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What Is a Forensic Nurse?

According to the International Association of Forensic Nurses, (IAFN), forensic nursing involves the “application of nursing science to public or legal proceedings.” The American Nurses Association (ANA) officially established forensic nursing as a specialty in 1995, and the field continues to grow today. A forensic nurse has the specialized knowledge and skills to collect and preserve evidence, identify signs of abuse, and testify as an expert witness. They are a valuable asset to both the healthcare community and the justice system.

Who Is the Forensic Nurse?

The forensic nurse treats patients who are injured as a result of a violent or sexual crime. The nurse gathers and records evidence to help law enforcement find the perpetrator and prosecute them. Forensic nurses also look into accidental deaths to assist in determining the cause.

Forensic nurses work long hours of varying shifts. Typically, they are always on call, so they may have to attend a patient or investigate a fatality at any time.

What Is the Role of a Forensic Nurse?

When forensic nurses examine an individual, they look for indications of an attack. If nurses detect that a crime has occurred, they will do the following:

  • Calm and reassure the individual.
  • Evaluate the injuries.
  • Provide care, if needed.
  • Collect blood, tissue, fluid samples and any other useful evidence.
  • Photograph and document bruises, cuts, scrapes, wounds or marks found on the body.

What Types of Patients Do Forensic Nurses Assess and Treat?

Forensic nurses assess and treat individuals who are victims of crimes, including the following:

  • Assault.
  • Battery.
  • Child Abuse.
  • Domestic abuse.
  • Neglect.
  • Sexual assault

Where Do Forensic Nurses Work?

The most common place for forensic nurses to work is in hospital emergency rooms and urgent care centers, where a high numbers of patients are crime victims. However, you may also find them in a variety of other healthcare settings:

  • Correctional facilities.
  • Medical examiners’ or coroners’ offices.
  • Psychiatric departments at state facilities.
  • Schools.
  • Trauma Centers.

Forensic nurses do not just care for victims of crime; forensic nurses in correctional facilities also take care of prisoners. Because a large segment of the prison population is entering the later stages of life, there is a need for forensic nurses to provide treatment for chronic conditions. Other responsibilities include treating acute illnesses, performing checkups and educating prisoners about health.

Employment for forensic nurses in psychiatric settings is usually through a state civil service system associated with the Department of Public Welfare. Criminal offenders may be admitted to state facilities by court order. Forensic nurses evaluate and treat them before they return to court for sentencing.

Nurses in schools intervene and notify authorities when they observe abuse or neglect. They can also educate students about preventing violence.

Trauma centers may want a forensic nurse as part of a crisis intervention team. Generally, a team of healthcare professionals works with families and potential donors. Forensic nurses understand the legalities of organ donation and the medical criteria behind them. In addition, forensic nurses know how to offer emotional support to distressed families and patients.

Are There Forensic Nursing Specialties?

As a nurse, you may decide to specialize in a certain area of forensic nursing. A forensic nurse may consider becoming one of the following:

  • Correctional nurse specialist.
  • Legal nurse consultant.
  • Nurse coroner or death investigator.
  • Forensic nurse investigator.
  • Forensic psychiatric nurse.
  • Sexual assault nurse examiner.

A correctional nurse specialist provides healthcare to incarcerated adult and juvenile offenders. They administer care, conduct physical exams and dispense medication.

Legal nurse consultants work with attorneys on civil cases that merge medicine and law. They research, interpret and scrutinize medical information that pertains to a legal case. Some cases may include medical malpractice, personal injury, workers’ compensation and probate.

Nurse coroners or death investigators inspect crime scenes. In the event of a suspicious death, a nurse coroner will analyze the location to estimate a time and cause of death.

Forensic nurse investigators often work with coroners to investigate unexpected, accidental or violent deaths. To judge the cause of death, the nurse will collect evidence at the scene, study the body and assist with the autopsy.

Forensic psychiatric nurses treat criminal offenders who have psychological, social and behavioral disorders, and they provide them with rehabilitative care. Additionally, they help victims heal medically and emotionally, and they aid colleagues who experience mental stress from caring for victims of violent crimes.

Nurses who render care to victims of rape may seek certification as a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE). These nurses amass evidence that can be used to arrest and prosecute the attacker. A SANE-certified nurse presents evidence in court and acts as an expert witness in sexual assault cases.

What Education Do You Need To Become a Forensic Nurse?

The recommended level of education for a forensic nurse is a BSN. Once you have completed a BSN program, you can sit for the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) to become a licensed RN. After working as an RN for a few years, taking continuing education courses and participating in clinical work geared toward forensic nursing, you can pursue certification in one of the specialties.

Forensic nursing is important because nurses in this specialty not only provide care to traumatized victims of crime, they also work as advocates and educators to prevent violent offenses. A forensic nurse’s ability to apply their specialized knowledge to legal proceedings is an asset to victims. The forensic nurse’s testimony can make a difference between criminal perpetrators being set free or serving time.

Learn about the UTA online BSN program.


Becoming a Forensic Nurse

American Forensic Nurses: FAQ

Johnson & Johnson: Forensic Nurse

IAFN: Supporting the Growth of Future Forensic Nurses

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