What Does a Forensic Nurse Do?

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A forensic nurse examines evidence by holding a test tube to the light.Forensic nurses stand at the crossroads of medicine and law enforcement. They not only treat people who’ve been assaulted, abused or neglected but also collect and secure evidence as well as testify in court. Forensic nursing is a rewarding career path for nurse professionals motivated to help victims of violent crime while assisting in bringing criminals to justice.

For nurses who wish to enter this field, advanced education is essential. Earning a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree can be a critical step forward.

What Is the Role of the Forensic Nurse?

A relatively recent specialty of nursing, forensic nursing was recognized by the American Nurses Association (ANA) in 1995, according to the Academy of Forensic Nursing. The role of a forensic nurse is to treat victims of crimes when they come to a hospital or other medical facility for care. Forensic nurses typically see patients who’ve undergone sexual assault, child abuse, domestic violence, or similar trauma. They deliver medical care and ensure that patients feel safe as they recover from trauma.

What a forensic nurse does also involves an important legal component. Forensic nurses must collect legal evidence in a manner that’s respectful to patients while also being mindful of preventing contamination. Forensic nurses may also be called in to give testimony during a trial about their patients and the evidence they collected.

Types of Forensic Nursing Positions

A forensic nurse’s duties can differ dramatically in terms of skills, training, and setting.

Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner

Sexual assault nurse examiners (SANEs) focus their unique set of skills on the treatment of victims of sexual assault or abuse. Their patients can include children as well as adults. SANEs exemplify the necessity of forensic nurses to embody the critical skills of compassionate care with the ability to collect relevant evidence.

A SANE requires specific training and preparation given the sensitive nature of the position. The International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN) details the requirements to become a SANE and to gain further certification in treating specific populations. The IAFN requirements include learning the local requirements, taking a course, and completing clinical education.

Nurse Coroner

A nurse coroner works as a registered nurse alongside the coroner examining the crime scene of a recently deceased person. This includes documenting the scene, obtaining physical evidence, and determining the cause of death. Nurse coroners may also be tasked with communicating with family members about the deceased.

Forensic Nurse Examiner

Forensic nurse examiners may work in hospital emergency departments or urgent care facilities. They collect evidence from patients, support them emotionally and treat their medical needs. While their role is generalist in nature, they support patients and their families, and the community through their work.

Forensic Psychiatric Nurse

Forensic psychiatric nurses have the unique role of working individually with both victims and criminal offenders to support them through the justice system. This includes evaluating their mental health, whether they deem them a risk to themselves or others, and determining the need for any further psychiatric care. Forensic psychiatric nurses may be called to testify in court.

Challenges and Opportunities in Forensic Nursing

Forensic nursing is a unique role comprising many complex elements and dealing with highly sensitive situations. What a forensic nurse does presents both challenges and opportunities.

Challenges in Forensic Nursing

  • As with any nursing role, the forensic nursing role is stressful. Forensic nurses take on the difficult responsibility of not only treating but also empathizing with patients experiencing emotional and physical trauma. The risk for burnout can be significant.
  • Forensic nurses must endure constant scrutiny and navigate changing regulations in regard to the medical and legal sides of their role.

Opportunities in Forensic Nursing

  • A forensic nurse has the chance to make a positive impact on victims through empathy and thoughtful care to ensure that their stories are told.
  • A forensic nurse may be the only one treating a patient who can bring a trauma-informed perspective to the interaction; this can make a difference to those who’ve recently experienced a crime.
  • A forensic nurse’s work is frequently collaborative and takes place in a dynamic, fast-paced environment that many nurses find stimulating and rewarding.

Treat Trauma and Support Justice as a Forensic Nurse

Forensic nurses are a crucial bridge between the medical and legal fields. What a forensic nurse does makes a real difference in helping a victim of crime move beyond trauma and toward justice. Individuals looking to support patients with trauma-informed care and contribute to the criminal justice system should explore Duquesne University’s online MSN program and its concentrations. Answer the call, and learn how to become a powerful advocate for patients.

Recommended Reading:

Forensic Nurses Managing DNA Evidence

Forensic Nurses Working with Law Enforcement

Avoiding Forensic Nurse Burnout


Academy of Forensic Nursing, Origins of Forensic Nursing

Houston Chronicle, “Roles of the Forensic Psychiatric Nurse in the United States”

International Association of Forensic Nurses, Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners

My Zeo, “Common Challenges Faced by Forensic Nurses”

Nurselabs, “Forensic Nurse: All You Need to Know About Forensic Nursing”

ZipRecruiter, What Is a Forensic Nurse Examiner and How to Become One

ZipRecruiter, What Is a Nurse Coroner and How to Become One