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Careers in Forensic Social Work

Careers in Forensic Social Work

During Gerald Krone's 25 years as a forensic social worker, his caseload included a serial killer, a father who had incinerated his children in a blast furnace and several men who had killed their wives or girlfriends.

For Krone, who worked at a Michigan facility for mentally ill people facing criminal charges, progress was sometimes painstaking. "You have to measure success in very small increments, such as when an individual recognizes his mental illness and need for treatment," says Krone, whose job was to help evaluate and treat patients, work with patients' families and serve as an expert witness in court proceedings.

Many of the people in Krone's caseload were eventually found not guilty by reason of insanity. Others recovered sufficiently and returned to society as law-abiding citizens. "You get one of those successes every couple of years," he says.

Legal Angle

Krone's triumphs and struggles are familiar to others with experience in forensic social work, a little-known field of practice that primarily encompasses social workers who practice within the criminal justice system.

Krone, who is now retired and served as executive secretary of the National Organization of Forensic Social Work (NOFSW), says forensic social workers could be social workers who are employed at psychiatric hospitals, prisons, public defenders' offices or as probation officers in the courts. On a broader level, forensic social workers may also be called upon to provide research or testimony in civil court cases and legal proceedings, such as child-custody disputes.

Lorita Whitaker, LCSW, a forensic social worker in Marietta, Georgia, enjoys the diversity of a career that frequently intersects with the law. As a mental health counselor at a jail, she triages inmates for psychiatrists and makes security recommendations based on an inmate's emotional stability. In her private practice, Whitaker conducts custody assessments, which involve interviewing and spending time with parents and children, integrating her observations with her clinical knowledge, and then recommending where a child should be placed.

Expert Testimony

Whitaker also testifies as an expert witness at trials, where preparing herself and her testimony to withstand hostile cross-examinations is key.

In one challenging case, Whitaker researched the mitigating circumstances in a death-penalty case. The information she presented about the defendant's history was intended to help the jury understand how he came to commit murder and to help it decide whether to sentence him to death or life in prison without parole.

"The death-penalty case was my most emotionally draining case," Whitaker says. "It was very difficult to learn about the traumas the defendant had been through in life, as well as the traumas of the families of the victims and the lives that had been snuffed out." She recommended life without parole, but the defendant received the death penalty. The case reminded Whitaker that "abused and neglected children take a big toll on society as a whole. So many other people can be victimized as a result."

Education and Training

Whitaker and Krone say that although the demands of forensic social work can be weighty, the work is never dull. Krone often receives inquiries from undergraduate and graduate students whose fascination with forensics is fueled by popular television shows such as "CSI" and "Law & Order." Krone explains to students that "forensic social worker" isn't an actual credential and that there is no clear-cut career path. He advises students interested in forensics to get a master's degree in social work with a clinical concentration. "People are often employed in a clinical social work position, but in a forensic setting," he explains.

Clinical social workers will receive most of the training they need to succeed in a forensic setting on the job, Krone says. Seminars and conferences offered by the NOFSW and other organizations are also valuable.

Krone became a forensic social worker unwittingly, when his first job out of school just happened to be in a forensic setting. "I still think that happens to a great deal of new clinical social workers," says Krone. He adds that job satisfaction levels are high. "My experience is that people tend to stay in the [forensic] jobs when they get there," he notes. "There's not a lot of turnover."

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