What is forensic social work?

A quick guide to this specialist area of mental health practice

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Article updated 17 November 2021

This article comprises excerpt from a guide on Community Care Inform Adults about the role of forensic social workers. The guide is written by Jeremy Dixon, a lecturer in social work at the University of Bath who has worked in forensic care and as an approved mental health professional. It was updated in October 2021 by forensic community social worker Benjamin Asare. Inform Adults subscribers can read the full guide, which covers how the forensic mental health system works, tips on conducting comprehensive needs and risk assessments, and how social supervisors can balance the duties of care and control.

Forensic social work is a specialist area of mental health social work. It involves working with offenders with mental health problems in both secure hospitals and the community.

Mullen (2000) defined forensic mental health as:

…an area of specialisation that, in the criminal sphere, involves the assessment and treatment of those who are both mentally disordered and whose behaviour has led, or could lead, to offending…”

However, debates continue as to who should be seen by such a service and what it should do, for example:

  • Should forensic mental health services be available to all prisoners with a mental health problem or only to those who have committed an offence when mentally ill?
  • How far should offenders with mental health problems be held responsible for their offending?
  • Who should provide treatment to offenders with mental health problems? Should this be given by all mental health professionals or only those with specialist training?

For this reason the boundaries of the forensic mental health system have been considered ‘fuzzy’ by some (Rogers and Soothill, 2008).

Forensic social workers are generally based within secure hospitals, with community support for offenders discharged from secure hospitals being provided by multi-disciplinary workers in mental health teams. While some specialist teams exist to support offenders with mental health problems in the community, these are rare.

The role of forensic social workers

Forensic social workers offer social work services to service users in psychiatric secure units. In some instances, they may also provide community follow up to those discharged from secure care and may take on the role of social supervisor to conditionally discharged patients.

The forensic social work role was first defined by the Central Council for Training and Education in Social Work in 1995 as follows:

“Forensic social work is 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.”

This definition is used in the Department of Health’s (2016) forensic mental health social work capabilities framework which sets out the knowledge and skills expected of forensic social workers at different stages in their career. Building on the CCETSW document, the guidance outlines the following roles and functions as being key to the forensic 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.

It is important to acknowledge that there is no one way of doing forensic social work. As mentioned previously, most forensic social work is in-patient based. Different forensic hospitals have developed different expectations about what each professional group should do. At times this is reflected in local procedures but often agreement about who does what occur due to tradition and may be continued due to tacit agreements.


Department of Health (2016)
Forensic Mental Health Social Work: Capabilities Framework 

Mullen, P E (2000)
‘Forensic mental health’
British Journal of Psychiatry, Volume 176, Issue 4, pp307-11

Rogers and Soothill (2008)
‘Understanding forensic mental health and the variety of professional voices’ in Soothill, K; Rogers, P and Dolan, M (eds) Handbook of Forensic Mental Health

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