Forensic Nurse  What They Do

Just the Facts


Insider Info

dotWith the growing use of technology in crime solving, forensic nurses have to know how to properly collect evidence so it can be examined and used in court. Being an expert witness for the court is just part of the duties of forensic nurses.

Caregivers with an interest in detective work and the law could investigate a career in forensic nursing. Forensic means pertaining to the law.

Forensic nurses provide health care to patients who are likely to enter the court system. Victims of assault, abuse and neglect quickly learn about forensic nurses. Forensic nurses may also have suspected criminals and prisoners as patients.

These highly trained registered nurses (RNs) usually have experience in emergency room nursing. They ensure that evidence is collected properly and can be used in court. Like all RNs, they must teach patients about medical conditions and give advice and emotional support.

dotVictims of crime often have medical needs related to the crime. For example, they might have been assaulted or involved in a car accident, shooting or stabbing.

Forensic nurses may be the first people victims speak to after an incident. The nurses must review care and legal options with the patients. The patients must decide which examinations or medications they want to receive. They also decide whether they want to report an assault to the police.

Working with patients, forensic nurses conduct interviews, document their findings, photograph and measure any injuries, and collect evidence such as clothing, bullets, debris or marks on the body. They make referrals to shelters and arrange counseling if needed.

Forensic nursing is recognized as a nursing specialty by national nursing associations. The International Association of Forensic Nurses is the professional organization for the United States and Canada. This association certifies RNs as sexual assault nurse examiners. This designation is not required to treat sexual assault patients. But, it is important because it gives nurses credibility when they testify in court.

Forensic nurses are employed by health regions, medical examiners' offices and hospitals. Some are self-employed as consultants. They can work regular shifts, either part time or full time. Teams, such as the sexual assault team, and death investigators also have extra "on call" shifts, explains Cathy Carter-Snell. She is a forensic nurse.

"It's not a nine-to-five job. Usually people come in at strange hours," says Daniel Sheridan. He is a forensic nurse in Baltimore, Maryland. He explains that an on-call schedule is set up. When he's called, night or day, he must get to the hospital within 30 to 40 minutes.

Other areas of specialization for forensic nurses include domestic violence nursing, and child and elder abuse and neglect nursing. Other options include forensic psychiatric nursing, death investigation, corrections (prison) nursing and disaster nursing.

"We had forensic nurses at the World Trade Center and school shootings," says Carter-Snell.

Forensic nursing is not for everyone. The nurses have to deal with trauma and death resulting from abuse, violence, criminal activity and accidents. Victims are often women and vulnerable people, such as children, the elderly and people with disabilities.

A person must have the right personality to deal with all that. There are no physical requirements to become a forensic nurse, says Georgia Pasqualone. She's a forensic nurse consultant in Winchester, Massachusetts. "It's the grey matter -- it's your brain," she says.

At a Glance

Apply nursing skills to police work

  • You'll provide expert court testimony and perform various other functions
  • You can work in emergency rooms, sexual assault clinics, domestic violence clinics and geriatric centers
  • You'll need to become a registered nurse