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Forensic Mental Health Social Work: Capabilities Framework

Social work is characterised by its ability to see the individual within the context of their family, their community and the wider society. Legal knowledge and an ability to understand how and when to intervene are both necessary and appropriate in forensic settings. This makes social work an essential element in the care and rehabilitation of people supported within those settings.

What this means in practice is that forensic social workers understand and engage with individual service users/patients, and also with their families and the communities from which service users have come. They support them through their journeys between different levels of security, and are knowledgeable about the community situations to which they will return. Like other social workers, their understanding of human rights, and other legal frameworks, are key to the support they offer. Professional isolation is a key concern for many forensic social workers, who are often located within health professional dominated environments. In this context, it is vital that practitioners are able, and supported, to keep abreast of strategic changes impacting on social work and community care services generally and maintain their distinctive professional voice within the context in which they are working.

Forensic Social workers are involved in gatekeeping and ensuring that service users are being managed at the least restrictive level of security. They act as core members of multi-disciplinary teams working with detained patients who have committed serious sexual or violent offences, and they bring a social and family perspective to inpatient services.

Forensic social workers lead on safeguarding children and adults and they maintain links with the home areas to which most service users will eventually return. Social workers are involved in writing mental health tribunal and other reports, and in care pathway planning, in order to minimise delays and ensure suitable community placements in line with Care Act (2014) requirements. Forensic social workers are involved in the community management of service users, particularly those who are subject to conditional discharge or community treatment orders.

Their focus on the individual service user and also the wider system means that forensic social workers are able to understand and seek to balance the needs and rights of different people. This includes the patient who needs to understand their legal position, the victim who needs to feel understood and protected, the family and friends who may struggle to understand what has happened, and why. They are authentic and genuine when interacting with others, demonstrating empathy to engage different people in the work that they do, whilst maintaining professional boundaries.

The work to develop capabilities for forensic social workers was commissioned by High Secure Mental Health Commissioners, NHS England, and aims to refresh previous work on  professional development within forensic social work, and set it within current best practice models.

The process of consultation to develop this framework included social workers from across the forensic sector, providing an opportunity for them to articulate their role within the systems in which they work. This includes what can be expected of them at different points in their professional development, and the unique contributions that they bring to the lives of service users within the forensic system.