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Forensic Nursing: How to Become a Forensic Nurse

Forensic nursing is the nursing subspecialty that is currently growing most rapidly. This is partly because it’s a relatively new field, and many agencies and institutions are only beginning to understand it.

The definition of forensic nursing, according to the International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN), is the nursing practice area where the health care and legal systems intersect.

The process of looking for a job as a forensic nurse sometimes includes educating an employer about the science of forensic nursing, and many forensic nurses began their careers by blazing a trail into a new workplace.

Educational steps to becoming a forensic nurse

Step 1

Be a certified registered nurse or an advanced practice registered nurse with a valid U.S. license and 3 or more years of experience in a hospital emergency department or in the field of women’s health care. Be familiar (through work experience or education) with issues of sexual assault and violence against women.

Step 2

Apply for training and certification as a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE). The application process requires the background in Step 1, plus references from current nursing supervisors attesting to the applicant’s clinical skills. SANE training is offered through state and regional sexual assault programs, and through the U.S. Department of Justice. The training consists of classroom or webinar-based coursework, as well as an in-person clinical practicum. Admission into these training programs is competitive because space is limited and they are only offered a few times a year in each region. Successful completion of the program requires about 40 hours of class time and 40 hours of supervised clinical practicum study. These hours may be applied to the RN’s continuing education requirement.

Step 3

After successfully completing the coursework and practicum, apply to take the SANE exam, which has been developed by the Forensic Nursing Certification Board. This exam is offered twice a year, at a number of sites in both the U.S. and abroad. Information about it can be found by contacting the IAFN.

After meeting all the educational requirements and passing the exam, the aspiring forensic nurse will receive SANE certification for three years. Renewal of this certification requires attendance of 45 hours of approved continuing education classes, or re-taking the exam.

The focus of the SANE training and coursework can either be adult and adolescent victims of sexual assault (SANE-A certification) or pediatric victims (SANE-P certification).

Alternate Step 2 and Step 3

Since forensic nursing is a new and evolving practice field, there are some situations in which a nurse may already have extensive forensic experience. In such cases, the individual may document their accomplishments, skills, experience and training in a portfolio. This portfolio may be submitted to the American Nurses Credentialing Center, which will evaluate the candidate in conjunction with IAFN. In cases where the candidate is clearly at the top of their field, they may be awarded a certification in Advanced Forensic Nursing solely through the strength of their portfolio.

Second Alternate Step 2

Practicing nurses and paramedics may attend an accredited Forensic Nursing Certification program. It’s important when evaluating such a program to make sure that it is accredited by its state nursing board as providing valid continuing education credits. Depending on prerequisites, an individual student may need, and whether the student is able to attend class full-time, these programs typically take 9 to 18 months to complete.

There are also Master’s degree and PhD programs now in Forensic nursing.

Where Forensic Nurses Work

Forensic nursing typically takes place in locations where medical care intersects with the legal system, so this often means either at a crime scene or in a hospital. Forensic nurses work with victims of criminal abuse or neglect, and they are trained to collect evidence of crimes during the process of caring for the victims. They frequently assist lawyers, acting as legal nurse consultants, and they may appear as expert witnesses in court proceedings as well. Forensic nurses also work in coroner’s offices, assisting with death investigations and in prison populations as well.

This is a truly new field of nursing, and career opportunities are expanding rapidly as society evolves clearer responses to violent behavior.

Nursing Scholarships

American Assembly for Men in Nursing (AAMN) American Cancer Society Doctoral Degree Scholarships in Cancer Nursing Gallagher Student Health Careers Scholarship
The Gates Millenium Scholars (GMS) National Black Nurses Association (NBNA) National Student Nurses’ Association (NSNA)
New Careers in Nursing (NCIN) Nurse Corps Scholarship (NCS) Nurses of Tomorrow
Nursing Economics Foundation Tylenol Future Care Scholarship American Holistic Nurses Association

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