What classes should I take to specialize in forensic social work?

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What is Forensic Social Work?

To understand what classes you may take and why they are necessary, you must first understand what the profession entails.

Forensic social work involves working with populations affected by the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Examples are child-custody cases, divorce, and child neglect, mental health issues, substance abuse, and domestic violence. Also, you may provide testimony in civil court and criminal cases. Other duties require the social worker to make risk assessments of criminals and trauma assessments of victims. In addition, you may come in contact with individuals about to be incarcerated or currently in the prison system.

The responsibilities demand excellent communication skills. You will be interacting with lawyers, judges, law enforcement personnel, prosecutors, defendants, witnesses, and family members. These skills will be on display during arbitration, mediation, conferring with psychiatrists, and other medical professionals.

Bachelor’s Degree

If you conduct an internet search for bachelor’s degrees in forensic social work, you are likely to find none. Therefore, at this level, you will need to start your educational path with a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW), a Bachelor of Arts (BASW), or Bachelor of Science in Social Work (BSSW). A search of this category will result in long lists of choices across the nation.

As you begin the search process for the appropriate school, narrow your focus to institutions whose social work program has the accreditation of the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Since 1952, they have accredited over 750 undergraduate and graduate social work degrees. The significance of choosing an accredited school is apparent when advancing to a master’s degree or applying for state licensure for social work.

Another priority, as you review various colleges, is to concentrate on the curriculum. Regardless of your degree selection, BSW, BASW, or BSSW, the courses should educate you on subjects applicable to your future roles. Therefore, classes related to criminal justice, American law, litigation, civil law, substance abuse, and mental health would be beneficial.

Having to deal with traumatic and violent events necessitates a foundation in these topics. Here are examples of relevant courses.

Family Violence

Domestic violence may involve the legal system, as well as the clinical aspect in understanding the complexity of issues that may have created familial assault. The material may cover the influences of finance, culture, race, gender, and religion. Treatment of battered family members might be explored, as well as examining the legal consequences.

Along the same vein as the above subjects, courses in Services to Children help students learn about child welfare and protective services. Theories of child development are a possible area of study, including the implications of child separation from a parent due to alleged physical or emotional abuse.

Criminal Justice

The principle difference in forensic social work differs from social work is the interaction with the judicial system. At the undergraduate level, courses related to the law will be advantageous for your career. An example is San Diego State University that lists the following courses within their BASW curriculum.

  • Crime, Law, and Justice
  • Law & Society
  • Law Enforcement Administration
  • Juvenile Justice Administration
  • Probation and Parole

An institution that offers a dual major in social work and criminal justice would afford the requisite classes for forensic social work. These are rare, except Southeastern University (SEU) in Lakeland, Florida does offer this double major.

The SEU curriculum consists of fifty hours of social work core and twenty-one hours of criminal justice, plus fifty-five hours of General Education. The study plan also has 200 hours of Social Work Practicum at a local social service agency. The criminal justice classes prepare you for a career in the profession. You cover juvenile delinquency, American criminal courts, criminology theory, corrections and punishment, and policing.

Mental Health

As a forensic social worker, you will encounter individuals who struggle with mental health disorders. Classes in abnormal psychology study the causes, symptoms, and treatment of different behavioral abnormalities. The knowledge gleaned from this subject helps the practitioner understand a client’s propensity for alcohol or substance abuse.


Some schools incorporate a practicum into the senior year as a means for students to gain experience in a social service agency. Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, has a four-year-long practicum that requires students to complete 400+ hours of social service. Some of the choices, related to forensic work, are at the county probation office and police department. Others lie with Battered Women’s Services, Rape Crisis Program, and Safe Homes for victims of violence. Students interested in substance abuse may opt for a hospital, recovery centers, and facilities treating drug dependency.


As mentioned above, communication is crucial to your success in social work. Your interaction with attorneys and medical professionals demand public speaking skills. Some programs have a class devoted to public speaking. If not, you may have to seek out this instruction elsewhere if you feel you are deficient in this skill.

Related Resources:

What Salary Can You Earn With a Master’s in Social Work Degree?

What Can I Do With A Social Work Degree?

How Do I Prepare for a Social Work Degree While in High School?

What Is the Difference Between a Social Work Degree and a Psychology Degree?

What Is the Difference Between a Criminal Justice Degree and a Social Work Degree?

What are the Careers in Forensic Social Work?

What are the Benefits of Pursuing a Degree in Forensic Social Work?

Do Forensic Social Workers work in Criminal Matters or Civil Matters?

What Classes Will I Take in a Criminal Justice Degree?

For Further Reading: 

Top 10 Graduate Degree Programs in Criminal Justice