Forensic nurses work in a range of legal, educational and healthcare settings, depending on their specialty. In prisons, they help patients recover from physical and mental health conditions, while in legal practices they gather evidence relating to claims and civil lawsuits. Some forensic nurses are more involved with the details of a crime and will examine death scenes, along with crime scene specialists, to gather evidence to present in court. Others act as advocates for elderly patients who may have experienced abuse, while forensic nurse educators play a vital role in academia.
What are the skills and abilities required to be a forensic nurse?
Forensic nurses need many of the same skills as healthcare workers in other fields. Empathy is one of the key traits they require as they are often dealing with people who are in a stressful situations, and it is essential that a nurse can earn their trust to treat them successfully. The ability to cope in difficult circumstances is also important in this role, as the cases can be trying. Therefore, forensic nurses will need to use and develop the coping skills they first learned when working in general practice as a registered nurse.
As they are so often called upon to gather evidence, either in the form of physical clues or through speaking with a patient, nurses in this specialism must pay close attention to detail. This ensures that they are unlikely to miss an important point, or a piece of evidence that would be useful in court.
Finally, because they work with legal teams, law enforcement, vulnerable individuals and prisons, maintaining confidentiality is crucial. Both patients and co-workers need to know that they are safe to speak openly with a forensic nurse, so the ability to build trust is key to the role.
Working toward a career in forensic nursing
Every nurse who is aiming to work in the field of forensics has to start by getting a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Next, they will have to take and pass the NCLEX exam to qualify as a registered nurse and obtain a license to practice in the state in which they plan to work. By pursuing a range of professional development certifications in criminal justice, forensic science and law, they can form a deeper understanding of the role. The majority of forensic nurses have at least three years of experience as front-line nurses. This enables them to practice and refine the skills they will need to excel in their future career. Those who do make the effort to qualify will find that forensics is a unique and fascinating field.
However, working nurses who want to advance their career in this direction are often held back by the lack of professional training available close to home. Juggling work and the responsibilities of home life can make it difficult for healthcare professionals to reach their full potential. However, online courses from academic facilities such as Cleveland State University have paved the way for any nurse looking to have a career in forensics.
Cleveland State University was one of the first institutions to offer forensic nursing programs online for registered nurses who need a course that fits in with their commitments. Students are taught forensic methodologies and given an in-depth understanding of the legal system through online coursework and 500 hours of fieldwork in their community. There are no residencies in distant locations and it is possible to graduate in two years.
Are forensic nurses in demand?
All medical professionals are in high demand in the US, so those who qualify as forensic nurses will not struggle to find a graduate role. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, registered nurses can earn up to $81,220 per year and the profession is growing. For nurses in advanced practice, or those with a specialism, the annual salary can be much higher.
Roles available to forensic nurse graduates
Becoming a forensic nurse is not just about the financial rewards, however, because there is a range of diverse roles available to graduates. Below, we take a look at some of the most popular roles.
Helping prisoners manage their mental health as a forensic psychiatric nurse
As mental health professionals, forensic psychiatric nurses work with families and individual patients who need assistance with managing their mental health. However, the work of these nurses is carried out in situations where the client has been involved in committing a crime. The forensic psychiatric nurse sets up a plan to help with their treatment, rehabilitation and continued assessment. As well as working to treat the minds of their patients, these nurses can create care plans that help the individual manage their physical health more fully. Their practice aims to offer therapy that produces a secure environment where both the client and the community in which they live are safe. Ultimately, if the forensic psychiatric nurse can treat a patient successfully and support their rehabilitation, the person will be reintroduced into society.
The American Nurses Association first named forensic psychiatric nursing as a new specialty in 1995, but the field has continued to grow and advance ever since. Over the last 20 years, the scope of practice for clinicians in this role has developed considerably. They are now trained in fields such as crisis intervention and the prevention of crises, as well as other aspects of criminality. They are experts in de-escalating stressful situations and offering ways for clients to manage their feelings more effectively, such as finding a quiet place, walking in green spaces, or simply exercising in the yard.
As well as working in mental health facilities and hospitals, forensic psychiatric nurses can be employed by some prison facilities. Most nurses choose to take an additional forensic psychiatry nursing certification before they enter the field. In this role, nurses need strong interview skills and advanced psychosocial skills. Practitioners who want to help people recover from mental health problems and then go on to have a positive impact on their community could find this a gratifying role.
Teaching the next generation as a forensic nurse educator
When they are employed as educators, forensic nurses teach at universities and colleges. They offer insights into how forensics works and what part nurses in this profession play in public life. Often, they maintain a role outside of academia that keeps the working environment fresh in their mind and ensures that they can pass on real-world experience to the students in their classes. As well as designing lessons in collaboration with other educational professionals and ensuring that these meet the aims of the syllabus, forensic nurse educators will mark the work of students and also provide tutorial support. In a forensics class, students will learn about working in the field, the latest advances in the profession, and the history of forensic nursing.
Forensic nurse educators teach students about criminology, giving testimony in court and collecting evidence, and preserving and documenting their findings. There is a huge amount to learn, so nurses will often bring in colleagues from their professional network to give additional lectures. These might be forensic nurse examiners or death investigators. By the same token, many forensic nurse educators will travel across the country to give lectures at conferences or at special events organized by the forensics team at individual universities. Many are also involved with distance learning and deliver lessons through video conferencing. The majority of forensic nurse educators have a master’s in forensic nursing as well as an education certification, which enhances their teaching abilities. For nurses with a passion for forensics who want to work in education, this could be the ideal role.
Getting to the heart of medical cases as a legal nursing consultant
Legal nursing consultants have a pivotal role in the country’s court system. They act as a liaison between clients who are engaged in civil cases, attorneys and physicians. The cases vary from day to day, but there are many workplace compensation claims, medical malpractice suits and probate legalities to deal with. As legal experts, it is the job of legal nursing consultants to look at the details of these medically related cases and examine the evidence in detail. They will research some of the backgrounds of each case, analyze the physical evidence, and interpret their findings in a report. In some instances, they are asked to review the medical records of a client, select what an appropriate level of care for the individual may be, and explain more about medical terminology to the legal team. This assists professionals with legal training when it comes to dealing with the case in court.
Familiarity with medical timelines is also essential for legal nurse consultants as they often have to support the work of litigation teams. This may include investigating medical records, disability records and employment records, which can assist the team with concluding a client’s claim. By bringing their professional expertise and advanced medical knowledge to each case, the legal nursing consultant can provide authoritative conclusions that significantly impact a legal case.
Legal nursing consultants also need a sound knowledge of law enforcement, which is why some have experience of working as nurse attorneys or nurse paralegals. Many are employed by healthcare facilities, criminal justice agencies and insurance companies that act as consultants. In an insurance environment, they will review the medical records of people who are making a claim. Forensic nursing qualifications are the first step into this field; further training is beneficial. For nurses who enjoy working independently and carrying out detailed research, this could be a fascinating career choice.
Assessing the scene of a death as a nurse coroner
Sometimes referred to as death investigators, nurse coroners work with a team of crime scene investigators to establish how a death took place. Some nurse coroners work with medical examiners to establish the facts of an event, while other more experienced practitioners become medical examiners themselves. Nurse coroners are often the first people who will visit the scene of a death after the police.
They will analyze the appearance of the scene, examine the body, and try to establish what time the death took place. Part of their work is also focused on finding out what caused the person’s death.
If the event happened without a police investigation, but is considered a potential crime scene later on, the body may be brought in for an autopsy. In these cases, the nurse has to carry out their work isolated from the scene, which can be challenging.
The majority of nurse coroners work in medical examiners’ offices or hospitals. Others will work for law enforcement agencies on a consultancy basis. As their work is closely linked to the legal field, nurse coroners need to understand how fingerprint evidence and ballistics can be collected and preserved. They will follow the correct chain of custody so that the evidence they provide is properly gathered and stored and will be considered admissible in court. Furthermore, they need to create detailed and accurate documentation with plenty of description. This will always be based on fact, with no assumptions or opinions on show. If a case reaches court, the forensic nurse will have to testify as a witness. Nurses who are interested in criminology and want to work in a role where there are always things to learn could enjoy a rewarding career as a nurse coroner.
Protecting and caring for the elderly as a forensic gerontology specialist
Working with elderly patients, forensic gerontology specialists investigate cases in which an older individual is thought to have been harmed, either physically or through exploitation or neglect. Primarily, they focus on the human and legal rights of each individual they support. Forensic gerontology specialist nurses help other clinicians carry out assessments and examinations, along with any medical procedures that are needed and the giving of medications. They are engaged with preparing a patient for leaving a facility or recovering from their experience, by giving advice on self-care and helping people to manage any health conditions they have independently.
Part of this role includes identifying whether or not a crime has taken place and investigating any crimes that could be related. As the role has both health and legal aspects to it, forensic gerontology specialists work in collaboration with multidisciplinary teams, encompassing health, law enforcement and legal experts. Spotting cases of elder abuse can be a challenge because many older people are not willing to speak about their experiences and they may even want to protect the person or people who have carried out the abuse.
In many cases, for example, where the issue is more about neglect, there may be no outward signs of injury. Moreover, it can be difficult to tell the difference between injuries that are caused by age or falls and those that were caused by another person. Nurses will use their knowledge and training to start an investigation that deals with the various issues sensitively. Part of their work involves treating patients’ physical injuries, but forensic gerontology specialists also offer emotional and physical support to their elderly patients.
Many forensic gerontology specialists work in healthcare settings, but some are employed by victim support centers and nursing homes. Having qualified as a registered nurse and then taken their master’s, nurses take a shorter certification course to work in this field. Nurses with excellent interpersonal skills who want to help elderly patients live their best lives will excel in forensic gerontology.
Treating and healing prisoners as a correctional nurse specialist
Correctional nurse specialists work in the prison service. They are engaged with assessing, examining and diagnosing patients who are in halfway houses, detention centers and prisons across the US. They will care for individuals who have become sick and formulate a treatment plan to support their recovery. This might involve administering medications or referring them to another service for tests and scans. As much of their work is carried out autonomously, they will often have to monitor their medical supplies and ensure that they do not run out of anything.
Regardless of the background of the person they are treating, correctional nurse specialists remain compassionate and professional in their approach. Their patients are often from a wide range of cultural, religious and social backgrounds. Moreover, prison is a very challenging environment for many people. Therefore, these patients can have complex needs that their nurse has to manage. Furthermore, some have current or past drug or alcohol addictions. As a result, many correctional nurse specialists decide to advance their skills and knowledge with further certification, usually in the field of community and mental health.
In a prison environment, nurses need to prioritize the confidentiality of their patients. The trust built between a practitioner and the prisoners they treat is based on mutual respect. Like all healthcare workers, correctional nurse specialists are in high demand. However, to do this job, practitioners have to be especially patient and versatile in their approach. An interest in substance abuse and mental health issues can also be useful. However, helping people to recover from illness or injury and then leave the facility in good health makes this a very fulfilling role.
If you are considering becoming a forensic nurse, why not look into enrolling on an online forensic nursing program today?