Forensic Nursing Programs

Providing Care and Support for Victims of Crime

Forensic nurses can be found where crime meets medical care. After someone has been the victim of sexual or physical assault, forensic nurses are there to provide the treatment these special patients need. They also provide expert testimony in court to help convict the alleged perpetrators of these crimes.

In this guide, readers learn about this unique subsection of the nursing profession, including the education that is required to pursue this career, the skills that forensic nurses need to be successful, and the professional certification process for these workers.

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Forensic nurses can be found where crime meets medical care. After someone has been the victim of sexual or physical assault, forensic nurses are there to provide the treatment these special patients need. They also provide expert testimony in court to help convict the alleged perpetrators of these crimes.

In this guide, readers learn about this unique subsection of the nursing profession, including the education that is required to pursue this career, the skills that forensic nurses need to be successful, and the professional certification process for these workers.

Educational Road Map for Forensic Nurses

Like other types of nurses, forensic nurses must follow an educational path that is specific to the profession. The following outlines the steps nurses need to take to practice in the forensic area.

Earn a nursing degree on the associate or bachelor’s level.

Pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN).

Get professional experience by working as a registered nurse.

Get work experience in the forensic nursing area.

Earn a forensic nursing master’s degree (optional).

Obtain a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) from the International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN) (optional).

From RN to Forensic Nurse: Transferable Skills

When registered nurses earn their degrees or provide patient care in the workplace, they acquire skills that can be applied to the forensic nursing arena. The following are some examples of how registered nursing skills are transferrable to forensic nurse work.

RN skill #1

Assessment and documentation skills Forensic nursing application

Forensic nurses deal with patients who are traumatized by their experiences. As a result, patients may not be able to tell nurses exactly what’s wrong. Forensic nursing professionals must be able to use medical clues to figure out the injuries a patient is suffering from and which treatment options are the most appropriate under those conditions.

In addition, forensic nurses must use their documentation skills to carefully record the patient’s physical and emotional state, and the treatment provided. The accuracy of these records is not only important on a medical treatment level — these records must also be correct because they may be used as evidence in court.

RN skill #2

Empathy Forensic nursing application:

The ability to be compassionate is always important when treating patients. Nurses learn the most intimate details of their patients’ lives and work with them when they’re at their most vulnerable. Nurses must be able to show empathy toward their patients to give them the care they need.

Likewise, empathy skills play a huge role when delivering care to those who have been victimized. Patients who have been abused physically or sexually may be embarrassed about what happened to them, so forensic nurses must use their compassion to get victims to give the information needed for treatment.

RN skill #3

Pain management skills Forensic nursing application

Crime victims may have a host of injuries that need to be treated. Forensic nurses are often charged with managing the pain of these patients, so they use what they learned about pharmacology to choose the right medications. These professionals also use their ability to care for wounds when working with this patient population.

RN skill #4

Consultation skills Forensic nursing application

Registered nurses consult with other nurses and physicians to keep members of the medical team abreast of what is happening in a patient’s case. Similarly, forensic nurses consult with other medical professionals, as well as law enforcement and legal personnel.

RN skill #5

Detail oriented Forensic nursing application

Registered nurses must pay attention to details when documenting patient care so they avoid mistakes such as overmedicating. This skill is also important for forensic nurses, who have to provide emergency care while dealing with matters such as pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Starting the Path: Forensic Nursing Programs by Level

Pursuing a career as a forensic nurse requires a high school diploma or equivalent GED, a bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN), and a master’s level degree in forensic nursing. Associate and bachelor’s degrees in nursing lay the foundation for a nursing career, as well as admittance into a forensic nursing master’s degree program. This is where students get the basic training to pass the nursing licensing examination and start working in the field. By studying undergraduate concepts and gaining clinical experience, nurses are positioned to learn the theories that are specific to the forensic nursing specialty.

ADN for Forensic Nursing

For those who want to pursue a forensic nursing career, an associate degree in nursing is a great way to start. This degree program trains entry-level nurses by exposing them to nursing theory, laboratory work and patient simulations. When students complete these programs, they have an understanding of how decisions are made about patient care, the standards that nurses must demonstrate in their work, and the strategies for treating patients safely and empathically.

Aspiring forensic nurses can benefit from an ADN degree because it is the first step toward becoming a professional nurse. Students in these programs get preparation for the NCLEX-RN, and learn the theory and practice that is necessary to work as a nurse. As a result, the ADN is a stepping stone toward getting accepted into a forensic nursing program, as well as landing an entry-level nursing position.

For more information on the 2-year degree, visit our detailed page on the associate degree in nursing.

Curriculum Overview: ADN

Students who enroll in associate nursing degree programs can expect to take courses in subjects such as anatomy and physiology, microbiology, nursing theory, nutrition, medical assessment and pharmacology.

BSN for Forensic Nurses

The bachelor of science in nursing curriculum is more in-depth than what students experience on the associate level. Students in these programs get a deep understanding of how patient care is delivered — from the theories that guide the field to the medical devices that are used during treatment. This level of training is accomplished by providing classroom instruction, laboratory experience and hands-on training that is gained during internship programs.

Some schools offer an undergraduate certificate program in forensic nursing. Students in these programs get a taste of what it’s like to treat the victims of abuse and neglect. Certificates can take a year to complete, and student may study topics such as victimology, evidence collection and preservation, sexual abuse and exploitation, and child abuse.

For more information on the four-year degree, visit our detailed page on the bachelor of science degree in nursing.

Curriculum Overview: BSN

Specific class topics for BSN programs may include professional nursing standards, nursing theory, family nursing, pharmacotherapeutics, nursing informatics, genetics and nutrition. Students in these programs also take coursework outside of the nursing department, which provides them with a well-rounded education and allows them to bring a broader perspective to their nursing care. Some of the electives that BSN students take may include psychology, sociology, foreign languages and English composition.

Master’s of Science in Forensic Nursing

Forensic nursing is one of the fastest-growing areas of the nursing profession, and master’s degree programs are an essential part of the training for these advanced professionals. MSN degrees in forensic nursing bridge the gap between nursing theory and the realities of treating patients who have been the victims of assault, neglect and abuse. These professionals must learn the delicate balance of collecting evidence for any possible court case while treating these patients with the compassion that is expected from members of the nursing community.

After finishing a forensic nursing degree program, students are qualified to work as forensic nurse examiners, trauma nurses and sexual assault nurse examiners. In addition, these students learn the skills needed to advocate on behalf of crime victims by testifying in court about the details of the abuse they suffered.

For more information on this degree, visit our detailed page on the master of science in nursing.

Curriculum Overview: Forensic Nursing Master’s

The curriculum of an MSN in forensic nursing provides knowledge on how to effectively treat the victims of a traumatic event — providing the physical and psychological support they need — while still juggling the legal issues associated with their cases, such as the lawful collection and preservation of evidence. The skills that students gain can be used in a variety of professional settings, so graduates can work in emergency rooms, correctional facilities, law enforcement agencies, schools and community health centers.

The following is a sampling of the course work that can be found in forensic nursing master’s degree programs.

Course Name Overview
Law and Ethics of Forensic Nursing

This course addresses the relationship between advanced nursing and the legal system. Students can expect to learn about the ethical issues that forensic nurses face, and the policies that impact the care of crime victims.

Substance Abuse

Discusses the treatment of patients with addiction problems, and the social, legal and medical implications of working with this population.

Child Abuse

Informs students on how to identify and treat the victims of child abuse. The class also covers how child abuse cases are documented.

Forensic Science and Technology

Provides information about the technologies and scientific methods involved in forensic investigations. Course topics may include crime scene investigation techniques, forensic interviewing and evidence collection.

Treating Crime Victims

Provides an understanding of how crime affects victims physically, mentally and emotionally. Students learn the medical, ethical and legal responsibilities that nurses have when treating crime victims.

Treating Crime Perpetrators

Sometimes forensic nurses will provide treatment to those who have been accused of committing a crime. This course covers the ethical, legal and medical issues that nurses juggle when caring for alleged criminals.

Forensic Pathology

This course introduces students to the techniques involved in investigating cause and manner of death, and the role of forensic nurses in this process.

Criminal Law

Provides an understanding of the procedures involved in investigating crimes, as well as the courtroom process.

Certification: The Last Step to a Forensic Nursing Career

Like other nursing specialties, forensic nurses are not required to earn a certification in order to practice. However, for those who want to validate their knowledge and skills as a forensic nurse, the International Association of Forensic Nurses offers the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) certification.

To earn this credential, nurses must have two years of experience that involves advanced physical assessment skills. This requirement can be fulfilled by working in maternity wards, emergency rooms and other critical care settings. In addition, the IAFN requires that applicants complete education requirements that are set forth by the state they practice in and pass an examination.

Nurses with a SANE certification must renew their credentials every three years. Renewal can be done by taking the certification examination or completing continuing education courses.

What are the steps to apply for a SANE credential?

  • Become a licensed registered nurse and complete required clinical experience.
  • Get fingerprint card and submit to the state.
  • Enroll in and complete state training course.
  • Submit IAFN application and fee.
  • Register for and successfully complete the certification examination.

Choosing a Path: Forensic Nursing Specialties

Forensic nurses can work in a number of settings, and can also apply their expertise to different specialties. The following are some examples of the specialties that forensic nurses can pursue.

  • Forensic nurse investigator

    Forensic nurse investigators work with medical examiners or forensic pathologists to determine the details of someone’s death. This position not only involves examining a body but also studying crime scenes, and the medical and social histories of a deceased person to ascertain the cause and manner of death.

    Forensic nurse investigators may have different job titles depending on where they practice, including deputy coroner and death investigator. In some cases, these advanced nurses work as the coroner of a jurisdiction.

  • Expert medical witness

    Expert medical witnesses present evidence in court for judges and juries. They can explain different aspects of a case, including the injuries that a crime victim suffered and the treatment they received. These nurses work closely with law enforcement and attorneys, using their medical expertise to assist with criminal or civil cases.

  • Forensic psychiatric nurse

    Forensic psychiatric nurses often treat criminals who are suffering from psychiatric and behavioral disorders. This work includes administering psychiatric assessments to determine whether offending patients are a threat to their communities. These professionals also work with those who have been the victims of crimes, or have witnessed a crime, helping them cope with the emotional stress associated with this kind of trauma.