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The impact of forensic nurses on the criminal justice system

Forensic nursing is an ever-growing field that offers the opportunity to work at the intersection of criminal justice and healthcare. Forensic nurses help victims of human trafficking, sexual violence, abuse, and other violent crimes by providing quality medical care. However, forensic nurses also bring perpetrators to justice by uncovering evidence and serving as expert witnesses in court.

Forensic nurses partner with law enforcement to bridge the gap between the legal system and medicine. They administer medical treatments in hospitals while uncovering evidence to aid police investigators in their findings. Forensic nurses can also work in law enforcement agencies within multidisciplinary teams to mitigate government silos.

Several educational and training opportunities are available for those considering a career as forensic nurses. This article explores those opportunities and delves into the link between forensic nurses and the justice system.

Who is a forensic nurse?

Forensic nursing is a specialty nursing field with an emphasis on providing care to those affected by trauma and violence. It combines nursing concepts with forensic science and legal aspects. Therefore, it has a broad scope to help the many patients affected by abuse, accidents, violence, and crime.

Forensic nurses are registered nurses (RNs) who receive specialized training and education to care for individuals who experience violence or victimization. They are usually the first people in contact with a victim of crime in the healthcare system. These nurses will collect physical evidence needed to start investigations from the bodies of the victims – living or dead.

In addition to gathering evidence and providing patient care, forensic nurses are involved in education and research. For example, they lead studies on the impact of traumatic events on patients and develop improved treatment techniques. Forensic nurses also educate other healthcare professionals on identifying and dealing with signs of neglect or abuse.

With the question ‘What is a forensic nurse?’ answered, interested individuals may be eager to take the first step into this career path. With institutions such as Cleveland State University providing two-year online master’s courses specializing in forensic nursing, it is easier than ever. The online coursework is asynchronous, with no on-campus residencies required, making it ideal for long-distance learning and for balancing alongside other commitments.

Forensic nurse vs registered nurse

RNs work in healthcare facilities such as clinics and hospitals to treat patients. They work directly with injured or ill people to help them heal. They can specialize in specific types of nursing, including oncology and emergency.

Forensic nurses, on the other hand, are RNs with specialized education and skills in forensic science. These nurses treat people coping with physical injuries and extreme psychological trauma. Some of the most common patients for forensic nurses include victims of domestic abuse, sexual assault, and child neglect.

Although forensic nurses apply general nursing techniques, their primary focus is on victims of trauma and violence. They dedicate their time to giving these patients ongoing care and support. Equally, forensic nurses gather vital medical evidence to present to the court.

The International Association of Forensic Nurses does not view forensic nursing as a distinct and separate form of medical care. Instead, it classifies forensic nursing as an integrated nursing field solely focused on the overall care needs of individual patients.

Educational and Certification Requirements for Forensic Nurses

Completing an accredited nursing program is the first step to becoming a forensic nurse. Nurses can obtain a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) or an Associate in Nursing (ADN).

Certain forensic nursing certifications will also require specialty forensic nursing graduate degrees. Once these certifications are attained, nurses must pass the NCLEX-RN exam to get licensure as RNs.

Finally, a nurse must complete specialty forensic training through a certificate program such as the sexual assault nurse examiner certification (SANE). Alternatively, they could take a Master of Science in Nursing degree (MSN) in forensic nursing. Clinical hours helping in the forensic field and previous experience will also be useful.

How to gain relevant experience in forensic nursing

Succeeding as a forensic nurse will require nurses to have relevant experience. They can accomplish this goal through several means, including volunteering, networking, clinical nursing experience, and internships in forensic settings.


Nurses can build professional connections while gaining valuable experience when volunteering or participating in forensic nursing internship programs. Equally, these opportunities ensure participants gain hands-on experience working with patients and law enforcement agencies. For example, volunteering in a SANE program allows nurses to understand better patients who have been victims of sexual abuse or assault.

Prospective forensic nurses can consider taking an internship opportunity shadowing a forensic nurse working at a coroner’s office. They will get to learn about documenting evidence and cooperating with law enforcement. Additionally, it allows nurses to understand how forensic examinations are performed.


Engaging with other professionals in the forensic nursing field can help advance a nurse’s career. These individuals will offer new nurses guidance, support, and resources to succeed in forensic nursing. For example, the International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN) provides resources, Certification, educational opportunities, and advocacy to help nurses grow their careers.

Prospective forensic nurses can start by attending conferences and networking events organized by forensic nursing professionals. Social media platforms can also provide some industry insights while helping nurses build valuable relationships. This will help them establish themselves as experts in the field, thus giving them more opportunities.

Clinical nursing experience

Forensic nurses provide quality medical care to patients in diverse settings. Therefore, they need to harness nursing skills through clinical nursing experience. Working in intensive care units and emergency rooms will help nurses quickly advance their forensic careers, as these departments expose them to trauma cases.

Handling domestic violence and sexual assault cases provides nurses with an understanding of how to deal with such patients. Equally, they will develop soft skills such as decision-making, critical thinking, and assessment.

Forensic nurse work settings

Most forensic nurses in the US practice SANEs in sexual assault centers and emergency departments. Here, they can effectively help child and adult victims of sexual molestation and rape. These nurses may work alone or in teams, depending on the nature and severity of the crime.

Some forensic nurses prefer to work with organizations that handle specific cases, such as elderly mistreatment or domestic violence. These nurses are often called upon to assist with mass disasters within the community.

Like RNs, other forensic nurses are stationed in hospitals and act as clinical risk managers. Their main responsibility is investigating events when a staff member or patient is injured or dies under unusual circumstances.

Furthermore, forensic mental health nurses work at correctional facilities, police departments, and psychiatric institutions with a focus on mental health and crime. Advanced forensic nurses, however, can be appointed as death investigators and nurse coroners. These nurses are the first to examine crime scenes after a suspicious death.

Finally, forensic nurses can also work as legal nurse consultants. They help victims of violent crimes in the legal system and provide expert opinions for lawyers after investigations.

How forensic nurses contribute to the criminal justice system

Forensic nurses are invaluable to the criminal justice system. They help individuals who have been victims of abuse or neglect by collecting evidence through forensic and medical exams. Although the victims are not legally required to report the incidents, forensic nurses will gather the evidence regardless. Here is a comprehensive look at the responsibilities of forensic nurses in helping the criminal justice system.

Sexual assault examination

Forensic nurses certified as SANEs collect evidence in cases of sexual assault. The victim’s body is considered a crime scene due to the invasive nature of the act, and only a forensic nurse can gather the evidence. The collected evidence is crucial in securing convictions and prosecuting perpetrators.

Evidence collection and preservation

Forensic nurses’ primary responsibilities are collecting and preserving any uncovered evidence of a crime. This includes everything from documented physical injuries to collecting samples and taking pictures. Proper evidence collection will help victims get a fair trial, which gives them the justice they deserve.

Presenting expert testimony

Forensic nurses can act as expert witnesses in the judicial system. They provide the court with insightful information on the medical aspects of the case. These include interpreting available medical evidence, explaining injuries, and providing their findings. Thanks to the testimony of forensic nurses, courts and juries can understand complex medical issues and make informed decisions.

Recognizing child abuse cases

Child abuse cases can be rather complex and delicate. However, forensic nurses can help identify signs of child abuse or neglect. They have the training to recognize early signs of abuse and provide medical care. Additionally, these nurses can document the case and gather supporting evidence to help ensure the child’s safety and well-being.

Domestic violence interventions

Law enforcement relies on the skills of forensic nurses to assess cases of domestic violence. These two departments work together to analyze and document injuries. Forensic nurses also go a step further by providing support and medical care to the victims of domestic violence. Their involvement ensures perpetrators are held accountable while breaking the cycle of abuse.

Investigating unusual deaths

Forensic nurses help in investigating unusual deaths such as homicides, suspicious deaths, and unexplained fatalities. Primarily, they aid in conducting post-mortem examinations to gather evidence on the cause of death. These nurses also collaborate with law enforcement and coroners to figure out the manner and underlying cause of death.

Provide mental care for individuals in the criminal justice system

Forensic nurses can choose to specialize in dealing with individuals in the criminal justice system who have mental issues. These nurses assess and provide adequate care for inmates, defendants, and individuals on parole or probation. Their work is instrumental in ensuring individuals within the system get appropriate mental healthcare and treatment.

Correctional Healthcare

Incarcerated individuals within the prison system also need proper healthcare. Forensic nurses are usually employed in correctional institutions to help provide medical services. They assess the medical needs of incarcerated individuals and provide the right medications. Furthermore, these forensic nurses handle any emergency issues within the establishment.

Offer victim support

Victims of crime and neglect need emotional support to cope with the layers of trauma. Forensic nurses help these victims cope and get back to their normal lives. In most cases, they also provide referrals to support services. Doing this ensures they get quality care and assistance through difficult times.

Subspecialties within forensic nursing

Despite being a specialized field, forensic nursing offers various subspecialties. Below is a look at some of the subspecialties nurses can choose from if they decide to pursue a career as a forensic nurse.

Forensic gerontology specialist

These forensic nurses specialize in taking care of older people who have fallen victim to neglect or abuse. They first provide the needed medical support before conducting forensic evaluations. Forensic gerontology specialists will work with law enforcement and other medical professionals to investigate the abuse or neglect.

Forensic Nurse Death Investigator (FNDI)

Commonly referred to as nurse coroners, forensic nurses investigate unusual or suspicious deaths. They usually work with law enforcement officers to collect evidence and testify in court. Forensic nurses receive specialized training in legal proceedings and forensic science.

Forensic Nurse Examiner (FNE)

These forensic nurses evaluate victims of abuse or violence. They gather evidence, administer medical care, and give court testimonies. FNEs need specialized training in legal proceedings, evidence collection, and forensic science.

SWAT team nurses

This is a special group of forensic nurses trained to provide medical care to civilians and law enforcement officers during dangerous situations. Their role is to provide immediate medical care during armed standoffs and hostage situations, for example. They undergo further training in security protocol, emergency medical care, and legal proceedings.

Forensic Clinical Nurse Specialist (FCNS)

These are experts in specific areas of forensic science, such as child abuse or sexual assault, for example. Aside from advocating for victims of violence and neglect, they conduct research and train other healthcare professionals. FCNSs receive additional education on training methodology to further their career.

Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE)

These are specially trained forensic nurses who help victims of sexual abuse or assault. In addition to providing medical care and emotional support, they collect evidence and conduct forensic examinations. SANEs receive trauma-informed care training to help them better care for these individuals and provide counseling.

Correctional nurse

Forensic nurses who provide healthcare to incarcerated individuals are called correctional or prison nurses. They provide counseling, treat medical conditions, and work with officers in the correctional facility. Additionally, these nurses must have specialized training in legal proceedings, security protocols, and correctional healthcare.

Forensic Psychiatric Nurse (FPN)

Individuals incarcerated in the criminal justice system receive mental healthcare from forensic psychiatric nurses. These nurses treat numerous mental issues while providing proper counseling and support. They also work closely with law enforcement officers during parole hearings.

Skills required of forensic nurses

Forensic nurses deal with complex situations that require a soft touch. Therefore, they must have a unique blend of analytical and psychosocial skills to excel in their field. Here is a list of some soft skills that forensic nurses need to possess:

  • Cultural competency.
  • Attention to detail.
  • Analytical thinking.
  • Compassion and empathy.
  • Strong interpersonal communication.
  • Professionalism.
  • Level-headedness.

Core competencies of forensic nurses

Forensic nurses receive competitive salaries as they must be proficient in specific core competencies to aid in prosecution should there be suspicion of crime. For example, they need specialist training to label and store evidence and specimens properly, which is crucial to any legal prosecution involving violent crime or neglect.

Before forensic nursing became a specialty, evidence may have been lost within healthcare facilities because it wasn’t collected or properly preserved. Of course, it is difficult to help victims get the justice they deserve when critical pieces of evidence are missing.

Core competencies crucial to handling evidence include following proper procedures during collection and preserving the evidence, including its chain of custody. Additionally, forensic nurses must understand the workings of the criminal justice system. Knowing civil and legal rights helps them advocate for their patients and testify in court.

Final words

Forensic nursing is a rewarding and fulfilling career for individuals who are passionate about providing justice to patients who are victims of sexual assault, violent crimes, human trafficking, and all manner of abuse. Although sometimes the tasks can be emotionally draining, the ability to make a real difference makes it worthwhile.

The constant demand for forensic nurses means opportunities for career growth are limitless, versatile, and fulfilling. These nurses are well-equipped to handle complicated cases, whether in a clinic, hospital, correctional facility, or the field. Their unique skills make them an integral part of the criminal justice system.

Dorothy R. Ferry

Coffee trailblazer. Unapologetic student. Freelance communicator. Travel nerd. Music fan. Spoke at an international conference about donating magma for farmers. Had some great experience promoting saliva on the black market. Spent 2002-2009 lecturing about basketballs in Pensacola, FL. In 2009 I was writing about Magic 8-Balls in Miami, FL. Earned praised for my work importing crayon art in Hanford, CA. At the moment I'm managing sausage in West Palm Beach, FL.

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