Law Note Series

Social Workers and the Legal Rights of Children

nasw press By: Carolyn I. Polowy, JD, Sherri Morgan, JD, MSW, Alison Keller-Micheli, Law Clerk,  and W. Dwight Bailey, Law Clerk
Published initially by LDF: May 2007
© 2010 National Association of Social Workers.  All Rights Reserved.
Pages: 119
Endnotes:  336
Appendix A:  Minors’ Ability to Make Medical Decisions (state-by-state chart)
Appendix B:  Minors’ Competency to Testify (state-by-state chart)
Appendix C:  Appointment of Guardian Ad Litem Statutes (state-by-state chart)
Appendix D:  Child Custody Laws (state-by-state chart)
Appendix E:  Noncustodial Parent Access to Records (state-by-state chart)

The National Association of Social Workers (“NASW”) recognizes that distinctions must be drawn to support the developmental differences between juveniles and adults, and as such, it is NASW’s policy that juveniles must be treated appropriately in the legal system.  Prior to the founding of this country and during the colonial era, the laws imposed by the British crown and common law did not bear any distinctions between children and adults.  Children were accountable for following the same rules as adults, but “it did not take long for early reformers to realize it was neither humane nor effective to treat children and youths in the same manner as adults.”  Social workers have advocated for the application of different standards to the conduct of children and continue to play an integral role in bringing reform to the legal system, particularly with respect to how juveniles are treated in the criminal justice system.

Many social workers interact with the criminal justice system in the course of their professional duties.  Social workers often serve as researchers, administrators, probation officers, case managers, counselors, intake officers, therapists, and also provide courtroom testimony, court ordered evaluations for juveniles or act as expert witnesses.  It is through such avenues that social workers endeavor to influence and bring positive change to the juvenile justice system.

This law note reviews several broad legal issues that touch upon and affect social work practice within the confines of what is known as the juvenile justice system.  This note is intended to raise awareness about the types of issues faced by social workers who work in the juvenile justice system.  It is important that social workers with specific legal issues or questions review state and local laws and regulations and consult an attorney to understand the interplay that those laws may have with federal laws, rules, and regulations, which may either supersede or supplement the state laws. 

This law note is not intended to be a substitute for legal consultation regarding specific issues that affect the social worker in treating clients or in performing other professional duties.  It is recommended that social workers who require specific legal advice consult with an attorney practicing in their state.

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