensic social workers can enhance their career options through continuing education.

Step 1: Complete a Bachelor's in Social Work or Related Field

While many social workers go on to complete a master's degree, a bachelor's in social work (BSW) is the minimum academic experience required for entry-level jobs. A BSW degree is not always required for admission into a master's-level social work program, but it can help in the admissions process.

Core social work classes cover topics such as social welfare policy history, introduction to social work, and understanding diversity in a pluralistic society. Before graduation, many programs require students to complete a hands-on practicum experience.

Step 2: Complete a Social Work Master's Program

A master's in social work (MSW) is the professional standard for those tackling a clinical role. These programs typically take about two years of full-time enrollment and require that students complete 40-60 credits of graduate-level coursework before graduation.

During their grad school experience, students traditionally complete a blend of foundational courses and specialized classes that complement academic and career goals.

Foundational master's coursework covers topics such as human behavior and the social environment, social welfare institutions, social justice policy, and issues in policy and service delivery.

MSW students typically complete a designated number of supervised practicum hours at a social service organization. There are various graduate-level programs that are offering certification and/or specialization in the forensic population.

Whether on-campus or online, prospective master's students should seek out programs that hold accreditation through the Council on Social Work Education.

Step 3: Get Your Social Work License

Even though state requirements vary, all states require social workers to hold a valid license to practice clinically. Prospective forensic social workers must hold a degree from an accredited social work program and complete their state's standardized test before securing licensure.

Most tests lean heavily on clinical skills and assess an individual's clinical judgment. Other key topics include diagnostic criteria, professional ethics, research processes, and cultural competency.

The Association of Social Work Boards is home to various test prep materials, candidate handbooks, and online practice tests.

Step 4: Enhance Your Skills

Upon earning licensure, forensic social workers can earn additional certifications and take more coursework and graduate-level certificate programs. Students can pursue continued education through the National Organization of Forensic Social Workers and the National Association of Social Workers.

Additionally, some of these professionals decide to tackle a doctoral degree in forensic social work.

Whether to enhance their clinical skills or begin a career in research and teaching, doctoral social work degrees typically take 4-6 years to complete. Some programs offer accelerated programs, which take less time. This research-heavy degree program often covers both the theoretical and clinical aspects of social work.

Forensic Social Worker Salary and Job Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the number of social worker jobs is projected to grow by 12% between 2020 and 2030, with around 78,000 openings, on average, each year. And while the BLS reports a median annual income of just over $50,000 for social workers, the top 10% of earners make more than $82,000 each year.

Professionals in the field can enhance their earning potential through additional specializations, degrees, and professional certifications. Those in leadership roles tend to make the highest salaries in the field.

Frequently Asked Questions on Becoming a Forensic Social Worker

What does a forensic social worker do?

Also known as criminal justice social workers, these professionals work at the intersection of social services, criminal justice, and corrections. Whether working with law enforcement officials, lawyers, plaintiffs and defendants in trials, or individuals, forensic social workers provide many important services.

They can act as expert witnesses and consultants in court cases, use their expertise to make recommendations, and provide insight in terms of psychological behaviors, victimology, and criminal behaviors. When working with victims, they can also provide advocacy and clinical services.

How much does a forensic social worker earn?

As of May 2022, forensic social workers earned an average annual base salary of over $47,000, according to Payscale. The top 75% of earners took home approximately $61,000 yearly, while those in the bottom 25% earned an average of $42,000.

Individuals who decide to pursue a master's in social work typically earn more than those with a BSW degree since they have the qualifications needed to take on clinical work and managerial positions. Factors like your location, type of employer, level of experience, and title can all impact how much you earn.

What is forensic psychiatric social work?

Forensic psychiatric social work uses the tenets and methodologies of social work to address questions within the legal and criminal justice systems.

The discipline focuses on understanding the psychological components of criminal behavior — in terms of providing diagnoses and treatments and offering education and training to other professionals.

Individuals with an advanced degree in the subject may also decide to research forensic psychiatric social work, engage in public policy initiatives, or provide supervisory services to other social workers focused on this aspect of the discipline.

Resources for Forensic Social Workers

NOFSW provides members access to an annual conference, political advocacy and action, opportunities for networking, publications, and a professional journal.

This article by Tulane University's School of Social Work provides an intriguing look at the responsibilities and requirements of forensic social work.

This YouTube vlog by Annie Dayich provides a glimpse of what it's like to work as a forensic social worker.

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