Forensic Social Work Practice: Military Veterans in the Criminal Justice System

by Bradley J Schaffer


Social Work practice with the military veteran population in the criminal justice system (CJS) is a part of a specialized and underdeveloped field, known as forensic social work (FSW). FSW practice spans the CJS continuum and requires advanced social work knowledge, training, skills, field experience, and continuing education. The complex bio-psycho-social problems of service members in the CJS and the nationwide therapeutic jurisprudence trend of Veterans Treatment Courts (VTC) and Magistrate Veteran diversion programs, highlight the need for highly qualified and credentialed FSW professionals who can provide culturally competent, socially-just services for this vulnerable sub-population in the CJS.  Collectively, FSW with military veterans in the CJS offers pedagogy, leadership, practice, research, and student fieldwork opportunities for social work education to serve this population in a manner beyond commensurate with their service to the United States of America.

Keywords: Keywords: social work, forensic, criminal justice system, veteran’s treatment courts, military

“The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.” -President George Washington


Now, more than ever, as the current United States military remains engaged in a daunting, relentless and sustained Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), there is an ongoing call for prepared, professional social workers to serve military veterans and their families. Increasing acts of terrorism, both domestic and foreign, enduring instabilities and tensions in the Middle East, North Korea, Iran, Syria, China, Russia, and North Africa, unfortunately promise to keep American forces and her allies engaged in combat readiness and operations for many years to come. The GWOT produces a wave of current returnees, unlike their Vietnam predecessors, discharged from military service with an enhanced “welcome home touch” that has become a signature war at home for stability and reunification. As a supplement to the GWOT, the military is grappling with social issues, such as transgender status in active military, the role of women in combat, an epidemic of sexual assaults, the well-being of military families, and the transition of veterans back into civilian life.

Moreover, as the veteran population returns from war, so too does the sustained need for understanding of the impact and readjustment of their service by addressing their needs at the individual, group, family, academic, legal, and societal levels. In response to the returning wave of current Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation New Dawn (OND) veterans, the field of social work needs specialized and trained military social work professionals to become more knowledgeable and better-equipped to handle the bio-psycho-social needs of military veterans and their families. In general, military social work is a specialized field of practice spanning the micro-macro continuum and requiring advanced social work knowledge and skills to provide relevant, culturally-responsive, and evidence-informed services (Wooten, 2015).  The Forensic Social Work (FSW) specialization enhances the military social work field. FSW for military veterans in the CJS presents a gap in social work practice and an opportunity for the leadership within the field of social work to respond through pedagogy course development and continuing education to equip current social workers and aspiring students with the provision of a critical knowledgebase in culturally competent veteran services. Many social workers, students, and even veterans themselves report difficulty defining the term “veteran.” Veteran (from Latin word vetus meaning “old”) is defined as “a person who served in the active military, naval, or air service, and who was discharged or released therefrom under conditions other than dishonorable” (Scott, 2012, p. 4).

Military service exposes soldiers to a unique array of psychological, social, and environmental factors that may contribute to elevated risk of UCMJ and civilian legal problems.

According to the National Organization of Forensic Social Work (NOFSW), FSW is the application of social work to questions and issues relating to the law and legal system and specialized skills in working with clients that have criminal and civil problems. Military veterans in the CJS have recently come to be known as “Justice-Involved Veterans” (JIV). A JIV is defined as a veteran who is (1) arrested by local law enforcement and who can be appropriately diverted into treatment, (2) incarcerated in a local jail and who either has a pending trial or is serving a sentence after a conviction, or (3) involved in adjudication or monitoring by a court (U.S. Government Accounting Office, 2016, p.1). The purpose of this article is two-fold: (1) to provide an overview of FSW with military veterans in the CJS and (2) to inspire and stimulate social work leadership across the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) to develop and support a broader, veteran-centric curriculum.

Statement of the Problem

Increasingly, as part of the readjustment from deployment, or post-military separation, many JIV become reunited, or more often acquainted, with the institutions of corrections and the court dockets. In the United States, military veteran involvement with the CJS poses a significant social and public health burden that affects both men and women. Military service exposes soldiers to a unique array of psychological, social, and environmental factors that may contribute to elevated risk of The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and civilian legal problems. There are abundant media stories about OEF, OIF, OND, and their predecessors, that detail active military servicepersons’ or veterans’ involvement with law enforcement. Military veterans commonly have three broad categories of legal need in the CJS: (a) establishing veterans’ benefits, (b) facing criminal charges, and (c) answering civil matters (Lynch, 2009). These legal needs require a comprehensive and coordinated FSW approach in CJS areas and civil areas to identify military veteran status. One strategy is to systematically include the unified question to clients, “Have you ever served in the U.S. Armed Forces?” An appendage to the question is the Sequential Intercept Model (SIM). The SIM points are a sequence of intercept junctures along the CJS continuum that yield targeted strategic filters from a veteran’s arrest to community release (Munetz & Griffin, 2006) and are pivotal for engagement, intervention, diversion, and treatment services. There are five key intercept filters: (1) law enforcement/emergency services, (2) booking/initial court hearings, (3) jails/courts, (4) reentry, and (5) community corrections/community support.


In 2012, more than 2 million Americans were incarcerated, the majority non-veterans, with almost 7 million individuals (1 in 35 adults) under some form of court-mandated, correctional supervision (Glaze & Herberman, 2013) and an estimated 66 percent recidivism rate projected within three years of their release (Cooper, Durose, & Snyder, 2014). In 2011–12, about 131,500 veterans were incarcerated in prison (8 percent of the total prison population) and 50,000 were in jail (7 percent of the total jail population). This represents a 6 percent decrease from the number of veterans incarcerated in prison in 2004 (8,500 fewer inmates) and a 25 percent decrease from the number of veterans in jail in 2004 (16,500 fewer inmates). An estimated 35 percent of veterans are in prison for a violent sexual offense (Bureau of Justice Statistics Report, 2015), an increase from 23 percent (Noonan & Mumola, 2007). By gender and service era, veterans in prison represent: males (99 percent) and females (1 percent); World War II (4 percent), Korea (5 percent), Vietnam (42 percent), Persian Gulf (27 percent), Afghanistan (16 percent) and Iraq (25  percent) while veterans in jail represent: males (97 percent) and females (3 percent); World War II (2 percent), Korea (3 percent), Vietnam (24 percent), Persian Gulf (26 percent), Afghanistan (23 percent) and Iraq (41  percent) while veterans in jail (Bureau of Justice Statistics Report, 2015).

A greater percentage of veterans (64 percent) were sentenced for violent offenses. An estimated 43 percent of veterans had four or more prior arrests. More than 77 percent of incarcerated veterans received military discharges that were honorable or under honorable conditions (Bureau of Justice Statistics Report, 2015). From 2001 to 2012, veterans discharged during OEF-OIF-OND represented 13 percent of veterans in prison and 25 percent of veterans in jail. Many veterans then find themselves in medical, mental health, substance abuse, and intimate partner violence programs, as well as homeless and unemployed. The OEF-OIF-OND veterans represent 10-12 percent of the veterans in the CJS (Reickoff, Schliefer & McCarthy, 2012). A quarter of veterans in prison (25 percent) and less than a third of veterans in jail (31 percent) reported that they had been in combat while in the military. About half of all veterans in prison (48 percent) and jail (55 percent) had been told by a mental health professional they had a mental disorder. Incarcerated veterans who saw combat (60 percent in prison and 67 percent in jail) were more likely to have been told they had a mental disorder (Bureau of Justice Statistics Report, 2015). The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) had estimated that 703,000 veterans were under correctional supervision (Noonan & Mumola, 2007) and about 10 percent of the total inmate population (Elbogen et al. 2012). The BJS estimates are highlighted in table 1 below.

Table 1 – Bureau of Justice Statistics – Criminal Justice Estimates

Therapeutic Judicial Response

In 2004, the first Veteran Treatment Court (VTC) was conceptualized in Anchorage, Alaska by judges that saw a need for a specialty docket and volunteered to take a bold step (Hawkins, 2010). Then in 2008, the most prominent and widely known model of VTC was started in Buffalo, NY by Judge Robert Russell. Since 2010, the number of VTC nationwide grew from 65 to 360 (U.S. Government Accounting Office, 2016, p.9), but there is also a growing trend of Magistrate-level veteran diversion programs. Rather than incarcerating the veterans, the courts focus on treatment to address the underlying issues and causes of criminal behavior. Many local jurisdictions have begun adopting alternatives to incarceration, which are intended to improve public health and safety while reducing costs (U.S. Government Accounting Office, p. 4, 2016). Such alternatives generally represent a shift in emphasis away from prosecuting those associated with lower-level crimes toward providing treatment for underlying mental health or substance abuse disorders and include programs for individuals in jail or court who screen positive for mental illness (U.S. Government Accounting Office, 2016, p.4). These diversion programs seek creative responses to a host of issues faced by veterans in the CJS: drug treatment, juvenile, DUI, domestic violence, family, and mental health or behavioral health and VTC.

What is a Veterans Treatment Court?

Veterans Treatment Courts are the fastest growing of these specialized courts nationwide and within some states. Specifically, Pennsylvania has the 5th highest veteran population, instrumental support, and a nation-wide VTC leader (McCormick, 2013, p.908).  In January 2015, Justice Debra Todd was appointed by Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor as the Supreme Court’s liaison to Pennsylvania’s VTC. In 2009, Pennsylvania’s first VTC was established in Lackawanna County. Currently, there are 18 VTCs with 10 counties providing magisterial veteran diversionary programs. These may prove to be a remedy for recidivism. Recently, some judicial decisions are mandating sentenced veterans to attend VTC post-release as part of their parole supervision and reentry.

Veteran court allows for veterans to go through the treatment court process with people who are similarly situated and have common past experiences, strengths, and needs.

A VTC is a hybrid of drug and mental health courts (Clark, McGuire & Blue-Howells, 2010). VTC is a therapeutic, judicial, multi-phase program through which criminal offenders are provided with intensive treatment and other case services. Veteran court allows for veterans to go through the treatment court process with people who are similarly situated and have common past experiences, strengths, and needs. These courts are a special docket within the court system and target veterans charged with nonviolent felony offenses. Many veteran courts process veterans on their docket by limiting eligibility to only combat veterans, misdemeanor, or non-violent offenders. Other VTCs only allow veterans who are eligible for VA services (Clark & Blue-Howells, 2010). The literature reveals that most VTCs operate a post-conviction program, and completing treatment does not always result in dismissal of charges (Clark & Blue-Howells, 2010).

The VTCs are similar to mental health, drug, and DUI problem-solving courts. All parties are collaborating in this effort to address the needs of military veterans who turn to various crimes in the aftermath of military service. These courts address the needs of all veterans who are ready, willing, and able to abide by the court sanctions and make the necessary changes in their lives. The need for intervention, services, and treatment related to their military service has drastically increased in the last several years, especially with the impact of the OIF and OEF wars amid a turbulent political economy. The rationale for VTC seems to be predicated on combat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), non-combat PTSD, Military Sexual Trauma (MST), economic hardships, substance abuse, domestic violence, and stressors of readjustment. Most of these veterans are generally law-abiding, but their problems contribute to criminal behavior among a substantial number of veterans. It is also important to note that in addition to VTC, there is a growing trend of Magisterial (also called District Justice) Veteran Diversion programs. In Pennsylvania, these Magisterial programs are aligned under the court system hierarchy but, like VTC, designed for early identification of veterans in the CJS.

Teaching Military Veteran FSW

Teaching military social work not only requires advanced knowledge, skills, and abilities but a comprehension of the population, culture, psychosocial problems, and approaches to address. Entering into a new helping relationship with a basic understanding of the military can help the worker develop rapport with the client, which will then facilitate a strength-based understanding of their service history and other relevant areas (Petrovich, 2012, p. 871). Social workers are expected to continuously improve their knowledge base, adapt, and respond quickly to new challenges. Social work educators can appreciate the significance of adult learning to prepare students for hands-on demands at varied work settings where proverbial rubber hits the road.

One such approach for student preparedness is the utilization of problem-based learning (PBL) strategies in addressing client problems. PBL is an alternative educational strategy developed in medical education but applicable to many disciplines. PBL is a student-centered, small-group approach which uses carefully-constructed clinical case scenarios that depict bio-psycho-social problems as a context for learning and doing (Altchuler & Bosch, 2003, p. 203). For students, PBL defines their learning needs, conducts self-directed inquiry and reflection, integrates theory and practice, and applies knowledge and skills to develop a solution to a defined problem. PBL fosters critical and creative thinking for adult learners who want to take a degree of control for their own learning. FSW student learners can formulate questions and learning needs in relation to a given problem, like those of JIV. PBL provides authentic case experiences that support problem-solving and integrating multiple disciplines in diverse CJS settings. As knowledge is acquired in the context of a specific clinical problem, it is more likely to be better focused and retained.

In one study, PBL was taught via a military social work curriculum elective course. The course adhered to the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE, 2010; CSWE, 2008), advanced social work practice in military social work, and CSWE and Education Policies (EP), at 3 universities over a 2-year period, focusing on the unique bio-psycho-social needs with a strength-based, problem-solving approach to address the military-veteran population (Whitworth, Herzog & Scott, 2012, p.115). The study reviewed and assessed student sample responses, examined perceptions of the student’s ability to intervene, evaluated their results, recommended replication of the PBL strategies to teach a military veteran curriculum, and underscored the need for an updated textbook on social work practice with military veterans. The authors also provided an introduction about the vital need for military social work in working with military service-members, veterans, and families; the growth of the social work’s role since the inception of the GWOT, and the growth of leadership in schools of social work and CSWE in the last 5 years. The authors note that only 30 CSWE schools of social work offer military social work tracks in their undergraduate and graduate programs (Whitworth, Herzog & Scott, 2012, p.113), and only three of those with a PBL approach. Hence, there is a great opportunity for schools of social work to develop both online and campus-based curricular tracks in FSW with a military veteran focus that utilize PBL strategies and foster research and collaboration in the areas of reentry and specialty courts, like VTCs and magisterial veteran diversion programs.

PBL Case Scenarios

  1. A 28 year-old, married, father of 3 children, Caucasian, male, combat OEF-OIF Marine veteran with two tours in Iraq and one in North Africa, is jailed for disorderly conduct and domestic violence. Upon entry into jail, the correction counselor, during intake and classification process, is made aware he is a military veteran. The veteran is placed on the medical unit to detox and verbalizes he is serving on county probation for child support arrears. The corrections counselor makes a referral to the FSW at the local VA.
  2. A 31 year-old, divorced, African American female, non-combat Air Force veteran is arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. During the arrest, the police officer notices on her driver’s license that she is a veteran. At the Magisterial hearing, she is referred to the FSW.
  3. A 71 year-old, never-married, Caucasian, male, homeless, Vietnam-era veteran is released from a Pennsylvania state prison. He recently served 15 years for a sexual offense against a minor. He is classified as a sexually violent predator. He reports to the parole office as required. He completes his intake and his parole officer drops him off at the local homeless shelter, but he is denied admission due to his criminal record.

The above case scenarios are PBL examples of what students and practicing FSW are called to problem-solve via case analysis, intervention, advocacy and support. The psychosocial challenges faced by this population are relevant to all fields of social work practice (i.e. mental health, medical, substance abuse, legal, family, community, policy, research) and other helping disciplines, which is pivotal in achieving optimal cognitive-behavior changes.

The need now for prepared and trained social workers is arguably greater than in any previous war based upon the duration, multiple cyclical deployments, radical ideologies, and global instabilities. The focus is on increasing social work cultural competency, increasing, awareness, and improving the health and functional well being of military, veterans, families, and their communities.  The focus is reflected in the diversity of today’s active military service members, discharged veterans, family, and communities. This diversity poses unique challenges, needs, and opportunities for social work education, professional practice, and research. The focus underscores the profession’s need to advance social and economic justice for this vulnerable population.

Moreover, social work education is increasingly challenged to respond to the needs of this population not only through the traditional lecture-format, but also through hybrid and on-line classrooms and continuing education. This challenge is to prepare current practitioners and future generations of social workers to provide competent and knowledgeable, evidence-based services through practice, research advocacy, and empowerment in key leadership and teaching roles. Hence, practitioners and students alike need familiarity with the CJS, Department of Defense (DoD), Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), civilian courts, corrections, and VA systems. These systems have their own priorities that overlap, compete, and conflict with one another, though they ultimately serve a common clientele, military veterans.

Social Work Leadership Response

The Preamble of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) “Code of Ethics” states: “The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty” (NASW, 2008). Both the “NASW Standards for Social Work Practice with Service Members, Veterans & Their Families” (NASW, 2012) and the CSWE curriculum policy provide support for inclusion of at-risk and vulnerable populations, which military veterans represent. A growing number of social work programs nationwide have begun to respond to the needs of the military veteran population through the development of degree programs, on-line and campus-based curricula in military social work, certificate courses, continuing education, and field experiences. In addition, there has been growth of Veteran Resource Centers (Indiana University of PA) and Veterans Achievement Center (Edinboro University) for returning veterans. Unless veterans utilize their educational benefits, it is difficult to quantify their status on-campus or even on-line because this is a self-report.

Next, within PASSHE, there is high potential for growth and preparedness of faculty, practitioners, and students alike, through the development of these programs for veterans.  The development herein calls for PASSHE institutional presidents and social work leadership across the board to be proactive, responsive, and supportive to spearhead military veteran-centric curriculum. Part of this promising curriculum is the development of FSW. However, some other military veteran curriculum courses in Social Work programs to consider in addition to forensic should include: mental health, intimate partner violence, military sexual trauma, and rural social work.

Furthermore, the American Board of Forensic Examiners Institute (ABFEI) offers a certification for a Certified Master Forensic Social Worker (CMFSW) and the National Organization of Forensic Social Work (NOFSW) provides a forum for trainings as well. FSW as a field is clearly underdeveloped. There is only one textbook specific to FSW:
Maschi and Leibowitz’s Forensic Social Work. Other social work textbooks that are CJS-focused but have only individual chapters specific to military veterans include Dick’s Social Work Practice with Veterans and Gideon’s Special Needs Offenders in Correctional Institutions.

Role of FSW

Over the past decade, social work practice with the population of military, veterans, and their families has rekindled to a forward march posture. This momentum is inspirational and a pillar for the professional practice and students alike to sustain. FSW resides at an intersection where ideologies and approaches collide, from adversarial and punitive measures to rehabilitative, and where arguably the most formidable challenge to our professional social work values and ethics is waged.

From World War II through the Vietnam War and the GWOT, there are 22 million veterans in the U.S. today (U.S. Government Accounting Office, 2016, p.5). Social workers have had a defined role in providing services to incarcerated individuals since the inception of the profession in 1904 and establishment of Veterans Bureau in 1926 (Roberts & Springer, 2007). Many of these men, and increasingly women, return home damaged mentally and physically from their time in service. These wounds often contribute to their involvement in the criminal justice system. As a result, veterans are in our jails and prisons. Social workers are oriented towards a perspective that stresses rehabilitation, treatment, and prevention, rather than punitive measures (Segal, Gerdes and Steiner, 2007). Veterans are not overrepresented in the court and penal systems but have higher rates of mental illness and substance abuse than non-veterans (Clark, McGuire, & Blue-Howells, 2010).  Their numbers are concerning and an insufficient knowledge and training may negatively influence how a veteran client will respond to the FSW helping process and hinder an opportunity to help.

The need now for prepared and trained social workers is arguably greater than in any previous war based upon the duration, multiple cyclical deployments, radical ideologies, and global instabilities.

Historically, social workers have more to contribute than anyone else to the rehabilitation of veterans (Waller, 1944). Social workers have perfected skills and disciplines, developed flexible arts of case work and group work, and cultivated some years of experience with veterans’ relief. Consequently, social workers know a great deal about veterans (Waller, 1944).  Between WWII and the initial Persian Gulf War, the social work professional response lacked luster and appears to have been almost invisible in military veteran-centric coursework, programmatic policy, and advocacy, but these efforts have increased over the last decade.

Case in point, the NASW and the CSWE developed specific standards for military service members, veterans, and their families (NASW, 2012; CSWE, 2010). Both the NASW and CSWE provided a broad foundation to: (1) educate a behavioral health workforce trained in military social work practice and (2) integrate evidence-informed, interdisciplinary practice models into military veteran social work education. However, while the CSWE and NASW acknowledged the need for social work practice knowledge with military and veterans to provide culturally responsive evidence-informed assessments, interventions, psycho-social problem identification, deployment stressors, and societal reunification, they did not specify FSW needs with veterans in the CJS. Similar to CSWE and NASW approaches to working with military veterans, the NOFSW and ABFEI have established FSW practice guidelines for the field but have not specifically addressed veterans. Therefore, a specific opportunity exists for organizational leaders to clarify and form a cohesive response for FSW with military veterans and hence build better preparedness for the field.

Therefore, the social work profession is especially suited to play a unique and critical role in veteran interventions through direct practice, advocacy, administration, and research (Albright and Canada, 2014). The social work practice needs are exacerbated by institutions, agencies, communities, and military and civilian environments, being ill-prepared to appropriately accommodate and provide veterans with access to mental health care, substance abuse treatment, employment readjustment, housing support, education, financial guidance, and other vitally needed services for transition and life adjustments (Hazle, Wilcox, & Hassan, 2012). Historically, social workers have had a defined role in providing services to incarcerated individuals since the inception of the profession in 1904 (Roberts & Springer, 2007). Social work has since evolved as an essential component of the nation’s criminal justice system. For the most part, social work practice as performed in the various criminal (and juvenile) justice systems in the United States is variously referred to as criminal justice social work, correctional social work, or FSW. There are myriads of social workers working in criminal justice settings and also practicing in the areas of behavioral health, counseling, advocacy, and case management.

FSW practice with the military veteran population is based upon a broad knowledge base, understanding, and awareness of the multifaceted dimensions involved in the CJS. The social worker can help the justice system provide more effective services to the offender, their families, and their communities as professionals by participating in the process of public policy development (Roberts & Springer, 2007, p. 46). Social workers and other helping professionals continue to develop skills that are based in evidenced-based and informed practices (EBP). In their traditional clinical roles, social workers have historically provided individual, group, couples, and family counseling, as well as case management services for vulnerable and oppressed populations such as military veterans, families, and their children. A challenging cornerstone is that social workers provide treatment, case, and advocacy and support services. Hence, by the historic nature of courts being adversarial, social workers are involved in incentives, sanctions, and punitive decisions.

FSW can advocate for social justice and for collaborative clinical CJS and adjunct services. Social workers are members of VTC teams and provide critical psychosocial assessment, intervention, prevention, pre-release and treatment planning, advocacy, and support. Familiarity with the CJS, DoD and VA can enhance social work service delivery and practice skills. In VTC, veterans are closely monitored by an interdisciplinary team of collaborative professionals, which often includes a judge, assistant district attorney, public defender, probation officer, parole officer, jail counselor, mental health counselor, substance abuse counselor, veteran’s court coordinator, and a social worker. All disciplines provide a collaborative perspective based upon their education, training, and skill sets as professionals. Thus, there is an Inter-Professional Education (IPE) perspective or cross-pollination of learning that occurs. IPE is defined as occurring when learners of two or more health and/or social care professions engage in learning with, from, and about each other to improve collaboration and the delivery of care (IOM, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2015).

Therefore, the social work profession is especially suited to play a unique and critical role in veteran interventions through direct practice, advocacy, administration, and research.

Social work, like IPE, draws upon many theoretical frameworks, perspectives, and approaches to maximize the global functionality and enhance human potential. IPE and PBL strategies blends well in social work practice. Practitioners and students are exposed to and work with multi-disciplinary teams. Case in point, the VTC team includes effective communication, collaborative problem solving, and veteran-centric and multi-systems critical thinking, to attain optimal veteran participant’s results that cannot be achieved by a single discipline or system. The results require a collaborative, unified education and strategic response. The VTC team includes: judges, social workers, attorneys, substance abuse counselors, mental health workers, probation officers, parole officers, and para-professionals. In contrast, the Magisterial Veterans Diversion programs within Pennsylvania are a smaller team comprised of the Magistrate, arresting police officer, and VJO. The IOM predicts that the extent of war-related trauma may not be realized until 2040, so prevention and action is critical (IOM, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2015).

VA Social Work

Within the VA system, social workers coordinate the Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO) program. The VJO program is not defined by the VA as FSW. However, FSW is defined as the provision of social work services for clients in the CJS and this is the nature of VJO. In 2015, the VJO program provided services to 46,500 veterans. During 2015, the VJO reported socio-demographics: 95 percent were male; 52 percent between the ages of 18-44; many unemployed during the past 3 years; approximately 33 percent reported being retired or disabled; almost 75 percent reported serving during a U.S. military intervention;  69 percent had substance abuse problems; 66 percent mental health problems. The types of criminal offenses that veterans were charged with included, but were not limited to, public order offenses (33 percent), drug offenses (22 percent), property offenses (16 percent), and probation violations (12 percent). More than 40 percent reported either being homeless, losing a home, or living in an unstable housing environment (U.S. Government Accounting Office, 2016, p.16-19).

From 2012 through 2015, the VJO program increased 72 percent (U.S. Government Accounting Office, 2016, p.16). The VJO services generally fall within the categories of therapeutic case services, advocacy, and support. To qualify as a veteran, the VA generally requires that the veteran must have served on active duty and must have been discharged on conditions other than dishonorable (Corry, 2010). VJO refers to veterans in the CJS as “justice-involved.” There are 172 VJO Specialists; the majorities (95 percent) of whom are masters-level licensed social workers and a small number (5 percent) of whom are licensed psychologists (Smee,, 2013). The role of the VJO specialist is VA systems expertise in case management services, as well as facilitating and brokering court-approved VA treatment, contract, or community programs.


FSW practice with the military veteran population in the criminal justice system (CJS) is part of a specialized, underdeveloped field. As a field of practice, FSW pertains to social work questions and issues relating to the law and legal system and to criminal and civil legal problems where a trained social worker utilizing PBL can provide assessment, intervention, and treatment planning across the service continuum accordingly. The FSW field needs leadership to enhance and broaden the CSWE and NASW framework for military veterans and their families by creating curriculum courses in FSW that also reflect NOFSW and ACFEI attributes.

The focus of this article on military veterans is to raise the image and awareness of FSW as a gap in social work education to meet the needs of this population. Moreover, the article has discussed an overview of FSW in the CJS and provided the stimulus and incentive for a broader social work leadership and PASSHE discussion. The programs and cases illustrated demonstrate a need for a FSW textbook for practitioners and students to gain a comprehensive understanding of veterans’ needs in the CJS and their underlying criminogenic factors. Therefore, now, more than ever, there is an urgent need for qualified, credentialed, and prepared forensic social workers. VTC trends, statistics on the legal challenges facing military veterans, and pedagogical gaps in social work education, signal a leadership challenge for the field of social work: how will the profession prepare students and practitioners to best serve those who have answered a call to serve us all?

Helpful Resources:

American College of Forensic Examiners Institute:

Center for Deployment Psychology:

Council on Social Work Education (CSWE):

Justice for Vets:

National Association of Social Workers:

National Institute of Corrections:

National Organization of Forensic Social Workers:

Pennsylvania Mental Health & Justice Center of Excellence:

Pennsylvania Veterans Courts:


Albright, D., Canada, K. (2014). Veterans in the Criminal Justice System and the Role of Social Work, Journal of Forensic Social Work, Vol. 4, Issue 1.

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Bradley J Schaffer is a graduate student in the Doctor of Social Work program.