What is a Forensic Nurse in the USA?

By ShiftMed Team//Nursing Profession
Forensic nurse inspecting an object

When you envision nurses, you likely don’t think about them in law enforcement. But forensic nurses play a vital role in the criminal justice system. They support victims of crimes, testify in court, and help bring perpetrators to justice. 

Forensic nurses can work full-time or per diem (as needed) for smaller law enforcement agencies. They coordinate with officers, detectives, physicians, and other nurses to assist their patients. 

What does forensic mean?

Forensic means the scientific application of investigating and solving crimes. In medicine, forensic nursing means applying nursing skills to collect evidence of crimes while treating victims. 

Forensic nurses use healthcare and forensic science backgrounds to help solve crimes and aid the legal process. They comfort and console patients who are assault victims. 

What is the difference between a forensic nurse and a registered nurse (RN)?

RNs work in hospitals, clinics, physician’s offices, and other healthcare facilities to treat various patients. They may specialize in a type of nursing such as emergency or oncology. They work directly with ill or injured people to help them heal.

Forensic nurses are registered nurses or advanced practice registered nurses (APRNS) with specialized skills and education in forensic science. They treat victims coping with extreme psychological trauma and physical injuries — such as victims of sexual assault, domestic abuse, and child neglect.

While they still apply nursing skills in their line of work, forensic nurses have an added focus. They are dedicated to providing ongoing support for victims of violent crimes and gathering medical evidence to submit to a court. 

According to the International Association of Forensic Nurses, forensic nursing is “not separate and distinct from other forms of medical care, but rather integrated into the overall care needs of individual patients.”

What qualifications does a forensic nurse need?

Forensic nurses must be registered nurses with additional training in forensic medical care. They can earn this credential by studying for the SANE - sexual assault nurse examiner certification. 

SANE and SANE-P certifications qualify a nurse to perform sexual assault examinations on adults and children. 

Recommended Reading - How To Become a Forensic Nurse in the USA

What work does a forensic nurse do day to day?

Forensic nurses meet with patients, perform exams, provide medical support, and write detailed reports. They also collect evidence, photograph injuries, and coordinate with medical experts and law enforcement officials. 

Each day is different for a forensic nurse, depending on the crimes their patients have been affected by. In addition to providing medical care, they offer emotional support for victims of psychological trauma.

A forensic nurse can also assist medical examiners when victims die and appear in court to provide expert testimony. 

Another large part of the forensic nurse’s career is paperwork. Working in both healthcare and law enforcement, by extension, they have to maintain comprehensive reports about their patients and findings.

Where do forensic nurses work?

Forensic nurses can work in different locations, including hospitals, psychiatric facilities, coroners’ offices, and even prisons. They tend to be employed by a law enforcement agency and go where their services are needed for any given case. 

Some forensic nurses also respond to crime scenes. These nurses, known as FNDIs (forensic nurse death investigators), use their medical knowledge to gather evidence, examine victims’ bodies, and assist in determining a cause of death. 

What is it like to be a forensic nurse? 

If you’re a true crime fan, you will likely find the work of a forensic nurse fascinating. They rest at an intersection of nursing and criminal justice, offering their services to victims of violent acts. 

That being said, forensic nursing can be stressful, disturbing, and traumatic. You have to witness people who have been abused, assaulted, and traumatized. You work with children who have been gravely abused and mistreated and often don’t even know how to express what they’re going through. 

You will need a strong constitution and willpower to thrive in this career. Although you work for the greater good, you’re exposed to the aftermath of unfathomable acts. 

Knowing that you are there for your patients when they need someone the most helps forensic nurses stay positive under such grim circumstances.

How much do forensic nurses make?

The average forensic nurse salaries in the US range from as low as $21,425 (in South Dakota) to as high as $98,087 (in Delaware). The national median forensic nurse salary is $70,069.20, or $33.69 per hour.

Earnings as a forensic nurse vary on various factors, like your degree level, experience, and work schedule. In states with higher crime rates, the demand for forensic nurses is greater, so the pay also tends to be higher. 

Recommended Reading - How much do Forensic Nurses Make in The USA?

Are there different specialties of forensic nurses?

As a forensic nurse, you specialize in treating patients who are victims of violent crime, abuse, and assault. You may focus on working with children and adolescents, which requires earning the SANE-P certification. 

As a whole, forensic nursing is its own nursing specialty. It merges criminal justice, law enforcement, and healthcare into one field. 

Advantages and disadvantages of a career as a forensic nurse

Forensic nursing is a unique career, but it definitely isn’t for everyone. If you’re currently on the fence about choosing this career path, you should consider some pros and cons of forensic nursing.

Advantages of choosing a career as a forensic nurse

1) Help victims of crime

Being able to help victims receive medical treatment is always a benefit, and you are often there to provide comfort, consolation, and education. After suffering from a criminal’s act, many people are left traumatized and unsure how to move forward.

Forensic nurses provide resources and support that help victims recover. They also provide discreet medical care that respects a person’s mental state and avoids re-traumatizing the victim.

2) Aid law enforcement officers

You can help solve crimes as a forensic nurse by performing sexual assault exams, gathering evidence, and reporting your findings to officers and detectives. Forensic nurses also testify in court, revealing what their examinations uncovered and providing evidence supporting a criminal’s conviction. 

3) Explore a unique specialization

As a forensic nurse, you develop more skills as an RN due to your advanced training. A focus in forensics requires a unique approach to healthcare that most other nurses never even consider. 

4) Make a difference in people’s lives

You can help hold perpetrators responsible for their actions and ensure they are properly punished for their crimes against someone. Their victims are your patients, so you stand as an advocate for them in court. 

You also provide care to survivors that help them gradually process what they’ve been through, heal from their injuries, and start to rebuild their lives. 

Disadvantages of choosing a career as a forensic nurse

1) Exposure to trauma

You will work with patients who have been assaulted, abused, and even encountered victims of homicide. There is no way around the fact that forensic nurses are continually exposed to the most heinous crimes and circumstances. While helping their patients is wonderful, they are also at a high risk of secondary PTSD from continued exposure to violence and neglect.

2) Heavy workload

In addition to treating patients, forensic nurses must also manage case files, medical charts and write detailed reports. This means they have much responsibility on their shoulders long after finishing work with a patient.

3) High levels of stress

With victims relying on you and law enforcement waiting for your findings, there can be a lot of pressure as a forensic nurse. It’s important to balance your professional life with your personal one and ensure you have enough support to cope with work-related stress.

How to become a forensic nurse

Start by earning your nursing associate’s or bachelor’s degree, then become an RN by passing the NCLEX exam. Once you’ve gotten your nursing license, you can work as a nurse while you study. You’ll have to complete a certification program in forensic nursing or study for a master’s degree in nursing with an emphasis on forensics (MSN).

With enough education and experience, you can also become a certified sexual assault nurse examiner through the International Association of Forensic Nurses.

Forensic nurses also have continuing education requirements, which they’ll have to fulfill throughout their careers. 

Frequently asked questions about forensic nurses

How long does it take to become a forensic nurse?

It takes between 6 and 8 years to become a qualified forensic nurse. If you have a bachelor’s degree, it will take at least two years to earn your master’s degree in nursing in forensics. 

Is being a forensic nurse worth it?

Forensic nursing is a rewarding career if you can handle the cases and want to help victims feel like survivors. Forensic nursing is a growing field, and as an RN, you will have ample opportunity to work in other areas of healthcare as well. If you ever had trouble finding work as a forensic nurse, you can look for RN jobs near you that require your skills. 

What type of nurse is a forensic nurse?

Forensic nurses are registered nurses with a specialization in forensics. They know how to apply their knowledge in healthcare to aid victims of domestic abuse, assault, and other violent crimes.