The practice of nursing in the intersection where medical and legal/criminal systems overlap is known as forensic nursing. The basic premise of forensic nursing is that a nurse in this specialty will care for patients who are injured as a result of violence. This can include either the perpetrator or the victim of the violent act, but it is usually the victim who is the patient. Patients who are the victims of abuse, assault or other physically aggressive violence often suffer from deeply-inflicted trauma in the psychological, physical, and even social senses. A forensic nurse is educated and trained to be an expert in the needs and requirements of the law as it relates to victims and perpetrators of violent crimes, and can play an important role in a legal action. They may provide evidence they have collected, may testify in court regarding the patient and the injuries inflicted, and may play a consulting role for the authorities involved in the legal proceedings.
Just as with any other nurse, the primary responsibility of a forensic nurse is to provide the best possible medical and health care for patients. The difference is that the patients in forensic nursing have been assaulted, abused or otherwise injured, and the nurse is an expert in the optimum treatment for all injuries, whether they are physical or mental. Most often the nature of these injuries is sexual, and rape victims and victims of other types of sexual abuse and aggression are the first patients assigned to a forensic nurse.
Skills in many areas uncommon for a regular nurse come into play in this case. A forensic nurse can identify injuries, professionally evaluate the type and extent of the injuries, document the details and results of the abusive incident, and properly collect and store evidence of the crime, both physical and biological. A forensic nurse must also be able to communicate effectively with legal representatives and law enforcement authorities, and testify as an expert witness in courtroom proceedings regarding the case at hand.
There are different types of forensic nurses, who can specialize even within their specialty, so to speak. Victims of sex crimes will be the majority of the patients in forensic nursing, especially in the US, but there are other areas of specialization possible as well. One track for a forensic nurse to take is to be a death investigator, sometimes even acting as a coroner in local government. These nurses specialize in investigating and documenting the causes and circumstances of death, and in dealing with the legal authorities and families involved as a result of the death.
Having these types of nurses on staff is increasingly important for corrections facilities, psychiatric and mental hospitals, and rehabilitation centers. Specialization is also possible for forensic nurses who are interested in helping victims of domestic violence, and elder and child abuse and neglect, in emergency services facilities and staff training, and in public health clinics and agencies. In all of these cases, the nurse provides care to the patient and interfaces with the legal authorities as needed, but each one requires an extensive knowledge of law and law enforcement in small areas of practice.
Forensic nursing is important in the effort to reduce violent crime because these medical experts can be highly visible members of a team that provides care to victims of violent crimes. Their testimony and the documentation and evidence they can provide may be crucial in obtaining a satisfactory legal outcome for a victim and patient. By fulfilling the role they have chosen, forensic nurses become an important part of the overall effort to administer justice in a community, and will have a very rewarding career.
To learn more about the Forensic Nursing Program at AIHCP, access here.