The nursing field is so vast that professionals have many specialties to choose from—whether they want to provide a particular type of nursing care, or work with a specific patient population. From oncology to pediatric to mental health to critical care nursing, there are several areas of the field you can consider as you complete your degree.
But have you ever thought about pursuing forensic nursing?
Although this is a relatively new type of nursing practice—established in 1992 by 72 registered nurses who formed the International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN)—forensic nursing is a rewarding specialty that combines nursing practice with the law. As a result, nurses are able to use their clinical skills and knowledge to contribute to legal issues—such as rape and death cases—which gives them a unique opportunity to contribute to both fields and perform duties that other nurses generally don’t.
1. Treating Crime-Related Trauma
All patients deserve quality care, however, forensic nurses have an added layer of responsibility since they work with patients who, along with their physical injuries, are dealing with trauma caused by criminal activity. Whether patients are the victims of rape, elder abuse, intimate partner violence, or child maltreatment, forensic nurses provide treatment for their injuries and the emotional support they need.
Additionally, forensic nurses perform their duties with getting justice for their patients in mind. This means they are also required to collect and preserve evidence as they examine patients, and meticulously document injuries to assist law enforcement. Also, these nurses often provide testimony in front of the judge and jury, so they must be skilled verbal communicators who understand how the legal system works and their integral role in it.
2. Assisting Death Investigations
Forensic nurses assist a coroner’s office when there’s a suspicious death where foul play may be involved. Their duties include examining a body to determine the cause and manner of a death, which has huge implications for not only law enforcement, but also surviving family members and even public health and public safety agencies. Also, as they do with the living victims of crime, forensic nurse death investigators collect evidence from a body. However, these professionals may additionally get evidence from the scene where the body was found. As a result, these nurses must have expertise in the chain of custody, and how evidence needs to be documented during every step of the process, so any items they collect are able to be used in court.
Additionally, forensic nurses who pursue a death investigation career must be able to communicate effectively with the living. Oftentimes, this job requires that nurses contact a victim’s next of kin, so, as they would when working with patients who are alive, they should have the communication and empathy skills needed to console those who have lost their loved one.
3. Contributing to Correctional Systems
Forensic nurses who are interested in the corrections system may choose to provide care to those who are incarcerated—whether they’re housed in jails, prisons, or juvenile detention facilities. In many cases, a forensic nurse may be the first medical contact an inmate has after being incarcerated, so they may be responsible for providing treatment directly, or bringing in a physician to meet the inmate’s needs.
Also, the level of care forensic nurses in the correctional system provide may depend on where they work. Since those who are incarcerated in jail spend a short amount of time at a facility and have recently been taken from their regular environment, forensic nurses are often dealing with those experiencing drug and alcohol withdrawal, as well as emerging conditions. In a prison setting, where inmates have much longer sentences, forensic nurses work with patients on an ongoing basis. As a result, they are often treating people with chronic conditions—such as high blood pressure, asthma, and arthritis—and they’re able to help patients with disease management over time. The additional time nurses spend with prison patients means they’re also able to work closely with physicians to create and adjust treatment plans.
Forensic nursing is a fascinating combination of nursing practice and the law, and when you pursue this specialty, you have the opportunity to make important contributions to the healthcare and legal systems simultaneously. Whether you’re working with the living or the dead, forensic nursing is a vital part of the field that is worth considering.
How to Become a Forensic Nurse
Forensic nurses are responsible for working with patients who have been the victims of certain crimes, such as sexual assault, elder abuse, and domestic violence. In addition to assisting patients with their trauma, forensic nurses play a critical role in helping crime victims get justice, as they are charged with collecting evidence, working closely with law enforcement, and providing testimony in criminal, and sometimes civil, court proceedings. As with any other specialty in the field, forensic nurses are required to learn the basics of nursing practice, and then go on to obtain focused training to assume this role.
The first step is to earn a registered nursing license after completing a bachelor’s degree in nursing. From there, RNs go on to earn a certification, such as the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner-Adult/Adolescent (SANE-A®) and the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner-Pediatric (SANE-P®), offered by the Commission for Forensic Nursing Certification (CFNC). To obtain these certifications, which must be renewed every three years, nurses are required to complete at least 40 hours of didactic training, as well as a minimum of 300 practical experience hours, and pass a certification exam. To keep the credential current, nurses should complete 300 hours of SANE-related practice and 45 hours of continuing education coursework every three years.
Those who want to pursue a career in forensic nursing may also choose to contribute to death examinations. Although the requirements for becoming a death investigator vary from state to state, the IAFN advises nurses to hone their analytical assessment skills by working in emergency room and intensive care unit settings. Also, they can earn a certification from the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators (ABMDI).