Forensic nursing is an exciting career path with a multitude of opportunities. Although this specialism only received official recognition in the early 1990s, nurses have been working alongside law enforcement for many decades before that. Working as a forensic nurse lets you combine hands-on patient care with criminal investigation, pathology with psychology, and administering medical treatment with advocating for truth and justice.
The qualifications you need
A forensic nurse will be a registered nurse (RN) with a bachelor’s degree in nursing and a master’s degree in forensic nursing. The best way to obtain this degree is through forensic nursing programs online that let you continue working as a general nurse practitioner while you gain an advanced qualification to further your career. Cleveland State University’s online Master of Science in Nursing – Forensic Nursing is one of the oldest and most respected forensic nursing master’s degrees in the US.
A forensic nursing MSN will combine advanced nursing skills with evidence-based practice, forensic methodologies and learning about the legal system. Students may go on to successful employment as clinical forensic nurses, forensic psychiatric nurses, correctional nurses, death investigators and legal nurse consultants, among other career options.
What the job involves
A forensic nurse combines clinical nursing practice with forensic investigation. They examine patients who have been the victim of violent crime, including sexual assault. In some cases – for instance, suspected child abuse – they may be brought in to help determine the possibility of a crime having taken place.
In the course of a physical examination, a forensic nurse will collect and document evidence from the patient’s body, including signs of injury, bodily fluids and hair samples. They will take careful note of their condition – for instance, looking for symptoms of the victim having been drugged or being in a state of shock. As well as dealing with the survivors of an assault, forensic nurses may also assist in death investigations, including making post-mortem examinations.
The duties of a forensic nurse often involve counseling survivors and helping them to work through the psychological trauma resulting from an attack. The nurse may be involved in trying to discover the truth of what happened by talking to the victim and guiding them along the path of taking legal action. This is a sensitive process, and the nurse must know the right questions to ask while listening carefully to the answers, often reading between the lines.
A forensic nurse will maintain strict confidentiality at all times and will treat their patients with respect and compassion. Their clinical duties include collecting blood, tissue and semen samples, and assessing and documenting wounds and injuries. They will recover physical evidence from both victims and suspects. Although the forensic nurse is not a detective or investigator, they may ask questions to survivors that may contribute to initiating an investigation or helping it to proceed.
What you need to know about
In order to fulfil this role, a forensic nurse must have a comprehensive knowledge of the criminal justice system and the procedures for medical evidence collection, as well as full nursing training. They will have excellent observation and communication skills, a compassionate nature and a high level of emotional stability.
Empathy and intuition are vital skills for a forensic nurse, but they also need to be organized, confident and able to retain a scientific detachment when needed, often under emotionally upsetting circumstances. They will need to provide expert advice and opinion, in a consultation process and in court. Being prepared to testify as an expert witness is a major part of a forensic nurse’s responsibilities.
What you must be capable of
A forensic nurse must be able to order laboratory tests and interpret the results when they arrive. They must conduct forensic photography and must know how to correctly handle the evidence gathered. They must be capable of testifying in court as an expert witness, speaking confidently and with clarity. They must not become flustered under cross-examination.
One of the most demanding parts of a forensic nurse’s job can be the need to balance nursing care with the demands of forensic science and the justice system. Forensic nurses must give their patients the highest level of compassionate care at all times. However, they need to balance effective medical treatment and emotional support with the requirement to gather forensic evidence.
Victims of crime, especially violent crime and attacks of a sexual nature, are particularly susceptible to psychological trauma and may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression or other complications as a result of their experiences. Treating patients appropriately while also serving the needs of an investigation is a necessary balancing act that all forensic nurses must maintain.
The different roles available
One of the most in-demand types of forensic nurse is the sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE). They work with victims of sexual assault, making physical, emotional and psychological assessments, and identifying and collecting forensic evidence. They will record their patient’s history and document all of their findings and actions according to official protocol. They may take physical samples and photographs, preserving them as admissible evidence.
Forensic nurses in penal institutions, including prisons and juvenile detention centers, are known as correctional nurses. They work as regular nurses, meeting the health needs of inmates, but are also able to gather evidence from inmate’s bodies if necessary. Forensic nurses also work in the offices of coroners and medical examiners, collecting evidence post-mortem and even visiting the crime scene.
In a hospital, forensic nurses may be part of an initial emergency response team in cases of assault, battery and rape. It can be important to collect evidence from the body as soon as possible after the crime has been committed. If too much time has elapsed, evidence may be harder to find and use.
A forensic nurse works at the intersection of healthcare and the justice system. They have all the skills and training of a regular nurse and extensive legal knowledge and a specialist understanding of forensic science. Their role may also involve offering emotional support while collecting forensic evidence to build a successful legal case on the victim’s behalf.