We all know that police and legal procedurals aren’t 100% accurate.
But why are social workers largely absent in shows about the criminal justice system?
In my previous piece, I touched on some of the inaccuracies in pop-culture portrayals of criminal justice, and how the podcast “Serial” has brought increased public awareness to realities frequently absent on crime shows and movies.
This piece is the first in a series where I’ll expand on that concept by talking about aspects of crime solving, investigation, and the criminal justice system that are largely ignored in “crime entertainment.” In this first installment, I will be talking about the odd absence of social workers in crime TV and films.
Social Work’s Role in Criminal Justice
Social workers are a fundamental part of the American criminal justice system. According to the National Association of Social Workers, social workers serve many roles on both the prosecution and defense sides of a court case.
Despite this, social workers are rarely represented in crime entertainment, especially on television. In real life, social workers often help defendants and victims navigate the legal process and understand their rights. In the world of crime shows, however, this vital aspect of the legal system is largely absent.
Why is this the case? This facet of the legal process could add variety to storylines and provide a more in-depth look at how the legal system actually works. Unfortunately, creating realistic portrayals is not the chief goal of television networks. They’re focused on drawing in viewers, and they’ve decided, apparently, that their fans aren’t particularly interested in the role of social workers in criminal justice.
“Law and Order: SVU” is a particularly egregious example of this. The show specifically deals with, as the opening voiceover says, “sexually based offenses,” such as domestic and sexual abuse and sex trafficking. But the show ignores the role that someone like a victim advocate plays in the legal process and emotional rehabilitation of the victim.
If anything, the addition of a recurring character like this would be a chance for incredibly compelling scenes in the existing dynamic of the show. The advocate could be at odds with detectives or district attorneys about how to involve a victim in the investigation or trial, which would capitalize on the balance between the quest for justice and valuing humanity that fuels the conflict in many of these shows.
That conflict, to my mind, would make for great television.
Forensic Social Work
Social workers can also play a role in the investigation of a criminal case. Crime shows frequently feature a psychologist as part of the team, but they entirely ignore the relationship between psychologists and social workers.
According to Portland State University, forensic psychologists use their expertise and “study of the mind” to work multiple sides of a legal case, to create profiles and gain additional insight into crime and criminals.
Forensic social workers do a similar job, focusing on the mental health or capacity of the defendant, as well as any outside factors contributing to their findings. How these factors play into legal proceedings are hallmarks of crime entertainment, which is why I think social workers would be right at home on legal and police procedurals. Integrating social workers as characters would be a great way for these shows to become more realistic and to push forward into new and interesting territory, with plot lines centered around these moral dilemmas.
With cybercrime aggressively on the rise, crime shows have quickly adapted their storylines, with episodes and even entire shows focused on emerging high-tech methods of criminal investigation. Similarly, the use of technology in social work has radically increased in recent years. However, these shows have continued to ignore the increased role that social work has in these investigations, despite how well they would fit into the existing narratives of these shows.
Crime entertainment is far from a perfect or completely accurate portrayal of the criminal justice system. As enthusiasts for the real world of investigations and crime solving, we can only hope that these portrayals move closer to the truth. Until then, it’s important to take crime shows with a grain of salt.
About the author:
Zachary Evans is a freelance web writer and graduate of Boise State University with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing. He spends his time writing, reading, playing music, and cheering on The Seattle Mariners.
You can follow him on Twitter: @ZacharyMEvans