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Phoenix Forward magazine

What is forensic nursing?

Forensic nursing

Picture the scene of a crime. That single setting is filled with hundreds of small clues that must be pieced together to solve the case. When detectives are stumped, they can turn to forensic nurses for help.

A combination of caregiver and crime solver, forensic nurses play a critical role in working with law enforcement by providing specialized care for crime victims and perpetrators.

But the mission goes beyond medicine — forensic nurses also must know how the legal system works and possess skills in identifying, evaluating and documenting injuries — which they can gain through training, research and practice after earning a college degree.

Forensic nurses work in a range of areas, from sexual assault and domestic violence to child and elder abuse, and even death investigation. While those cases can be tough, a nurse’s skills often are just what a case needs.

“Nurses have a holistic approach, and they can collect evidence in a comforting way,” says Darlene Bradley, MSN, an instructor in the nursing program at the University of Phoenix Southern California Campus. “Most of it is exploring the evidence and finding out if it matches with the case. When the patient can’t speak, it’s the evidence that identifies the crime.”

It’s also a career with growth potential. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that employment of registered nurses, which you must be to enter the field, is expected to increase 26 percent from 2010 to 2020, and the International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN) says the field is the fastest-growing nursing subspecialty.

There are cases that are difficult to deal with, and a nurse still has to stay objective and nonjudgmental.

While a bachelor’s degree is not required to be a forensic nurse, Bradley, director of emergency/trauma services at the University of California Irvine Medical Center, recommends earning at least a bachelor’s in nursing. The more education you have, she emphasizes, the better prepared you’ll be for the additional training this kind of work requires.

On the job, you might begin as a sexual assault nurse examiner, which requires 40 hours of classroom instruction and about 40 hours of work in a clinical setting.

“There is work with police, [performing] exams, visits to crime labs and lots of clinical work and testimony before you [qualify as] an expert,” Bradley notes.

Becoming a forensic nurse also means having the fortitude to handle tough cases, adds Bradley, who got started in the field when she developed a system to help victims of sexual assault undergo physical exams. Her program became part of what later was known as the Forensic Center of Excellence in California.

“[Forensic nursing] is not for everyone,” she says.

“There are cases that are difficult to deal with, and a nurse still has to stay objective and nonjudgmental,” Bradley emphasizes. “Investigating maltreatment, abuse, death, rape, etc., can be difficult but positive when causes are found. That’s what makes forensic nursing very challenging and very rewarding.”