Nurse Types / Forensic Nurse
Violent crime is on the rise in the U.S., making it more likely that you – or someone you love – could become a victim.
Nursing is a tough job that can take an emotional toll. Forensic nurses’ have added responsibilities like gathering evidence and testifying in court when requested. Victims of sexual assault are extremely vulnerable. This can add another layer of anxiety.
Nurses who choose to work in this nursing specialty may find themselves in a stressful environment that takes a mental and physical toll. Nursing professionals who choose forensic nursing will want to establish and stick with self-care routines to help them cope.
In this article we explore:
- What is a forensic nurse?
- What do forensic nurses do?
- Where do forensic nurses work?
- What are specific types of forensic nurses?
- How do you become a forensic nurse in 3 steps?
- What are additional requirements of forensic nurses?
- What are the salary and career outlooks for forensic nurses?
What is a forensic nurse?
A forensic nurse is a registered nurse (RN) or an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) who specializes in forensic science. As a forensic nurse, you provide care for patients who have experienced violent crimes.
You also may perform special forensic examinations of victims to collect evidence that law enforcement can use for prosecution purposes.
Qualities of a successful forensic nurse
Because you’re working with patients who are victims – sometimes of violent crimes that cause lasting emotional and physical trauma – compassion is the most important quality of a successful forensic nurse.
Some other characteristics that make you a good forensic nurse include:
- Gentleness. You’re dealing with crime victims. Speaking with a soft voice and being gentle with any physical interactions that must happen for you to do your job is paramount to your patient’s comfort.
- Honesty. Explaining to your patients every step your interaction with them can help them feel more safe and secure during examination and treatment.
- Resilience. It can be emotionally taxing to work as a forensic nurse. You encounter patients who have suffered great trauma, which can affect your emotional well-being.
What do forensic nurses do?
Forensic nurses are the healthcare providers who help care for victims of violent crime. They attend to any injuries while collecting vital evidence to provide to law enforcement for prosecution purposes.
Forensic nurses also work with pathologists and coroners to determine the cause of death and identify vital statistics and epidemiology trends.
Forensic nurses work with crime victims to:
- Gather evidence.
- Provide expert testimony in court (when needed).
- Treat injuries.
Forensic nursing is unique in that it blends the healthcare and criminal justice professions, allowing nurses to have a double impact on the lives of those they serve.
Some of your job duties may include:
- Gathering evidence from the victim’s body. If you have ever watched a crime drama on TV, you likely have seen forensic experts collecting evidence from deceased victims. Forensic nurses do the same thing with living victims. For instance, they may be tasked with collecting semen samples from rape victims and photographing injuries suffered by domestic abuse victims. They must use special techniques to collect and preserve evidence so that it is admissible in court. For victims, it is less traumatizing to have a healthcare professional gather evidence than a police officer.
- Providing compassionate care to victims. Forensic nurses do not simply collect evidence for presentation to the authorities. They offer emotional and physical support to victims. This can include listening to a victim’s story about what happened to them. Mental health is so important during this difficult time in his or her life. Forensic nurses may refer victims to additional support resources for continued emotional healing. They make sure to provide advocacy for their patients.
- Testifying in court when requested. Forensic nurses can be called to be expert witnesses in court to describe details about their findings. They may be asked questions directly related to the evidence, as well as those pertaining to the victim’s state of mind during the exam and treatment. They can be a valuable witness for prosecutors, and help victims get the justice they deserve.
A day in the life of a forensic nurse
If you choose a career as a forensic nurse, your daily routine is never boring. One minute you might be collecting evidence from a crime victim. The next, you could be testifying in court on behalf of the prosecution in a case in which you collected forensic evidence.
On other days, you can find yourself making referrals for sexually transmitted infections treatment for victims of sex crimes. When patients come in with significant injuries from a violent attack, you can coordinate treatment with other healthcare professionals.
Common conditions treated by forensic nurses
Forensic nurses can encounter patients who have serious physical trauma, including broken bones and lacerations. They also may need to treat victims of sexual assault for sexually-transmitted diseases.
Where do forensic nurses work?
Forensic nurses work with victims of abuse, domestic violence, neglect, and sexual assault. They also work with courts of law, law enforcement, medical examiners, psychiatric patients, and public health organizations. Their extensive knowledge makes them ideal candidates to work in anti-violence programs, coroner’s offices, prisons, and psychiatric institutions.
It is not uncommon for forensic nurses to work on the scene of community crises and mass disasters. Communities where floods and other natural disasters, or places where crises school or workplace shootings have occurred, can benefit from the expertise and compassion of forensic nurses.
What are specific types of forensic nurses?
Forensic nurses can choose to work with certain age groups or specific types of victims. Some of the types of forensic nursing include:
- Forensic gerontology specialists who investigate and treat elder abuse victims.
- Forensic nurse investigators who work with law enforcement to determine cause of death for unexpected or violent deaths.
- Sexual assault nurse examiners treat patients of sexual assault and complete forensic exams to collect any evidence of the crime from the victim’s body.
What are closely related fields?
Forensic nursing is closely related to some other fields that involve helping victims of violent crimes. One of the most common is forensic science technician.
Forensic science technicians collect evidence from crime scenes and analyze it. They provide their findings to law enforcement for use in criminal investigations.
How do you become a forensic nurse in 3 steps?
Forensic nurses must hold a registered nurse (RN) license at a minimum to work in this field. Before you can apply for your nursing license, you must complete the right level of nursing education from an accredited nursing program.
Step 1 – Become a registered nurse (RN)
The first step in becoming a forensic nurse is to earn your registered nurse degree from an accredited college or nursing education program. Some options you can choose to earn your nursing degree include:
- Graduate from a two-year associate’s program with an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)
- Graduate from a four-year college or university bachelor’s program with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). A bachelor’s degree program will open more doors and provide opportunities to advance your career and expand the number of roles you may assume.
Earn a degree
If you have an ADN and wish to obtain you BSN, there is an RN to BSN bridge program that might be right for you. It allows you to earn a BSN while still working as a nurse.
Bachelor degree holders in non-nursing subjects can fast-track into forensic nursing by completing an Accelerated BSN program.
Pass the NCLEX exam
Once you graduate from your chosen nursing program, you will need to earn your professional licensure. Sitting for the NCLEX-RN exam is the only way to earn your nursing license. It is the nationwide exam for all nursing professionals in Canada and the United States.
The NCLEX exam tests nurses’ knowledge to determine if they can practice as entry-level nursing professionals. It consists of between 75 and 265 questions that require you to apply what you learned in nursing school to real-life scenarios. It measures critical thinking skills in addition to nursing-specific expertise.
Clinical nursing experience is required by most forensic nursing employers. While every employer is different, most prefer at least two years of relevant experience in the field.
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Step 2 – Accumulate experience
Once you become an RN, you must spend a few years gaining relevant experience. Working in an emergency room can expose you to a variety of patients suffering from physical trauma. You can use this experience to work with victims of crime as a forensic nurse.
Helpful skills and experience
In addition to working as an RN in emergency care, some other healthcare environments where you can gain helpful skills and experience include:
- Coroner’s offices. You can learn valuable forensic evidence collection skills while working with a coroner’s office.
- Prisons. Inmates often are victims of violent assaults while incarcerated. Working in a prison can give you valuable experience working with victims of violent trauma.
Changing specialty to a forensic nurse
One of the easiest transitions for an RN to make is to go from working as a correctional nurse to a forensic nurse. Not only do you have experience working with victims of violent trauma, but you also have gained the kind of bedside skills needed to collect evidence while caring for the victim.
Changing your specialty to forensic nursing can mean completing continuing education courses focused on forensics first. You also might want to obtain certifications that demonstrate your competence in the field.
Step 3 – Obtain certifications
While not required, it is worth the effort to earn your professional certification. Making the commitment to obtain forensic nursing certification indicates to employers that you possess expert knowledge.
The International Association of Forensic Nurses offers two certifications for sexual assault nurse examiners (SANEs): SANE-A for working with adults and SANE-P working in pediatrics.
In addition to requiring at least two years of experience before sitting for the exam, the IAFN also has other conditions nurses must meet when applying for certification. They include:
- Completing a 40-hour SANE didactic course through an accredited provider
- Completing a SANE clinical preceptorship
- Accruing 300 hours of SANE-related practice in the last 3 years
What are additional requirements of forensic nurses?
Like all RNs, forensic nurses must renew their licenses to practice every 2 years. If you hold any special certifications or other professional credentials, check with the issuing body to ensure you’re renewing them before they lapse.
What are the salary and career outlooks for forensic nurses?
RNs are among the nursing professions most in demand, with an anticipated growth of 6% between 2021 and 2031. According the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average salary for all RNs is $82,750. According to Ziprecruiter.com, the forensic nurse salary is estimated at $72,943 per year.
Some locations offer better wages for forensic nurses. You can discover the highest-paying cities for forensic nurses and check out the average RN salary by state before making a decision on where to pursue your nursing career.
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Most forensic nurses report they are highly satisfied with their jobs. Additionally, forensic nurses suffer fewer cases of burnout than their mainstream counterparts.
To advance your career as a forensic nurse you may want to think about earning a master’s degree. Earning a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), or completing a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program, is not required to work in the field. However, both can open doors to more rewarding and lucrative careers in forensic nursing.
Advanced degrees allow you to work in education or research, and in supervisory roles in some healthcare facilities.
Let real nurses answer questions about forensic nursing on the Incredible Health Questions & Advice forum.
Forensic nurses are the healthcare providers who help care for victims of violent crime.
Forensic nurses earn an estimated $72,943 per year.
You must first earn you Bachelor of Science of Degree (BSN). Then sit for the NCLEX exam to demonstrate core competencies. The last step is to obtain certification (SANE-A, SANE-P). While it is not necessary, it may show potential employers your dedication to the field.
Forensic nurses work with crime victims to gather evidence, treat injuries, and provide expert testimony in court when needed.
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- Burnout and job satisfaction: a comparative study of psychiatric nurses from forensic and a mainstream mental health service. pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Accessed November 7, 2022.
- Forensic nurse salary. ziprecruiter.com. Accessed November 7, 2022.
- Forensic science technicians. bls.gov. Accessed November 7, 2022.
- Occupational Employment and Wages, Registered Nurses. bls.gov. Accessed November 7, 2022.
- We don’t know why violent crime is up. But we know there’s more than one cause. washingtonpost.com. Accessed November 7, 2022.
- What is Forensic Nursing? forensicnurses.org. Accessed November 7, 2022.