Forensic nursing is a relatively new field that blends the healthcare profession with the judicial system. Forensic nursing focuses on the subspecialty of sexual assault, although forensic nurses do not work on this type of case only. They treat people who have been assaulted, neglected, and abused, in addition to collecting evidence and testifying in court.
Forensic nurses are healthcare professionals who specialize in caring for victims of violent crimes. They can examine victims of fatal or near-fatal traumas, such as stabbings or shootings. They are often responsible for collating evidence and reporting their findings in a court of law. Forensic nurses usually work in hospitals, although they can also work in medical coroners’ offices collecting evidence from deceased victims. Forensic nurses work closely with law enforcement and the courts.
Those who have already earned a bachelor’s degree and are interested in pursuing nursing can enroll in an Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ASBN) such as the program offered by the University of Indianapolis. This second degree online BSN program offers a quick, flexible path to a career in nursing.
The start of forensic nurses testifying in court
In 2000, a precedent was set by the Virginia Circuit Court through the sexual assault case Commonwealth V. Johnson, which helped to establish forensic nurses as experts providing admissible evidence in court cases. The judge ruled that certified Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANEs) could be called as expert witnesses.
For relevant scientific evidence to be admissible, the expert must be recognized as qualified to give testimony and for the science used to be reliable. The defense argued that the forensic nurse’s expert opinion was scientifically unreliable and therefore, inadmissible. The scope and validity of the scientific expertise was addressed during the case, and the judge ruled that the forensic nurse was an expert. The judge recognized the nurse as a specialist in the subject, and she was permitted to testify about injuries she observed through gross visualization of the victim.
This case led the way for future contributions in court by forensic nurses.
The role of a forensic nurse
The medical forensic examination can increase the chances that evidence collected will support a criminal case investigation, resulting in perpetrators being held accountable and preventing further sexual violence. A forensic nurse follows scientific and legal procedures to collect evidence and deliver quality care to victims. DNA evidence can be collected from the body, clothes, and personal belongings. They conduct sexual assault and rape testing, prevent sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy, assess and treat injuries, and offer psychological support. They work to promote healing, minimize trauma, and address patient concerns.
Operating technological equipment and ensuring documentation is correct is one of the challenges of this job. There are several tools that forensic nurses must master so they can document a victim’s injuries for court cases. An example is the Omnichrome, which detects bruising beneath the skin.
When there are shootings or stabbings, forensic nurses collect evidence such as bullets and any debris on the body, including leaves on the body from the crime scene. They remove the bloody clothes the victim was wearing and put them in a special wrapping. They also photograph and measure wounds. If the victim dies, the forensic nurse will often work with the medical examiner, answering questions about what they observed.
Forensic nurses and the law
Forensic nurses use their skills and knowledge when they are summoned to court for cases regarding patients. When forensic nurses testify in court, they may testify as an expert or factual witness. Factual witnesses describe what was done and what was observed during examination. Expert witnesses are authorized to testify based on their educated opinion. It is possible for forensic nurses to determine in advance what information they will be asked for and if they will be questioned in court.
Forensic nurses must be unbiased and avoid letting the role of patient advocate compromise their position as impartial witnesses in court. A forensic nurse may be called as a witness for either the prosecution or defense. Forensic nurses prioritize patient advocacy, especially when examining the victim. However, as forensic specialists, collecting evidence and following procedure to the letter of the law are essential responsibilities.
Forensic nursing is a new and fast-growing specialty, offering opportunities for recent graduates and experienced nurses looking to change careers. A background in emergency nursing is good experience for nurses interested in forensic nursing. Forensic nurses can take a state-approved or nationally approved certification exam to demonstrate their expertise in this field.