What is a Forensic Nurse? | Everything You Need to Know!

Forensic nurses implement specialized care for patients experiencing physical, psychological, and emotional trauma.

It includes acts of negligence, violence, acts of abuse,  sexual/non-sexual assault, and traumatic events.

However, not all cases forensic nurses pursue are due to these circumstances.

There are specialties within this profession that differ from what most individuals understand.

Forensic nurses merge the medical aspects of healthcare with the legal and criminal justice systems.

The goal is to help victims and organizations seek the truth and achieve justice if needed.

They also focus on ensuring the legal/justice system determines the truth in criminal cases.

It includes insurance fraud, wrongful death, and many other areas that require medical expertise.

What Do Forensic Nurses Do?

Most forensic nurses manage cases dealing with abuse and crime.

However, there are numerous specializations forensic nurses pursue.

As a result, their scope of practice, responsibilities, and tasks vary depending on their expertise and specializations.

Here is an example of some cases forensic nurses take on.

Numerous other situations require their expertise, but this shortlist provides some context.

Cases Forensic Nurses Oversee:

  • Sexual assault
  • Human trafficking
  • Domestic violence
  • Child abuse
  • Company/insurance fraud
  • Psychiatric/mental health
  • Trauma/Injuries
  • FBI (federal bureau of investigations) cases

When forensic nurses take on a case, they know it can be emotionally challenging.

Forensic nurses rarely see patients or victims on a good day.

However, their expertise, compassion, and focus allow them to solve crimes and provide safety and relief to their patients.

The rewards of being a forensic nurse aren’t in the smiles you receive but in the comfort and assurance you provide.

Here are a few examples of forensic nurses’ various career specializations.

Sexual Assualt Nurse Examiner (SANE)

Sexual assault nurse examiners provide emotional support and compassion to victims.

They present information, answer questions, perform examinations, and interview witnesses.

A forensic nurse must pay attention to the physical/psychological clues caused by trauma, crime, violence, or act of abuse.

They focus on the physical signs, a patient’s verbal tone, and behavioral actions.

It provides evidence that the nurse can record and take into consideration.

In this profession, the patient’s psychological state is just as important as the physical.

When the patient is suffering from an injury, forensic nurses’ first focus is to identify, diagnose, and treat the injury.

It ensures that the patient can physically recover or stabilize their condition.

If the patient feels unsafe, scared, hurt, or unable to communicate, it negatively impacts the nurse’s ability to determine the cause.

However, it’s also important because it provides comfort and much-needed care to the patient.

Next, they take patient information seriously and inspect their bodies for signs of abuse or injury.

In cases of sexual abuse, forensic nurses may do a vaginal exam to look for penetration, semen, and other forms of sexual assault.

This part is also of death investigator nurses looking for probable causes of death.

Finally, this information is presented to the correct legal/law departments to help them solve crimes and seek justice.

These nurses perform many other tasks, which provide a basic overview of their work routine.

Death Investigation Nurse

Forensic nurse death investigators respond to crime scenes and work directly with law enforcement on death cases.

In this profession, they meet at the death site, examine the body, take photographs, collect evidence, perform tests and gather information.

To gather information, they interview possible witnesses, research the victim’s medical history, identify the circumstances leading to the victim’s abuse death and provide support to grieving family members and friends.

The information is gathered, compared, and analyzed to determine the possible cause of death.

They also work with coroners in charge of the body to perform autopsies of potential victims.

Coroners are essential in providing forensic nurses, law enforcement, and crime scene investigators with information regarding the victim’s time and cause of death.

In some cases, forensic nurses are the only ones who provide the information needed to solve the crime.

Furthermore, coroner nurses assist the coroner with determining an individual’s cause of death.

It allows them to bring their medical knowledge and training into the autopsy to understand the situation better.

As previously mentioned, not all causes of death result from a crime. In some cases, death was the result of natural causes.

However, it’s the forensic nurse and coroner’s job to ascertain the evidence.

Forensic Nurse Training Specializes In:

  • Growth and development
  • Physiology
  • Drug reactions
  • Pharmaceutical issues
  • Anatomy education
  • Emotional trauma psychology
  • Grief and wound healing

Because of their background experience, forensic nurses bring their medical expertise to essential investigations.

They are often used to dealing with family members and friends of the victim/survivor and are well-equipped to provide social and psychological support.

Even though these nurses deal with stress, autopsies, law enforcement, and other stress-inducing activities, it is one most essential careers for nurses seeking justice and peace.

Legal Nurse Consultant

Legal nurse consultants provide guidance and advice on legal issues about medical matters.

Because legal experts aren’t medically trained/educated, legal nurse consultants assist with the medical components of a case.

Fundamentally, they gather medical evidence, analyze complex medical records, and provide opinions and facts based on the evidence.

They also simplify complex medical jargon difficult for lawyers/attorneys, judges, and jurors to understand.

It helps legal experts, witnesses, and the judge/jury determine the truth and legality of medical-legal claims.

Roles of Legal Nurse Consultants

  1. Behind the scenes
  2. Expert witness

Legal nurse consultants work with various legal professionals when working on a legal case or providing medical expertise.

It includes attorneys, paralegals, and legal experts. 

Legal nurse consultants focus on insurance fraud cases, medical malpractice, personal injury, wrongful death, criminal defense cases, and other matters with medical components.

Primarily, they provide services in one of two capacities, including functioning as an expert witness or a behind-the-scene consultant.

Those who work as expert witnesses participate directly in the trial by providing depositions, advising on evidence, and speaking to the jury, lawyers, and judges.

These experts simplify complex medical jargon and determine whether the evidence holds merit.

Behind-the-scene legal nurses speak privately with the attorney to prepare for cases.

They arrange documents, provide medical expertise and education, examine medical records, and assist with other private tasks.

As a result, they do not testify in medical cases. Instead, they work directly with lawyers, paralegals, and legal experts in a private capacity.

Other Causes Of Death

Not all death cases are the result of abuse or trauma.

It can also result from age-related illnesses, medical complications, health issues, and other factors.

In this case, forensic nurses help determine the cause of death and consult family members.

For instance, if genetic conditions cause death, the forensic nurse provides healthcare advice to help family members avoid a similar situation.

As previously mentioned, there are numerous specializations within the forensic nursing profession.

The examples mentioned above are only a minor portion of forensic nurses’ careers.

Therefore, I’ll offer some additional occupations to flesh out the broad scope of practice within the healthcare/legal systems.

Occupational Roles for Forensic Nurses:

  • Legal nursing consultant
  • (SANE) the sexual assault nurse examiner
  • Death investigator
  • Nurse coroner
  • Correctional nurse specialist
  • Case management
  • Nurse educator
  • Clinical nurse specialist
  • Psychiatric Nursing
  • Pediatric Nursing
  • Domestic violence nurse
  • Pathology nursing
  • Forensic nurse researcher
  • Sexual/forced labor trafficking

Of these professions, the sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) is one of the most well-known specializations in nursing forensics.

It’s also one of the most common entry-level jobs for those entering the nursing forensics profession.

This specialization allows newer nurses to understand the various components of forensic nursing.

From there, nurses can pursue advanced degrees and move into other professions that focus on forensic nursing.

Work Responsibilities

While working in these professions, forensic nurses have responsibilities and tasks that vary depending on their scope of practice.

It includes consulting victims’ families, working with investigators, communicating with law enforcement, providing evidence in cases, and determining the cause of death.

Some careers provide a platform for forensic nurses to transition toward.

For example, nurses can work as SANE or nurse death investigators to gain valuable career experience. From there, they can transition into becoming a legal nurse consultant.

It allows nurses to work directly with lawyers, judges, and the judicial system to determine the cause of crimes and fraud.

Responsibilities of a Forensic Nurse:

  • Provide emotional support to patients/families
  • Perform examinations/tests
  • Answer medical/health questions
  • Provide advice and consultation
  • Respond to crime scenes
  • Perform death investigations
  • Solve crimes
  • Work alongside law enforcement
  • Consult on medical-legal cases
  • Provide mental health services

Interestingly, forensic nurses helped create many of the occupations they support.

Utilizing their medical expertise and focus, these nurses have expanded their scope of practice to every branch of healthcare, law, and business.

As a result, the career opportunities for this profession are vast if you work in the right location and have the necessary expertise.

Why Are Forensic Nurses Important?

Forensic nurses provide various services that help the healthcare, legal, and business sectors determine violence, crime, and fraud.

Their medical expertise, combined with critical thinking and proficient communication skills, ensures that cases are solved truthfully and lawfully.

They also help victims and families of abuse/violence seek relief, comfort, and justice.

These specialists utilize their training, compassion, and communication skills to help those needing emotional support.

It relieves the emotional strain of institutions that aren’t trained to respond appropriately to the psychological impact of an incident.

As a result, they are relied upon by the public, healthcare system, law enforcement, and business sectors to solve crimes and restore peace.

Without forensic nurses, individuals and organizations would have less capacity to understand and manage the medical aspects of their cases.

Forensic nurses may be required to identify, determine and explain certain cases involving physical abuse, trauma, and fraud.

How to Become a Forensic Nurse

If you aren’t a registered nurse, the first step toward forensic nursing is to obtain your registered nursing BSN degree.

The bachelor of science in nursing degree provides a science background necessary for being proficient in forensic nursing.

Read how to become a registered nurse if you aren’t already working in this profession.

Once you’ve established yourself as a registered nurse, you can pursue specialization within the forensic nursing profession.

You’ll want to gain experience in areas related to forensic nursing during your time working.

You can learn more about this specialization through numerous healthcare organizations and institutions.

It includes public health offices, hospitals, universities, trauma units, and other facilities.

Contact these locations and consult them regarding requirements for working in forensic nursing.

If they offer a mentorship or volunteer program designed to train registered nurses in forensic nursing, this can be an excellent way to get your foot in the door.

Also, consider shadowing forensic nurses you meet and ask how they entered this profession.

Much of the experience forensic nurses receive comes through on-the-job training.

However, nurses can take certification exams, and those that pursue advanced degrees can center their education on forensic nursing.

Steps to Become a Forensic Nurse

  • Determine the state and local requirements
  • Pursue an authorized forensic nursing course (such as SANE)
  • Complete your clinical education and preceptorship
  • Identify employers for mentorship, volunteer work, or employment
  • Become certified in SANE-A or SANE-P

The previously mentioned steps provide a basic example of becoming a forensic nurse.

There are numerous paths to entering this profession.

However, finding a mentor, focusing on domains/education that deal with forensic nursing, becoming certified, and pursuing an advanced degree offer the best opportunities.

This career is established over time as you become more proficient and specialized.

Educational Requirements

Registered nurses are not required to possess advanced (post-graduate) degrees to become forensic nurses.

That said, obtaining an advanced degree and becoming an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) opens up numerous career progression and specialization opportunities.

It also allows nurses to obtain significantly higher salaries due to their expertise and experience.

Those pursuing advanced degrees can specialize in forensic nursing and earn their master’s or doctorate.

It allows them to work as high-level legal consultants and nurse practitioners and operate in other professions requiring APRNs.

For those that don’t have advanced degrees, it’s highly recommended you obtain a post-graduate certificate if you want to transition into forensic nursing from a general registered nursing position.

It will prepare you for forensic nursing and make entering the SANE profession easier.

It also opens doors for other forensic nursing specializations that don’t require an advanced degree.

Certification requires nurses to spend 40 hours doing theoretical coursework and an additional 40 hours of clinical training.

The clinical training component focuses on SANE-A (adult) or SANE-P (pediatric) specializations.

It allows nurses to determine which patients they want to serve by providing directed training for that specific age group.

Upon completing the course, you qualify to take the certification exam.

That said, you must ensure the SANE course you apply for is approved by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC).

The commission for forensic nursing certification board has collaborated with the ANCC to offer their certification for advanced forensic nursing.

There are other forensic courses, but you’ll want to research their validity and qualifications.

Online Resources:

Where Do Forensic Nurses Work?

There are numerous diverse disciplines forensic nurses provide their expertise.

It includes legal, coronary/forensic, research, educational, and healthcare-focused settings.

That said, this career field expands well beyond the disciplines mentioned above.

Forensic nurses provide valuable expertise and experience if an industry or service benefits from medical advice.

Most forensic nurses focus on the SANE (sexual assault nurse examiner) domain of the many specializations available.

These specialists deal with the sexual assault of adults and children.

They’re found operating in emergency departments and other healthcare settings, providing relief, consultation, and assistance to patients.

They’re also commonly found in domestic violence organizations, mental health facilities, death investigation units, and various legal systems.

Locations Forensic Nurses Work:

  • Trauma units
  • Burn units
  • Med-Surg units
  • Forensic death investigation teams
  • Victim assault departments
  • Prisons
  • Medical examiner offices
  • State attorney offices
  • Counseling facilities
  • Legal consulting firms

Who Do Forensic Nurses Work With?

Forensic nurses work with many healthcare, legal, and business professionals.

It includes law enforcement, lawyers, judges, forensic partners, funeral homes/morgues, pathologists, and medical experts.

That said, who forensic nurses primarily work with depends on their specialization and expertise.

For example, legal nurse consultants spend time with lawyers, judges, and juries to determine legal-medical cases.

Alternatively, forensic death investigation nurses work with law enforcement, forensic teams, medical examiners, and other professionals in their respective fields.

As a result, they provide specific medical advice and expertise within their scope of practice to the professions that benefit from their knowledge.

Forensic nurses are the intersection of legal and medical expertise as medical professionals.

What Hours Do Forensic Nurses Work?

Forensic nurses either work a weekly schedule, on-call, or both depending on their profession.

When working on-call, they receive assignments during the days, nights, weekends, and holidays. Furthermore, these calls occur at any time and any place.

For instance, while at home, running errands, or hanging out with family/friends. But on the other hand, nurses working in consulting have more stable schedules.

Also, SANE and other patient-facing forensic nurses commonly work 10 – 12 hour shifts, similar to general registered nurses.

However, specializations such as legal nurse consulting may have different hours than hospitals or death investigators.

Forensic nurses work when necessary to address situations requiring medical expertise.

If this means working overtime to help victims or manage cases, they will work the necessary hours/schedule to perform their duties.

Moreover, because medical situations can occur at any time, they must be prepared to respond and assist others.

Accordingly, their schedules are based on their role and career obligations.

How Much Do Forensic Nurses Make?

The amount of money forensic nurses make annually varies considerably based on their expertise, profession, and involvement.

As a result, there is no flat rate, average salary, or nominal income. Forensic nurses earn an average of $50,000 to several hundred thousand dollars annually.

If you’re interested in learning how much money forensic nurses make, you must determine their specialty, experience level, and state of employment.

After that, you can localize their income to obtain an average rate based on specialization within their state.

It’s because some states pay nurses significantly more than others.

Based on the state and the nurse’s vocation and expertise, they can double their income by relocating and working the necessary hours.

Careers such as legal nurse consulting allow some professionals to earn significant incomes.

It’s because numerous legal nurse consultants are self-employed and set their rates. In high-paying states with lots of medical-related legal cases, they can easily earn six figures.

Moreover, those who own their practice can employ other legal/forensic nurses to make substantial incomes.

That said, numerous forensic specializations earn $50,000 – $100,000 per year.

It depends on the nurse’s expertise, occupation, employment status, location, and work proficiency.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many resources available regarding legal nurse salaries.

You can use Payscale, Indeed, Glassdoor, and Salary.com to obtain more data on potential salaries.

Your best bet is to consult forensic nurses within your state and ask how much you can expect to earn based on your education level and experience.

For example, entry-level forensic nurses earn less than advanced practice registered nurses with education focused on forensic nursing.

Those with advanced degrees can earn six-figure incomes due to their expertise and training.

The Emotional Aspects of Forensic Nursing

It’s no surprise working as a forensic nurse can be emotionally challenging.

This career isn’t for everyone who chooses to specialize in nursing.

However, those who pursue forensic nursing focus on the impact their career makes on the survivors and those that have passed away. Also, being able to separate yourself from your work is extremely important.

It includes pursuing hobbies, spending time with family, friends, and pets, exercising, and doing things you find fulfillment.

Working as a forensic nurse can be psychologically challenging and demanding.

Those who work in this profession must not only have a strong stomach but a strong passion for helping others.

They must also move past a case’s circumstances and not get too emotionally affected by their work.

Being a forensic nurse is not easy, but the ability to help victims and law enforcement give them the push they need to overcome challenges.

As a result, they can help those most affected find peace and reduce violence and crime, requiring medical knowledge, expertise, and intervention.

Academy of Forensic Nursing Podcast

This article wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the Academy of Forensic Nursing podcast.

This podcast offers excellent information regarding forensic nursing and deep dive into this profession’s many aspects.

This podcast is an excellent resource if you’re seriously considering a job in this field or want to learn more.