Book reviews — Forensic Social Work: Legal Aspects of Professional Practice by Robert L. Barker and Douglas M. Branson
Forensic Social Work: Legal Aspects of Professional Practice., Robert L. Baker and Douglas M. Branson. New York: Haworth Press, 1993. 134 pp. Cloth $26.95, paper $19.95.
In Forensic Social Work, social worker Robert L. Barker and attorney Douglas Branson join forces to explore forensic social work, “a new professional specialty that focuses on the interface between society’s legal and human services systems.” The authors identify forensic social work as embracing a two-fold purpose: to enlighten the legal system about human service needs and to educate social workers about the legal aspects of their work.
The book is only minimally dedicated to the first of these two components, educating the legal system about human service needs. Although the authors describe forensic social work as including client competency assessment, family mediation, and facilitation of court-ordered sentences, these functions are never fully explored. Chapter one defines “forensic social work” and traces social work’s involvement with the legal system over time. Chapter two does an excellent job providing the student and practitioner with an understanding of the intricacies of providing expert-witness testimony. Defining the role of an expert witness, distinguishing facts from opinions, and common attorney tactics are covered in a thorough, clear, and concise fashion.
In the following chapters, the book abandons its focus on educating the legal system about the social work profession. Instead, educating the social work professional on minimizing his or her chances of facing litigation becomes the focal point. The abrupt shift shortchanges the importance of focusing on forensic social work and leaves a startling gap in the flow of the book.
Avoiding litigation as described in the remaining chapters is invaluable to both students and practitioners. Chapter three addresses issues in malpractice, provides practical advice about practicing responsibly, and highlights various modes of conduct that lead to litigation. Chapter four explores the conflict between the social work profession’s commitment to maintaining confidentiality and the legal profession’s ability to override that promise. Although entitled “When Laws and Ethics Collide,” this chapter is slightly biased toward social work adjusting to legal realities instead of challenging unjust laws and practices. Chapters five and six discuss the use of written contracts with clients as a means to minimize client misunderstandings about the provider-consumer relationship, not as a means to define client-worker goals.
Chapter seven, “Legal and Professional Credentials,” does an exceptional job of distinguishing among registration, certification, and licensing. Barker and Branson are honest enough subtly to chastise the social work profession for its failure to establish more substantive credentialing laws in all states. The states’ inconsistency in regulating practitioners diminishes social work’s credibility and is, frankly, an embarrassment.
Chapter eight, “Adjudication through Professional Review,” and chapter nine, “Preparing for Litigation,” describe these respective processes for addressing client grievances. Half of chapter nine is devoted to the ways a worker can recognize and avoid a legal hazard.
The book concludes with a superb glossary of forensic social work terms, although few of them appear in the text. The exhaustive bibliography contains entries on both direct practice and professional liability issues. It is an excellent resource.
Although a more comprehensive discussion of basic forensic social work issues identified in the first chapter would have significantly strengthened the book, overall it is extremely well-written, clear, and carefully organized. Forensic Social Work is a valuable resource for students and practitioners.
Copyright Family Service America Jan 1995
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