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Forensic Nursing: Job Duties and Salary Range

Career News September 11, 2013

Forensic Nursing is the area of nursing practice in which the legal system and medical systems intersect. This profession is still evolving, and the American Nurse’s Association has only recently recognized forensic nursing as a nursing specialty. New opportunities are opening up as more agencies and institutions become aware of the skills a forensic nurse has to offer, and forensic nursing is currently the fastest-growing specialty of nursing.

Subspecialties of Forensic Nursing Sexual Assault

Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (sometimes called Sexual Assault Forensic Examiners or Sexual Assault Nurse Clinicians) provide medical care and emotional support to victims of sexual assault, while at the same time collecting evidence for criminal investigation and prosecution of the perpetrator.

This role is a crucial and delicate one, as the various needs of the victim and the legal system may be challenging to navigate. Forensic nurses typically work in a multidisciplinary team which includes hospital personnel, law enforcement, victims’ advocates and attorneys.

The forensic nurse usually takes photographs of the crime scene, the victim, or the perpetrator, collects and preserves evidence, and testifies in court. Forensic nurses may testify in court regarding what they personally witnessed, or they may simply testify as general experts in the field. The forensic nurse working in the field of sexual assault may specialize in either adult victims of assault or pediatric victims.

Interpersonal Violence

This subspecialty is generally combined with sexual assault work; however, depending on the practice setting, forensic nurses may choose to focus on victims of domestic violence, elder abuse, or child abuse and neglect. Their skills are crucial in documenting evidence of criminal activity, while assisting victims with medical treatment, safety planning and legal protection.

Public agencies, responsible for protecting vulnerable people (whether children, disabled or elderly), rely on forensic nurses to provide scientific evidence-based reasons for legal guardianship decisions and criminal prosecution. Forensic nurses also serve as educators in many instances, advocating for victims and sharing information about violence and public safety.

Death Investigation

In some states, the investigation of an unexpected death is the provenance of a coroner, who may be an elected official with no medical training. In such situations, the forensic nurse provides crucial medical expertise in determining the cause of death. The forensic nurse integrates information from the deceased person’s medical history, the scene of death, and an examination of the body.

From these three sources of information, the forensic nurse is able to draw conclusions about the cause of death. These conclusions are crucial, not only for potential legal proceedings, but also to provide comfort and information to survivors and to advise authorities regarding public safety issues.

Psychiatric and Correctional

Forensic nurses work with offenders in correctional institutions, providing medical care while also developing evaluation of the offender’s future expected capabilities. With rapidly increasing levels of mental illness among the incarcerated population, psychiatric knowledge is crucial for developing a treatment plan, deciding about probation or parole, and justifying legal sentencing.

Legal Consulting

Forensic nurses may offer consultation to lawyers as a sideline to their primary work or may organize their entire career around legal consulting. Within a busy climate of malpractice, the forensic nurse may be called upon, to provide expertise in litigation surrounding birth injuries, hospital procedures, patient rights, informed consent, and standards of care.

Salary Outlook for Forensic Nurses

Salaries vary widely since forensic nurses’ work in many different settings: hospitals, anti- violence advocacy programs, coroners’ offices, correctional institutions, government agencies, or mass-disaster and crisis locations. In general, their salaries tend to be higher than the average for registered nurses, since forensic nursing requires extensive training above and beyond the level needed for RN certification.

Most estimates place the starting salary for a forensic nurse at around $55,000 per year and the upper-tier salary for an experienced professional at over $200,000.

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