Commitment to Justice: Social work roles are many in criminal justice system

When a refugee from a civil war in her home country was charged with terrorism, the Office of the Federal Public Defender in Alexandria, Va., defended her against the charge.

“In her case, it was really important that a social worker was on it because there was such a large component of cultural competency in it,” said Tameka S. Parker, BS, MSW, who then was a mitigation investigation intern at the federal public defender’s office. “The cultural competency was: to her, she was not doing anything wrong. She was charged with terrorism because she sent medical supplies — gauze pads — to an organization deemed a terrorist group by the U.S.”

The group had helped people in her home country during its civil war, and the woman, who was in her late 30s, had a history of traumatic brain injury and domestic violence, and she had attempted suicide, Parker said.
The staff social worker presented the woman’s cultural history timeline, including how the group had helped her, and Parker presented the woman’s medical history timeline record.

“My supervisor did the social history timeline,” she said. “Some of the social history information was taken in by the judge. She was sentenced to prison, but the sentence was less than the prosecutor was trying for.”
“It is unfortunate she had to go to prison. She had seven children. It was really a complex case, and without a social worker, I can’t imagine what would have become of her.”

Social workers serve a variety of important roles within the criminal justice court system. The growth of problem-solving courts, which divert defendants to treatment and allows them to avoid incarceration if they complete treatment successfully, involves social workers in the process that treats issues like substance misuse and mental health problems as medical issues.

Florida First

The first problem-solving court was created in 1989 in Florida, when Miami-Dade County established the nation’s first drug court.

According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, there currently are 3,057 treatment courts operating in the United States.
The National Center for State Courts says drug courts are most widely recognized. Other problem-solving courts include mental health courts, veterans courts, homeless courts, truancy courts and some forms of family courts.

“Generally,” it says, “a problem-solving court involves a single judge that works with a community team to develop a case plan and closely monitor a defendant’s compliance, imposing proper sanctions when necessary.”

In its Census of Problem-Solving Courts, published in 2016, the Bureau of Justice Statistics “describes the type, location and characteristics of all known problem-solving courts in 2012,” including “drug, mental health, family, youth specialty, hybrid DWI/drug, DWI, domestic violence, veterans, tribal wellness and other specialty courts.”

The survey defined problem-solving courts as those that used therapeutic justice to reduce recidivism; they operated within the judiciary; had a judicial officer in charge; had an exclusive docket; and either admitted participants, had active participants or exited participants in 2012.

It states while 55 percent of veterans courts were established between 2011 and 2012, 53 percent of the 3,052 active problem-solving courts in 2012 were established before 2005. Thirty-five percent accepted cases at filing or prior to a plea, and 64 percent accepted cases after pleas were entered.

Fifty-seven percent of the courts reported successful program completions of 51 percent or more. Ninety-three percent of courts reported participants received at least one benefit from successful completion, including cases being dismissed, sentences suspended or records expunged.

NADCP states on its website that an estimated 144,000 Americans are currently being served in treatment courts, and 75 percent of drug court graduates remain arrest free.

The U.S. currently spends $80 billion annually on incarceration, it states. For court funding, the average cost per prisoner in the traditional criminal justice system is $22,650. The average cost per drug court participant is $6,885.

Broad Role

Social workers have many different roles in the criminal justice system, providing services and addressing needs directly in victim advocacy, working with probation and parole, preparing children to testify in court, working with families, providing mental health services to inmates and prisoners preparing to return to their communities, as well as clients referred to mandated treatment, said Sunny Harris Rome, BA, MSW, J.D., tenured professor of social work at George Mason University’s Department of Social Work in Fairfax, Va., and president of Influencing Social Policy.

“There are a lot of social work roles in that basket,” said Rome, who served as senior legislative associate with NASW from 1986 to 1994 and directed an association-wide project on how to improve the welfare system.

“Social workers are trained to see systemic issues, advocating for individual clients, inmates and offenders, and also advocating on a big scale,” she said. “They also work on issues like disproportionality in the justice system — i.e. over-incarceration; some treatments of offenders that is problematic, like the shackling of women in confinement; and as social work does, we look at various levels on policy and the experiences of people involved in the system.”

The profession’s commitment to justice drives a lot of the work, Rome said.

“We understand the trauma which is prevalent in the criminal justice system, and we’re trained in treatment modalities that are helpful,” she said. “We know the role community-based treatment can play. We work with families, and we work with both survivors and defendants, so our value of recognizing the dignity and worth of every person allows us to work with both.”

Rome wrote a book for one of the courses she teaches: “Social work and the law: Judicial policy & forensic practice.”

Forensic Social Work

“Any reason a person ends up in court, a social worker can get called in,” said Viola Vaughan-Eden.

Forensic social work is called for “in a large variety of cases across the life span,” from cases about children that involve abuse and neglect, custody matters and foster care, to juvenile justice matters to elder abuse, disability and criminal mitigation, she said.

Vaughan-Eden, BS, MSW, Ph.D., M.J., LCSW, diplomate and certified Master Forensic Social Worker, is associate professor and Ph.D. program director at the Ethelyn R. Strong School of Social Work at Norfolk State University in Norfolk, Va. She also is a clinical forensic social worker and proprietor of Child and Family Resources and Collaborative Divorce Solutions.

She serves as editorial advisor for the Journal of Social Work Education, and is president of the National Organization of Forensic Social Work.
Vaughan-Eden is a consultant and expert witness who has qualified more than 600 times as an expert in child welfare and child abuse and neglect cases.

“In child welfare matters, many of the courts actually have an office for social workers in the courthouse,” she said. “In Tidewater, there’s an office on every floor. If a social worker is not sitting in the courtroom, the judge can say ‘go get my social worker.’”

The court uses social workers as their eyes and ears because social workers go to homes, go to schools and see what’s going on, Vaughan-Eden said.

“Because child protective service workers have the legal authority, they can come back and report to the court,” she said. “What I hear from judges is, social workers need to understand the law.”

We can explain to the court the information the judge needs to make a decision, and we see every aspect of a client — biologically, socially, culturally and sometimes spiritually, Vaughan-Eden said. The court has case laws it must follow, and it is there to address only one question: Is the child at risk of harm, or has the child been harmed?

“If a child is at risk of other harm, the social worker can provide information which is needed going forward,” she said. “It all depends on what question is before the court.”

The work of a social worker can be easier in a specialized court because the judge is usually trained in that specific area, Vaughan-Eden said.

Social workers, like any expert, are there to educate the judge on the specific facts, be objective and present information that’s going to help.
“Social workers can say, ‘this person is going to school or going to work, and their drug tests are clean,’” she said. “We bring information in in a neutral fashion so the judge can proceed.”

The biggest challenge forensic social workers face — from an educational standpoint — is they’re not always trained to understand case law, Vaughan-Eden said. In the past, the mindset was that social workers would gain some knowledge on the job.

“But when they’re in child welfare and have to go to court, they have no clue about legal proceedings,” she said.

Training for lawyers and social workers “vastly differs,” Vaughan-Eden said.

Social work has its code of ethics and lawyers have a code of conduct, but they are not the same.

“We’re trained to help our client come hell or high water,” she said, whereas lawyers are trained to win, and they are trained differently in how they engage clients. They are trained so they can be extremely intimidating.

“Social workers are trained to calm down situations, to try to engage people and find middle ground, always remembering the client’s right to self-determination,” Vaughan-Eden said. “It can be really hard to navigate in an environment that’s very much the opposite.”

“I think the challenge in and of itself that’s so important is that clients are faced with the same challenge. The court’s view is legal, it’s not humanistic. Specialty courts were brought about to somehow mitigate that friction. They’re a nurturing environment instead of an environment that’s rigid.”

That is one reason NOFSW trains lawyers too, she said. “Often times, they come to learn it can serve the client better. It’s twofold, really. Some do better in court.”

Teacher, Researcher

When Lisa Shannon was an undergraduate social work student at the University of Kentucky, she took part in a research project on drug courts.

“I did interviewing for the project because I was really interested in drug courts and research,” she said. “I got to travel around and interview different people — the qualitative part: Why didn’t it work for you?” She found “it’s a great program, but you have to be ready for it for it to work.”

Now Shannon, BA, MSW, Ph.D., is associate professor of social work at Morehead State University in Morehead, Ky., and her focus is on research and evaluation. She still is interested in drug courts, and serves as board of directors secretary for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

“Overall, drug courts do have high success rates across the U.S.,” Shannon said. “I think it’s a great program. For anyone involved, it’s a chance to get your life back. Helping people get out of the criminal justice system and get back to their lives is very rewarding.”

Social workers in her state have the opportunity to work in various roles in drug courts, she said.

“Kentucky is unique,” Shannon said. “They hire case managers to work with people in drug court.”

Social workers can be program supervisors, case managers, or recovery coordinators, or can focus on the treatment side, working with treatment-providing agencies, she said.

The number of drug courts in the state has been growing. When she did the research project, there were three statewide, and now there are only a few jurisdictions that do not have one, Shannon said.

“I think people recognize this is an amazing opportunity,” she said. “Next year, drug courts celebrate their 30th year. There’s an extensive research base, so you can’t argue that they’re not effective.”

“In Kentucky, there’s a horrible heroin problem, and more people are becoming involved in the criminal justice system. I don’t think the problem is going away any time soon, and, eventually, they end up in the justice system.”

Shannon said everyone has a stereotype of people who get involved with drugs. “There is no one profile, because it’s all people. It can be anybody.”

“I think this is a great program," she said. "An individual gets treatment and learns how to function in the environment they live in.”

As a professor, Shannon believes not many students consider a career in this area.

“I think there’s a misperception here in Kentucky,” she said. “People think all social work is with children and social services.”

At Morehead State, social work is in a combined school with sociology and criminology, and a lot of students go into criminology, Shannon said.

“Many students have no idea of all the areas someone can work in in social work. There are all kinds of opportunities for social workers in the field, and they can do research as well. That’s a less common pathway for social workers.”

It’s a path she wants more students to pursue.

“I hope more social workers will consider research in the criminal justice system as an option,” Shannon said. “It’s a viable career path as a social worker. There are new and innovative ways to treat people, and without research, these would never come about.”

Learning the Job

Growing up in Colonial Beach, Va., a town of about 3,500 people, Parker, sentencing advocate at the Arlington County and City of Falls Church Public Defenders Office in Arlington, Va., saw the needs in her small community.

“My uncle had schizophrenia and bipolar disorder,” she said. “He was low-income, had low resources and there were no services in that area. That made me want to be in a helping profession.”

Parker’s role as a sentencing advocate — her first full-time position after earning her MSW in May — includes being liaison between attorneys and working with treatment options in the community.

“I create treatment plans, present them to the judge and advocate to try to get them into treatment rather than behind bars,” she said.

The job includes helping people on probation with treatment services “so they can be successful in the community,” Parker said.

The office is affiliated with a drug court in Arlington, and “we’re working on getting a more established mental health court as well,” she said. “There’s not a full-blown mental health court yet, and we have cases on the docket.”

“The biggest thing for me is humanizing them so judges and others who have a say on the rest of their lives see them as a person,” Parker said.

She helps by educating them about what is occurring in the courtroom.

“Attorneys and judges don’t always have time to sit and talk with them about their needs,” Parker said.

She also works on re-entry planning if someone has mental health issues.
“Sometimes it’s a challenge helping get services for individuals,” Parker said. “They have to be eligible for them, they have to be able to afford it and you have to know where they can be accepted before they go before the judge again.”

There are other obstacles, she said.

“Sometimes there’s a challenge because there’s an adversarial overtone in the system,” Parker said. “It’s a challenge getting used to the criminal justice system. It’s not on our turf, so it takes an adjustment, and the terminology has a learning curve.”

She has found the inter-professional aspect satisfying.

“Social workers and lawyers together — before I started, I thought there would be a hierarchy,” Parker said. “Social workers are highly regarded by the attorneys. They seriously regard our opinions as social workers.”

Future Needs

Rome sees the role of social work in the legal system increasing, “both in terms of service delivery and in terms of advocacy.”

“I certainly see a greater need,” she said. “There’s a huge need for advocacy. There’s been a lot of attention, a lot of public play
recently on issues over incarceration, some treatment issues of
inmates, there are people of color and people with low incomes in the system at greater rates, mental health care and screening, and a lot of issues that we need to be advocating for.”

There are certain roles forensic social workers play in the criminal justice system, Rome said, including testifying as expert witnesses in court, conducting mental health competency evaluations to stand trial for insanity defenses, and working with defense teams to develop life histories for mitigation under sentencing.

Social workers also conduct forensic interviews with survivors of abuse, particularly sexual abuse. They’re part of interdisciplinary teams, working with health care professionals, nurses, law enforcement and child protective services, Rome said.

“We work as a team in order to get information in a way done objectively enough to hold up in court. We have to work collaboratively but stay true to our own values and ethics.”

It can be difficult and emotional to work both with survivors of crime and the perpetrators of it, Rome said. And for those who work within jails and prisons, the environment can be daunting.

“All these things differ from state to state,” she said. “States determine the roles, and the roles vary from state to state. I think there is a need for more social workers. And we need for states to recognize that social workers have what it takes to perform those functions.”