Forensics is the practice of using science or technology to investigate civil or court cases. Forensic nurses are registered nurses who have specialized in medical cases that are the result of neglect or violent crime, such as sexual assault, elder abuse, child abuse, and domestic violence. They also provide assistance in death investigations or during times of mass disasters or community crises.
To specialize in forensic nursing, a nurse must acquire specialized knowledge of the legal system as well as skills in identifying and documenting injuries. They help to preserve the “chain of evidence” necessary to take a criminal case to court. Among other duties, forensic nurses may collect and photograph evidence, provide medical testimony in court as expert witnesses, and confer with legal authorities. They also are an advocate for the victim, protecting their privacy and dignity and assisting in both their physical and emotional recovery.
Forensic nurses are just that, nurses, first and foremost. Thus, anyone who wants to get into the field of forensic nursing must first complete training to become a registered nurse. There are three avenues to becoming a registered nurse: an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in nursing or a diploma from an approved nursing program. Nurses must also pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN).
Nurses choosing to focus on forensics may continue their training by by taking specific courses depending on the subspecialty they wish to enter. Another possible avenue into the field consists of acquiring a master’s degree or doctorate in forensic nursing.
Forensic Nursing Specialties
Forensic nurses may specialize in several areas, such as:
- Sexual Assault – Many nurses start their careers in forensics as Sexual Assault Nursing Examiners (SANEs). In the US, this requires, at a minimum, 40 hours of classroom training and another 40 hours of clinical training. The International Association of Forensic Nurses offers two certifications for SANEs: SANE-A for adults and adolescents and SANE-B for pediatrics. Other designations include SAE (Sexual Assault Examiner), SAFE (Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner), FNE (Forensic Nurse Examiner), and SANC (Sexual Assault Nurse Clinician. Training and coursework among all of these job classes are similar.
- Interpersonal violence – Forensic nurses concentrating on this subspecialty screen and assess cases resulting from emotional or physical abuse or neglect, such as intimate partner violence, child maltreatment, or elder abuse. These nurses provide medical evaluation of the patient, develop safety plans, and work in concert with a team of professionals to create a plan of care for the patient at the time of discharge. Most forensic nurses add this specialty to their SANE duties rather than specializing in interpersonal violence alone.
- Death Investigation – Although medical examiners are usually physicians specializing in forensic pathology, coroners are elected officials with no specific educational requirements. Nurses with solid experience in the ICU or ER may assist in the medical forensic examination and investigation and assist the forensic pathologist at autopsies. Some states allow forensic nurses to serve as death investigators or coroners.
Forensic nurses may also practice in the subspecialties of Forensic Mental Health, Correctional Nursing, Legal Nurse Consulting, Public Health and Safety, and Emergency/Trauma Services. Always consult the federal, state, or county board of nursing to understand the educational requirements needed to work in any subspecialty. Some of the coursework, recognizing the busy lives nurses lead, can be taken online at the candidate’s convenience.
Forensic nurses work, naturally, in hospitals, including psychiatric hospitals. Employment is also available in corrections, coroner’s or medical examiner’s offices, and community crime or antiviolence programs. Forensic nurses also work in the areas of forensic geriatrics, tissue and organ donation, and bioterrorism.
According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, jobs in nursing are slated to grow 26%, more rapidly than average, from 2010 to2020, and the mean average salary is around $64,000 per year. This increase in nursing jobs is thought to be due to the aging population of baby boomers, technological advancements, and the greater emphasis on preventive care. Forensic nursing is the fastest growing nursing subspecialty. Private hospitals and larger cities generally offer higher compensation than smaller, public hospitals in small-town or rural settings.
Amie Smith is an avid blogger who writes often for health sites. You can follow her on Twitter @amiegottschalk.