Every 98 seconds, someone is sexually assaulted in America. Only six out of 1,000 offenders will end up in jail for their crimes, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN).
One occupation playing a large part in bringing those offenders to justice is forensic nursing, a field that merges knowledge of both healthcare and the criminal justice system. In 1992, the International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN) formed to create an organization to cover the “depth and breadth of those who practice nursing where the healthcare system and the legal system intersect.”
Many forensic nurses work in a hospital environment, particularly emergency rooms, to gather evidence from sexual assault victims or victims of other types of intentional injury like domestic violence and neglect. Others give medical advice to police and other law enforcement agencies or work in a coroner or medical examiner’s office, prisons and psychiatric hospitals.
Forensic nursing encompasses several areas of criminal justice, and offers diverse career paths. These include:
- Death investigators
- Legal nurse consultants
- Nurse attorneys
- Forensic psychiatric nurses
- Correctional nurses
- Forensic gynecology nurses
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not track forensic nursing specifically, but reports that registered nurse jobs will increase by 16% from 2014-2024. As of May 2015, the average annual salary for an RN was $67,490. Nurse practitioner positions are projected to grow by 31%, and the BLS reports that 2015 median pay for a nurse practitioner was $104,740.
To become a forensic nurse, your educational path begins in nursing school, preferably one that offers forensic nursing courses. You can then move on to obtain a master’s degree in forensic health.
After graduation, you can choose to become a certified forensic nurse. The IAFN offers two different certifications – the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner-Adult/Adolescent certification (SANE-A) and the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner-Pediatric certification (SANE-P). Both require a written exam. Certification by portfolio is also available, called the Advanced Forensic Nursing (AFN-BC) certification. Portfolio certification is a rigorous process, and according to the IAFN, those who do complete the process are perceived as experts and are “considered to be among the highest qualified nurses in the world.” The IAFN also states this is still an emerging field and that roles and educational programs are still evolving and being created.
If you’re already a registered nurse considering a move to forensic nursing, IAFN recommends starting as a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE), or taking the master’s degree path.
Is a Forensic Nurse Career Right For You?
Forensic nursing requires not only medical knowledge, but also knowledge of how legal and medical systems interact with each other.
Collecting evidence is an important part of the job, as well as testifying in court. You may work with victims of child, spousal or elder abuse, as well as deceased victims. You may also be called on to help in times of disaster and will work with people in distressing situations, witnessing them as they go through some of the worst times in their lives. It can be a rewarding career, but is not a branch of nursing for the squeamish.
Forensic nurses and other trauma workers may also be prone to vicarious traumatization, a change in physical, emotional, and psychological health that results from listening to trauma victims’ stories day on a regular basis.