Forensic social work

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Forensic social work is the application of social work to questions and issues relating to law and legal systems. This specialty of the social work profession goes far beyond clinics and psychiatric hospitals for criminal defendants being evaluated and treated on issues of competency and responsibility. A broader definition includes social work practice which in any way is related to legal issues and litigation, both criminal and civil. Child custody issues, involving separation, divorce, neglect, termination of parental rights, the implications of child and spousal abuse, juvenile and adult justice services, corrections, and mandated treatment all fall under this definition. Forensic social worker may also be involved in policy or legislative development intended to improve social justice.


Functions of the forensic social work practitioner may include:

  • Providing consultation, education, or training to:
    • Criminal justice, juvenile justice, and correctional systems
    • Lawmakers
    • Law enforcement personnel
    • Attorneys, law students, and paralegals
    • Members of the public
  • Diagnosis, treatment, and recommendations:
    • Diagnosing, assessing, and treating criminal and juvenile justice populations
    • Diagnosing, treating, or making recommendations about mental status, children's interests, incapacities, or inability to testify
    • Serving as an expert witness
    • Screening, evaluating, or treating law enforcement and other criminal justice personnel
  • Other functions:
    • Policy and program development
    • Mediation, advocacy, and arbitration
    • Teaching, training, and supervising
    • Behavioral Science Research and Analysis

Forensic social work practitioners engage only in forensic activities within their areas of competence and expertise.[1]

Historical development[edit]

United Kingdom[edit]

The first appointed Psychiatric Social Worker in London was in 1936. The British Association of Psychiatric Social Workers was inaugurated only in 1930. Most of the expertise in England and Wales has been concentrated within the Specialist Hospitals. – Ashworth, Rampton and Broadmoor. at Broadmoor Hospital the first qualified mental health social worker was not employed until 1969.

The Central Council for Training and Education in Social Work (which was responsible for promoting education and training in social work between 1971-2001) defined forensic social work as “social work with mentally disordered people who present, or are subject to, significant risk and as a consequence are, or could be, in contact with the criminal justice system…The key purpose of forensic social work is to hold in balance the protection of the public and the promotion of the quality of life of individuals and by working in partnership with relevant others to identify, assess and manage risk; identify and challenge discriminatory structures and practices; engage effectively and identify, develop and implement strategies.” [2]


Forensic social work has been done since at least 1899[3] coming out in part, of the settlement house movement, and the expansion of urban charity work.

Role of the social worker[edit]

The social worker bridges the gap between the two worlds of hospital and community.

United States[edit]

In the United States the Forensic social worker has a variety of functions, including social assessments for various courts including Family Court, and providing assessments and aftercare for psychiatric hospitals.

United Kingdom[edit]

In the U.K. the forensic social worker has several duties, including applications for hospital admission and when necessary, arrange aftercare (under s.117 of the Mental Health Act 1983) and social assessments. Psychiatric Social Worker's are now called Mental Health Professionals, Mental Health Social Worker, of if trained, an Approved Mental Health Professional are often located within Community Mental Health Team, hospital or based in the local authority. The social worker fulfills the role of the Social Supervisor to specify suitable accommodations for discharged patients, and to assess risk. They provide specialist social care reports to the Mental Health First Tier Tribunal.

The Department of Health in England currently identifies the following functions as being key to the social work role: • assessment; • care co-ordination; • report writing and presentation; • working with individuals and families; • working in collaboration with service users and carers; • undertaking social supervision with conditionally discharged patients and the supervision of those subject to supervision and in the case of those within forensic community teams, community treatment orders; • working with external agencies and multi-agency public protection arrangements (MAPPAs); • continuing professional development.[4]

Social workers in the community are commonly appointed as 'social supervisors' to patients who are subject to conditional discharge has been discharge under section 41 of the Mental Health Act 1983. Social supervisors support the person in the community but also provide regular reports to the Ministry of Justice about their progress and may recommend their recall back to hospital.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Home".
  2. ^ Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work, 1995. Forensic social work. Competence and workforce data. London: Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work.
  3. ^ Brownell AR: Soc Work. 1999 Jul;44(4):359-69.
  4. ^ Department of Health, 2016. Forensic Mental Health Social Work: Capabilities Framework. London: Department of Health.
  5. ^ Dixon, J., 2010. Social supervision, ethics and risk: an evaluation of how ethical frameworks might be applied within the social supervision process. British Journal of Social Work, 40(8), pp.2398-2413.

Further reading[edit]

  • Aarvold Report 1973. Home Office and Department of Health and Social Security “Report of the Review of Procedures for the Discharge and Supervision of Psychiatric Patients Subject to Special Restrictions. Cmnd 5191.
  • Barker, Robert L. and Douglas M. Branson (1993). Forensic Social Work: Legal Aspects of Professional Practice. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press. ISBN 1-56024-351-1. OCLC 26396157.
  • Barnes M. Bowl R. & Fisher M. 1990 “Sectioned: Social Services and the 1983 Mental Health Act” . Routledge. Marian Barnes; Ric Bowl; Mike Fisher. (1990). Sectioned : social services and the 1983 Mental Health Act. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-01079-9. OCLC 19774036.
  • BASW 2002 Code of Ethics
  • Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work 1995 Forensic Social Worker. Competence and Workforce
  • Bluglass R. 1992 “The Special Hospitals – should be closed” British Medical Journal Volume 305 p323-324.
  • Chiswick D. &Cope R. (ed) 1995 “Practical Forensic Psychiatry” R.C.P.
  • Cochrane R. 1983 “The Social Creation of Mental Illness”. Longman. Raymond Cochrane. (1983). The social creation of mental illness. London u.a.: Longman. ISBN 0-582-29613-7. OCLC 8762783.
  • Crichton J.1995 “ Psychiatric Patient Violence: Risk and Response” Duckworth edited by John Crichton. (1995). Psychiatric patient violence : risk & response. London: Duckworth. ISBN 0-7156-2661-2. OCLC 32630233. {{cite book}}: |author= has generic name (help)
  • Dale C. & Storey L.1999 “Nursing in Secure Environments”. London UKCC
  • Dent S. 1997 “The Home Office Mental Health Unit and its Approach to the Assessment and Management of Risk” International Review of Psychiatry Volume 9, p265-271
  • Department of Health and Social Security 1988. Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Care and Aftercare of Miss Sharon Campbell Cm 440
  • Department of Health 1990 The Care Programme Approach for People with a Mental Illness Referred to the Specialist Psychiatric Services HC (90) 23 LASSL (90).
  • Department of Health 1999 Local Authority Circular LAC (99) 23
  • Department of Health and Welsh Office 1999 Code of Practice Mental Health Act.1983 Chapter 23.14.
  • Department of Health 2000 “After Care Under the Mental Health Act, 1983”. Circular LAC (2000)
  • Eastman N. 1995 “Anti Therapeutic Community Mental Health Law” British Medical Journal Volume 310 p. 1081-1082
  • Farrar M. 1996 “Government Policy on Mentally Disordered Offenders and its implementation” Journal of Mental Health
  • Fook J. Ryan M. & Hawkins L. 1997 “Towards a theory of Social Work Expertise” British Journal of Social Work. Volume 27 No 3.
  • Gostin K. 1983 “A Practical Guide to Mental Health Law”. London, Mind. Larry Gostin; foreword by Lady Bingley; edited by Janet Manning. (1983). A practical guide to mental health law. Leeds: Mind: MIND. ISBN 0-900557-59-1. OCLC 59247957. {{cite book}}: |author3= has generic name (help)
  • Gostin K. (ed)1985 “Secure Provision” Tavistock, London. edited by Larry Gostin. (1985). Secure provision : a review of special services for the mentally ill and mentally handicapped in England and Wales. London ; New York: Tavistock. ISBN 0-422-78420-6. OCLC 16094943. {{cite book}}: |author= has generic name (help)
  • HMSO Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995.
  • Home Office 1990 “Provision for Mentally Disordered Offenders” Circular 66/90
  • Home Office 1997 Mentally Disordered Offenders Survey of Inter-Agency Arrangements (Circular MNP 97)
  • Home Office and Department of Health 1997 Mental Health Act 1983 “Supervision and After Care of Conditionally Discharged Restricted Patients: Notes for the Guidance of Social Supervisors”.
  • Home Office and Department of Health 1997 Mental Health Act 1983 “Supervision and After Care of Conditionally Discharged Restricted Patients: Notes for the Guidance of Social Supervisors”.
  • James D. 1999 “Court Diversion at 10 years : Can it work, does it work, and has it a future?” – Journal of Forensic Psychiatry Vol.10 No. 3
  • Jones K. & Sidebotham R 1962 “Mental Hospitals at Work”. Routledge and Kegan Paul. Mental Hospitals at Work. OCLC 323414.
  • Jones K. 1972 “A History of the Mental health Services” Routledge and Kegan Paul. A history of the mental health services. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 1972. ISBN 0-7100-7452-2. OCLC 603321.
  • Marchant C. “Secure Hospitals”. Community Care 2 Sept. 1993.
  • McClelland N. 2002 (Lecture) “The Historical Aspect of the Development of the Role of the Specialist Mental Health Nurse”. M.Sc. Psychiatry Univ. of Birmingham.
  • Mental Health Act. 1983 HMSO
  • Mental Health Review Tribunal Rules. The 1983 HMSO
  • Mental Health Act 1983 Section 73 (2) HMSO
  • Mental Health Act 1983 Section 42 (2) HMSO Prins H.1983.
  • “The Care of the Psychiatric Prisoner – Discharge into the Community and its Implications” – Medicine, Science and the Law. Vo. 23 No. 2.
  • Neighbors, Ira A. (2002). Social Work and the Law: Proceedings of the National Organization of Forensic Social Work, 2000. Binghamton, New York: Haworth Press. ISBN 0-7890-1547-1. OCLC 0789015471.
  • Olsen M.R. (ed)1984 “Social Work and Mental Health – a guide for the Approved Social Worker” Tavistock. edited by M. Rolf Olsen. (1984). Social work & mental health : a guide for the approved social worker. London ; New York: Tavistock ; New York, NY : Tavistock Publications in association with Methuen. ISBN 0-422-79000-1. OCLC 12083433. {{cite book}}: |author= has generic name (help)
  • Prior L. 1993 “The Social Organization of Mental Illness” Sage, London Lindsay Prior. (1996). The social organization of mental illness. London: Sage. ISBN 0-8039-8499-5. OCLC 28964935.
  • Reed Report 1992 Department of Health and Home Office
  • Roberts, Albert R.; Brownell, Patricia (July 1999), "A Century of Forensic Social Work: Bridging the Past to the Present", Social Work, 44 (4): 359–369, doi:10.1093/sw/44.4.359, PMID 10429576
  • Roberts, Albert R. and David W. Springer (2007). Social Work in Juvenile and Criminal Justice Settings (3rd ed.). Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas. ISBN 978-0-398-07676-4. OCLC 67405708.
  • Robinson V.P.1930 “A Changing Psychology in Social Case Work” University of N.Carolina Press. Robinson, Virginia Pollard (1910). A Changing Psychology in Social Case Work. OCLC 1386907.
  • Seebohm Report 1968 “ The Committee on Local Authority and Allied Personal Social Services”
  • Shepherd M. 1990 “Mental Health –the Role of the Approved Social Worker” Sheffield University and Community Care.
  • Social Services Inspectorate 1994 “Inspection of Social Work in Medium Secure Units –The Reaside Clinic”. Department of Health
  • Social Services Inspectorate 1999 “ Inspection of Ashworth Hospital Social Work Service” Department of Health
  • Southard E.E. & Jarrett M.C. 1922 “The Kingdom of Evils” MacMillan Southard, Elmer Ernest; Jarrett, Mary Cromwell (1922). The Kingdom of Evils. OCLC 277145.
  • Springer, David W. and Albert R. Roberts (2007). Handbook of Forensic Mental Health with Victims and Offenders: Assessment, Treatment, and Research. New York, NY: Springer. ISBN 978-0-8261-1514-0. OCLC 75087926.
  • Szasz T. 1961 “Myths of Mental Illness” Harper The Kingdom of Evils. OCLC 14106320.
  • Taylor P.J. & Gunn J. 1993, 1995 “Forensic Psychiatry : Clinical, Legal and Ethical Issues” Butterworth Heinemann. edited by John Gunn; Pamela J. Taylor. (1995). Forensic psychiatry : clinical, legal, and ethical issues. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann. ISBN 0-7506-2317-9. OCLC 32465838. {{cite book}}: |author1= has generic name (help)
  • Vaughan P. & Badger D. 1995 “Working with the Mentally Disordered Offender in the Community”. Chapman and Hall. Phillip J. Vaughan; Douglas Badger. (1995). Working with the mentally disordered offender in the community. London: Chapman & Hall. ISBN 0-412-56740-7. OCLC 32393198.
  • Wix S. & Cushing H. 2001 – “Diversion from Custody”. Ed Forensic Nursing and Mental Disorder in Clinical Practice – McClelland N. Humphries M. Conlon L. & Hillis T. Butterworth Heinemann
  • Zito J. 1995 “Victims of Community Care” Mental Health Nursing Volume 15 No 6
  • Zito J. 1998. “ Lessons From the Outside”. Nursing Times. 28.1.94.