Finding Your RN Specialty: Forensic Nursing

A career as a registered nurse (or RN) can present you with many different paths. While some RNs choose to take a more generalized approach to their career, others choose to specialize in specific areas. One unusual, yet intriguing RN specialization is that of a forensic nurse. These nurses work in the arena of criminal justice, caring for victims of crimes, visiting crime scenes, and using specific skills to provide expert information to law enforcement and the judicial system.

Within forensic nursing, there are additional sub-specializations. Learn more about forensic nursing, a few different specialty areas within the field, and how to develop the skills and requirements needed to become a forensic nurse.

What Is a Forensic Nurse?

A forensic nurse’s skill set combines knowledge of the medical field, as well as the criminal justice system layered with a calm, compassionate demeanor. The role of a forensic nurse involves caring for crime victims or people who have suffered abuse — including children, the elderly, and domestic partners. Using their medical expertise, they are able to identify signs of trauma, abuse, and look to the victim’s injuries as evidence that can be provided to the proper authorities. This evidence can then be used in a court of law to provide expert testimony on behalf of a victim.

In forensic nursing, the job description often encompasses far more than caring for patients at a physical and emotional level. In many instances, these specially trained nurses are often among the first people a victim comes in contact with following a crime. Forensic nurses are often called upon to be a comforting presence, while still methodically taking note of their patient’s injuries and carefully collecting evidence.

Beyond being present with the victim in the hours after a crime, forensic nurses are often called to testify in court, serving as expert witnesses. They balance their role as a compassionate care provider with providing the court with unbiased testimony when presenting evidence.

Forensic Nursing Salary

Depending on experience and location, forensic nurses can earn between $53,000 and nearly $83,000 per year. Forensic nurse salaries in larger metropolitan areas stand to make more money than those in smaller communities, given larger populations may be predisposed to greater instances of violent crimes. Higher salaries account for the higher cost of living in more densely-populated areas, particularly where there may be a greater need to attract nurses with their skill set.

Additionally, SANE forensic nurses in Alaska may sometimes command salaries of around $95,000 due to alarmingly high rates of violent crimes and sexual assault committed against Indigenous women. In these larger cities, particularly those where nurses are in high-demand, forensic nurses who have this specialization are greatly needed over other types of nurses.

Where Do Forensic Nurses Work?

Forensic nurses can be found in a variety of settings. They often work in hospitals and emergency rooms where they tend to victims of violent crimes that have been transported to those locations. They also work in a courtroom, when called upon to offer expert testimony regarding evidence collected from a patient’s injuries in a criminal trial.

Additionally, forensic nurses can be found working alongside officials such as coroners and medical examiners. Some forensic nurses may also work in prisons, psychiatric hospitals, or juvenile detention centers where they take care of inmates who may have been assaulted during their period of incarceration.

What is a SANE Nurse or Forensic Nursing Examiner?

Another sub-specialization of forensic nursing to consider is as a SANE nurse. A sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) is an additional area of expertise in forensic nursing that requires a specific certification. SANEs, sometimes referred to as forensic nursing examiners, are trained to examine and care for victims of physical and/or sexual assault. In addition to caring for their patient’s injuries, they collect and preserve evidence so that it may be used in a court of law to bring the victim’s assailant to justice.

The job of a SANE is a delicate one. In addition to offering an unbiased physical and verbal examination of a victim who has suffered from a traumatic experience, they should also be able to understand their patient’s concerns and act with appropriate sensitivity. Additionally, they are responsible for helping explain options to their patients with regard to preventing pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases following their attack.

What is a Forensic Nurse Investigator?

Another area where forensic nurses can specialize is as a forensic nurse investigator. These nurses are often engaged in hands-on work with coroners and medical examiners to learn more about the details surrounding a person’s death. They can be called to the scene of the crime, conduct an examination of a body, and also take part in autopsies. They then weigh evidence collected against the medical and personal history of the person in question. These observations help them arrive at informed theories that may explain the cause of death and points of trauma.

Forensic Nursing Requirements

Although forensic nursing is a relatively new nursing specialization, it’s fast-becoming an area where qualified nurses are in-demand. In order to become a forensic nurse, you’ll first need to earn your bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN) degree from an accredited nursing program and obtain your registered nurse (RN) license for the state where you plan to work. In addition to taking the NCLEX exam, prospective forensic nurses should also be prepared to submit to a thorough background check, provide their educational and nursing credentials, and get fingerprinted. Some nurses may want to pursue additional certification, such as getting SANE-certified, if they want to work with victims of sexual abuse.

On top of earning your BSN, it’s also helpful to get specific field training as a forensic nurse. You’ll be expected to learn how to properly collect and handle anything that may be used as evidence, such as hair, clothing fibers, and to swab for DNA testing.

While most colleges and universities do not offer a formal forensic nursing degree, many schools offer programs that can provide you with skills needed to become a forensic nurse, in addition to earning your BSN. National University offers both a master’s in forensic science, as well as Certificate in Forensic and Crime Scene Investigation (FCSI). These programs can help equip RNs with more specific field training required to become a forensic nurse. These programs can help you learn to properly collect and preserve anything that may be used as evidence (including hair, clothing fibers, and bodily fluids for DNA testing), as well as learn to identify specific features of trauma, abuse, and violence from a forensic perspective.

How to Become a Forensic Nurse

Forensic nurses often go above and beyond the call of duty. In addition to caring for patients immediately after a life-altering experience, forensic nurses may also be called upon to apply their knowledge of criminal justice to help advocate for victims, or to present unbiased, expert testimony in court.

Earning a bachelor’s degree in nursing can be your first step toward becoming a registered forensic nurse. National University’s College of Law and Public Service can help you earn your RN in an accredited nursing degree program, as well as give you options for additional certification to enhance your knowledge of the criminal justice field.

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