If you’re addicted to TV shows like CSI, Bones, and Cold Case Files, you may want to consider the possibility of a career in forensic nursing, one of the newest areas to be recognized as a nursing specialty by the ANA.
This growing specialty bridges the gap between the healthcare and judicial systems; between medicine and law. The International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN) defines it as the “application of nursing science to public or legal proceedings.” In a nutshell, forensic nurses aid in investigating potential causes of injury or death, in a variety of settings. They are trained to collect evidence from perpetrators and survivors of violent crime and may be called on to testify in court as an expert witness.
The skills needed in forensic nursing include the following:
- Documenting and preserving evidence through accepted methods, so it will withstand legal scrutiny, in order to establish the cause of and responsibility for injury or death. This is critical to the legal outcomes of violent crime.
- Critical thinking and organizational skills, along with attention to detail.
- Patient advocacy skills, compassion, and patience, when dealing with victims of crime.
- Handling triage, emergency treatment plans, and preventive interventions for patients who have been raped or assaulted.
- Knowledge of criminal and legal proceedings; forensic science; and the cultural and ethnic contexts of violence.
- The ability to collaborate with other healthcare workers, social service agencies, and criminal justice professionals, not only to resolve a crime, but to develop policy and influence legislation. This also requires the ability to analyze the social and political implications of crime and violence.
Within forensic nursing, there are several focus areas you might specialize in. These roles include:
- Sexual assault examiner. This position requires specialized training in assessing a victim’s injuries and collecting forensic evidence related to the crime, often in an emergency room setting. It also involves testifying in court, advocating for the victim, and making referrals for any ongoing services she may need.
- Deputy coroner or assistant medical examiner. These nurses work alongside coroners, medical examiners, and forensic pathologists to investigate the circumstances around an unexpected or violent death. They may be asked to visit the crime scene and take photos or specimens, assist in autopsies, and conduct interviews to collect the medical and social history of the dead. The job usually involves regular office hours as well as on-call duties.
- Forensic pediatric specialist. In this role, nurses assist in investigations of child abuse or neglect, or sexual molestation. Because children are especially vulnerable and often unable to articulate what they’ve experienced, the job requires specialized skills for examining and interviewing these tiny victims.
- Forensic gerontological specialist. Forensic nurses can also specialize in cases involving the abuse or neglect of the elderly. They might find work in care facilities or social service agencies dedicated to legal and human rights issues involved in eldercare.
- Forensic psychiatric specialist. These nurses are trained to address mental health issues when they intersect with the criminal justice system. They work in facilities like prisons, psychiatric hospitals, and juvenile detention centers, where they asses for a range of psychological or behavioral disorders, as well as the risk of violence or suicide.
- Nurse legal consultant. These nurses offer support in legal cases that are medically related, like medical malpractice, personal injury, worker’s compensation, product liability, civil suits that follow criminal charges, etc. They may be hired on a contract or project basis by law firms, insurance companies, corporate legal departments, government agencies, private investigators, etc.
Forensic nursing is a specialized field that will require advanced education like an MSN degree or a certificate program. If you’re an RN who’s considering a career in forensics, as a first step you’ll need to earn a BSN degree. American Sentinel University offers flexible, online RN-to-BSN degree programs.