What are the roles and responsibilities of forensic nurses?
Forensic nursing is one of those disciplines that is rarely talked about, but it is a great career path with excellent growth projections. Nurses in this field are highly skilled and experienced in caring for victims of crime and assisting law enforcement in investigations.
Compared to other nursing specializations, it is rather new in America, only starting to emerge in the 1980s.
In some European countries like the United Kingdom, forensic nursing goes as far back as the 1950s; nurses partnered with law enforcement to provide care to patients in custody and sometimes were called on to provide their professional opinion in criminal cases.
During this time, most forensic nurses were assigned mental health and substance abuse cases, and they were also instrumental in child abuse cases. They helped drug addicts overcome addiction while they were in prison, and they were used to assess children who had suffered from abuse.
They would document injuries, offer forensic interpretations of their findings, and help take and analyze forensic samples. Their opinion was often sought in suspicious deaths.
Today, the role of the forensic nurse is much better defined, and the field attracts many who don’t want to go into mainstream nursing.
The International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN) received 1,213 applications for certification in 2021, which represented an increase of 27% from the previous year. Today, the IAFN has more than 2,300 registered members, and numbers are expected to grow in the coming years.
For anyone who wishes to get involved in a specialized type of nursing, this is a great career path to follow. Because it has few practitioners, it is easy to get employment, and jobs are likely to pay quite well.
Those who do not want to be employed by hospitals can serve as consultants, working with law enforcement from different jurisdictions to help them build their cases.
To become one of these professionals, it is necessary to complete a specialized program. Cleveland State University offers Forensic Nursing programs online that allow students to qualify in two years learning part-time. They cover topics such as introduction to forensic nursing, evidence-based nursing practice, forensic methodologies and the legal system. The course also has a practical component where students are provided real-world opportunities to see forensic nursing at work and practice the skills that they have learned in the classroom.
What are the roles and responsibilities of a forensic nurse?
Anyone who is contemplating forensic nursing should have a good idea of what their day-to-day roles and responsibilities will be. They also need to consider the soft skills that are needed for a successful career.
Here is a look at some of the daily tasks a forensic nurse is expected to carry out, whether they work in a hospital or directly with law enforcement.
They assess and treat patients who may have been victims of crime
People who have been victims of crime often have physical injuries, and it is the job of a forensic nurse to assess what those injuries are and their extent, in addition to providing treatment.
One of the most common examples of this is the assessment of victims of sexual assault. When they arrive at a healthcare facility, it is important to document their injuries and take samples that may be used later to build a case for law enforcement.
The nurse talks to the victim about what happened to them, obtains a description of the assault, and comforts them. They compile the information they gather into a report that they share with relevant authorities.
They gather evidence from victims
This is one of the most important roles of forensic nurses, and in this respect, they work much like crime scene investigators. They examine the victim from head to toe and collect whatever evidence they find. This can include things like hairs, bodily fluids and even physical injuries such as bruises and scratches.
All the evidence they gather is safely sealed to avoid contamination, and they also take photographs and even X-rays when necessary.
They maintain chain of custody when transferring evidence
This is the most crucial step in evidence collection, and it involves establishing a paper trail so it is clear where the evidence is at all times.
Only law enforcement or officers of the court can handle evidence, and everyone who comes into contact with it must be documented.
Evidence that has left the chain of custody is often inadmissible because courts assume that it has been tampered with.
It is therefore critical that forensic nurses understand how to maintain chain of custody, and they must follow protocol at all times.
A good example of a broken chain of custody could be samples that are taken from a victim and then left where other hospital workers can access them. These are not ideal to present in court, and they can cause law enforcement to lose their case altogether.
They observe and report on any relevant patient behavior
If a forensic nurse notices unusual behavior in a victim, it is their job to document it and present it to law enforcement.
If, for example, a patient doesn’t seem truthful or provides incomplete responses to questions, it is the job of the nurse to note this in their report and explain their observations to whomever is investigating the case.
Forensic nurses request lab tests and analyze the results
Depending on where they work, forensic nurses may be required to request lab tests and interpret the findings that come back.
They may, for example, ask for DNA tests from victim samples, and when they get the results, they can try to match them to an individual.
Forensic nurses sometimes perform this work together with crime scene investigators (CSIs), but in cases where there aren’t any CSIs available, they may do it alone.
They help victims manage fear and trauma
Because a forensic nurse is one of the first healthcare professionals that victims meet, it is their job to talk to them about what they went through and how they can manage the resulting trauma.
Victims of violent assault, for example, may find it hard to sleep afterward, and a forensic nurse can help them develop coping strategies so they can sleep better.
It is important to mention that these professionals are not counselors or psychiatrists. They are just the first professionals in the treatment process; the patient often has to see a dedicated mental health professional to help them deal with the trauma of their assault.
They testify in court
Forensic nurses don’t spend all of their time with patients. They are often called on to testify in court about their findings, which means they must be familiar with courtroom procedures.
They should be able to write clear reports that can be understood by all parties, take the witness stand, and explain the evidence collection process as well as why they came to certain conclusions.
They are a bridge between healthcare and law enforcement
These nurses can help explain important concepts to law enforcement that can help them make sense of evidence or develop a new perspective about a case.
If a police officer doesn’t understand how certain tests work, for example, a forensic nurse can help by explaining the test, the process and its benefits.
What soft skills are required for forensic nurses?
It is important to obtain the required educational qualifications, but without the right soft skills, you will find it difficult to progress in your career. Here are some of the soft skills that forensic nurses need to succeed.
They should be able to deal with trauma
Forensic nurses meet people who have been assaulted and have suffered injuries, some of them quite seriously. They should be able to attend to such patients without being overcome and remain professional at all times.
Forensic nurses need to safeguard their mental health. Being around victims of violence can take an emotional toll, and they must develop ways to deal with negative experiences.
They need to have a good understanding of the criminal justice system
Forensic nurses will touch on the legal system as part of their basic training, but they need to have a good understanding of criminal law, evidence and other legal topics that are related to their profession.
Some nurses enroll in legal training. They might also attend seminars and conferences so they understand their legal obligations and what processes they ought to follow when dealing with the courts.
They should be critical thinkers and problem solvers
Good forensic nurses are critical tinkers, and they look for answers to complex problems. They analyze test results, for example, and consider their implications. They are much like detectives, looking at the information they gather and trying to understand what happened in the past.
They do not wait for others to bring them answers; instead, they go after those answers themselves.
They are curious
A good nurse is curious and tries to understand why things are the way they are.
A nurse, for example, may be confronted with a sexual assault victim who does not seem forthcoming about the details of their assault. Instead of concluding that they are lying, a curious nurse will gently probe to learn as much as they can. Could the victim be leaving details out because they are ashamed? Does it go against their culture to talk about certain topics?
Curiosity also extends to learning, and good nurses take whatever opportunities they come across to learn something new that will help them perform their job better.
Forensic nurses should be empathetic
Empathy is important in forensic nursing because it helps these professionals identify with victims. They deal with people who have been through traumatic experiences and who need someone to understand and respect what they have to say.
A good forensic nurse can put themselves in the shoes of their patients and empathize with whatever they have gone through.
They should be good communicators
An important role of a forensic nurse is to listen to what victims have to say so they can write up reports that they share with law enforcement. If they listen carefully, it also helps them provide accurate court testimony.
In addition to listening, they also need to be excellent communicators. They should know when and how to ask questions without making victims feel uncomfortable.
Forensic nurses need to be culturally sensitive
Anyone – from any race, country or background – can be a victim of a crime. A forensic nurse cannot discriminate or be insensitive to cultural differences. They must be culturally sensitive, attending to everyone equally and making every patient feel that they have been treated with care and respect.
They should be sensitive to sexual assault issues
Many of the cases that forensic nurses encounter, especially if they work in hospitals or community centers, involve sexual assault.
It is therefore important that they learn the specific skills that are necessary when one is dealing with victims of this type of violence. There are courses that are specially designed for professionals who handle sexual assault victims.
What are the advantages of becoming a forensic nurse?
There are several advantages to choosing forensic nursing as a career.
- They make a difference in the lives of survivors and help bring perpetrators to justice.
- These nurses have a different skill set from ordinary nurses, and this kind of versatility makes them highly employable.
- Their work is more flexible than regular nurses, and they don’t usually have to work for long hours. They can work at a more relaxed pace and don’t normally have to work double or triple shifts.
- Forensic nurses tend to attract higher salaries than nurses in other specialties. The amount varies depending on where they work, but in most states, they are paid well and receive good benefits.
- There are many job opportunities for these nurses, and they don’t have to look for long before they find employment. It also means they can move quite easily between employers.
- Forensic nurses can set up consulting businesses, working directly with law enforcement to help them build cases and bring perpetrators to justice.
Are there any drawbacks to forensic nursing?
Many will tell you that the biggest drawback to the profession is dealing with victims of traumatic events. It can leave them feeling angry, disillusioned and depressed. There is the danger of becoming desensitized, which can leave a nurse feeling less empathetic over time. They may also have a heavy workload because they often work alone gathering, compiling and presenting evidence.
Although these are well-recognized drawbacks of the profession, they don’t stop those who want to make a difference by helping victims of crime.
How does one become a forensic nurse?
The modern forensic nurse is a vital link between healthcare and law enforcement, often the first point of contact for victims of crime. To join their ranks, aspiring forensic nurses typically undergo specialized training.
Programs like those offered online by Cleveland State University cover essential topics such as an introduction to forensic nursing, evidence-based nursing practice, forensic methodologies, and the legal system. The program also includes a practical component that allows students to witness and practice forensic nursing in real-world scenarios.
After they qualify, forensic nurses can work in different settings. Most work in hospitals, where they help process and treat victims of traumatic assaults, but there are some who are employed in community anti-violence centers such as rape centers. They help provide vital support to victims of physical and sexual assault, gang violence and domestic abuse.
Some forensic nurses work with coroners to help determine the cause of death. They collect evidence from the deceased, analyze samples, and assist the medical examiner during the autopsy process. Forensic nurses can also be found in psychiatric hospitals, correctional facilities and community crisis centers.
The role of a forensic nurse is multifaceted, encompassing evidence collection, patient care, maintaining the chain of custody for evidence, observation and reporting of patient behavior. Furthermore, forensic nurses need a range of soft skills, including the ability to deal with trauma, a solid understanding of the criminal justice system, critical thinking and problem-solving abilities, empathy and strong communication skills.
Forensic nurses enjoy a career that makes a meaningful difference and offers versatility, all while serving the cause of justice and assisting survivors of crime. While there are potential drawbacks to the profession, such as emotional strain and heavy workloads, the desire to help victims of crime and the greater good often outweigh these challenges for those pursuing a career in forensic nursing.
Forensic nursing is not a profession that gets a lot of attention, but it is a rewarding career that pays well. Training to become a forensic nurse doesn’t take very long, and it is ideal for those who want to help others and comfort them in their time of need.