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By: Stephanie Hicks-Pass, Ph.D., LMSW, MHR
For most field education programs, the hunt is always on for new, innovative, and educational agencies. The challenges facing field directors in finding appropriate and interesting practicum sites are great, and finding policy and community driven placements can be even more difficult. This often forces programs and students to “think outside the box” with potential BSW and MSW level field agencies, forcing field directors to look into areas previously undeveloped.
With the current political and legal environment, social workers, law enforcement agencies, and the legal system find themselves in a predicament. Law enforcement agencies and the justice system are being forced into the role of working with clients whose mental illness or chemical dependency has resulted in involvement with the legal system. The legal professionals find themselves in a social work role, with limited knowledge of how to work with such clients.
Enter the social work intern. Having a social work intern in nontraditional settings such as private law firms and the more traditional setting of the public defender’s office can offer a real benefit for all involved. Such placements provide excellent opportunities for social work students to gain exposure to multiple aspects of social work in legal settings from micro to mezzo to macro levels of the system.
Forensic Social Work
Forensic social work is an ever-expanding field, yet not all students (or field directors) are aware of the opportunities for students in legal settings such as law offices, legislative offices, public defenders’ offices, and legal aid agencies.
Forensic social work has multiple definitions. Generally, forensic social work is the application of social work to questions and issues relating to law and legal systems. This specialty goes far beyond clinics and psychiatric hospitals for criminal defendants being evaluated and treated for issues of competency and responsibility. A broader definition includes social work practice that is in any way 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, according to the National Organization of Forensic Social Work (About Us, 2011).
Forensic social work plays a vital role in the justice system, and the options seem unlimited for students. However, the question remains of how to encourage social work programs, students, and external agencies to see the benefit of allowing students into their settings.
Field Agency Issues and Benefits of Accepting Interns
Many agencies, such as the Department of Children’s Services, already understand the value social work interns bring to the agency and have utilized student interns for years. However, other areas of the legal arena have been slow to catch up to the trend of having practicum students on board. One of the reasons agencies are reluctant to take on a social work student is the perception that social work students are all “counselors in training.” This misconception leads the agencies to think that social work programs only teach therapist-style skills. By explaining the bachelor’s level generalist approach—micro, mezzo, and macro interventions with clients—and the holistic view most social workers hold, we can help these agencies envision the role a student can play in the office.
A further issue agencies and programs face is that of supervision. Although most free standing law offices do not have a master’s level clinician on staff, it has been found that many public defenders’ offices and legislative intern program offices have a bachelor’s level employee available to supervise. CSWE does allow for BSW level students to be supervised by an experienced bachelor’s level practitioner, so this is one method for overcoming the supervision issue.
In our program, one student who recently completed her practicum in the Tennessee State Legislature was matched with Tennessee Representative Joe Pitts, who not only holds a bachelor’s in social work, but also possesses it from the same program from which she was graduating. Her field instructor was the legislator himself. In other offices, supervision is often done by someone outside the social work field, thus creating the need for a higher level of supervision by the field liaison or field coordinator/director and more intense training by the field program.