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Forensic Nursing

It’s 3 a.m. at St. John’s Hospital, but the emergency room is anything but quiet tonight. Flashing sirens alert the nursing staff that something serious is on the way. Emergency medical responders roll in a traumatized victim. A police officer stands just out of the way and briefs the head nurse. It’s another case of sexual assault. Immediately, the nursing team springs into specially trained response. The injured young woman is scared and hurt, and she needs immediate medical treatment, and evidence of the crime committed needs to be gathered quickly.

It sounds like a new angle on the next hot crime investigation show: throw in a little taboo romance and you’ve got CSI meets E.R. In fact, the field of forensic nursing has potential for quite a lot of drama, but not of the entertainment variety. According to the International Association of Forensic Nurses, the job of a forensic nurse is to provide specialized care for “the physical, psychological, and social trauma” in victims of assault or abuse. Forensic nurses act as the liaison between medicine and the law. This special subset of nursing invovles the collection of evidence to be used in court while simultaneously treating victims of violence; as such, forensic nurses are sometimes called in to testify during legal proceedings or to consult with criminal authorities.

Forensic Nursing Through the Years

The term forensic nursing came into relatively recent favor. “Forensic” describes subjects relating to justice and the law. Therefore, forensic nursing is the application of nursing practices to assist in legal proceedings. The term is linked to a small nursing convention that took place in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1992. By and large, the nurses in attendance were certified Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE). The experiences they related to one another revealed that many of the centers where they worked shared common problems.

Before the conference in St. Paul, sexual assault examiners were the professional ally for victims of sexual assault. Generally speaking, law enforcement agencies employ special teams to handle crimes of this nature and gather physical evidence to be used in court. However, there is not always time or the necessary expertise on hand to appropriately deal with the situation. Then, as now, the victim was usually brought straight to the emergency room, where assault examiners–the predecessors to forensic nurses–comforted the victim, attended to his or her wounds, and gathered the necessary physical evidence, including hair and fluids, necessary to convict a perpetrator.

Now, all forensic nurses get their start as a registered nurse practitioner. Qualified nurses can take advantage of accredited, quality online courses offered by the American Institute of Forensic Education to earn a Certificate in Forensic Science or Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner Training.

Responsibilities of a Forensic Nurse

While forensic nurses are the key people associated with recovery and assistance for sexual assault victims, they have other responsibilities as well. Forensic nurses provide care for individuals, families, and entire communities. They deal with interpersonal violence, as well.

The University of Tennessee Health Science Center, which offers a doctoral degree in forensic nursing, states that forensic nurses must be competent in a wide range of areas such as scientific investigation, treatment of trauma victims, and knowledge of criminal justice processes.

In addition to immediate emergency treatment for victims, forensic nurses also work in the area of violence prevention. They collaborate with other medical professionals and health care workers to educate the public on the existence of preventable violence in their communities. Additionally, they often work in conjunction with government protective services, public health departments, and law enforcement. They even work with legislators to lobby for public policy changes to benefit victims.

Nursing, in general, is a demanding profession requiring massive amounts of patience, compassion, and empathy in addition to medical knowledge and technical skill. Forensic nursing in particular requires scientific precision and is not for the faint-hearted. Violent crimes are extremely upsetting, and it goes without saying that the queasy need not apply. A good forensic nurse needs a cool head and the ability to deal with very difficult situations in a calm and professional manner. Finally, he or she must follow proper investigative procedures in order to make the evidence gathered reliable for use in court.

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