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Meet a Forensic Nurse

Maura Deering, J.D.
Updated August 29, 2022
    The emerging field of forensic nursing offers opportunities to work at the intersection of medicine, law, and criminal justice. Read on for details about this challenging and rewarding career.
    Test tubes with blood

    As advanced nursing practice specialists trained in both the healthcare and criminal justice systems, forensic nurses care for patients dealing with the long-term health effects of victimization or violence.

    As part of their duties, forensic nurses examine patients to identify trauma, conduct investigative interviews, and collaborate with social services agencies and law enforcement. They also investigate crime scenes and present expert testimony in court.

    Our guide to forensic nursing features a Q&A with forensic nurse examiner Laura Clary and provides information on how to get started in this emerging field, including projected salaries, employment outlook, and forensic nursing specializations and workplaces.

    Q&A With a Forensic Nurse

    Portrait of Laura Clary, BSN, RN, FNE-A/P, SANE-A

    Laura Clary, BSN, RN, FNE-A/P, SANE-A


    Laura Clary, BSN, RN, FNE-A/P, SANE-A

    Laura Clary, BSN, RN, FNE-A/P, SANE-A is a registered nurse, forensic nurse examiner and clinical program manager of the GBMC SAFE/DV Program. In 2010, she completed her forensic nursing training at Greater Baltimore Medical Center and joined the GBMC SAFE Program.

    She is certified to care for patients across the lifespan that have been victims of sexual assault, rape, child physical/sexual abuse and neglect, intimate partner violence, non-fatal strangulation, and human trafficking . Clary obtained national professional certification as a sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE-A) from the International Association of Forensic Nurses in 2013.

    In addition to her work with patients in the hospital, community education is very important to her. Clary lectures at high schools, colleges, and other organizations throughout Baltimore county on healthy relationships, safe dating, internet safety, and the services offered at GBMC.

    She is a Board of Nursing-approved forensic nurse examiner instructor in Maryland and has taught and precepted registered nurses and physicians from all over the country. She has extensive experience in emergency and trauma nursing. She is an active member of the International Association of Forensic Nurses and the Maryland Child Abuse Medical Providers (CHAMP). Clary is also chair of the Baltimore County Sexual Assault Response team.

    How to Become a Forensic Nurse

    The first step on the path to a career as a forensic nurse involves becoming a licensed registered nurse (RN). RNs earn associate or bachelor’s degrees in nursing and pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) to obtain licensure. Nurses can then opt for board certification or a graduate degree in forensic nursing.

    Many RNs pursue training and certification as sexual assault nurse examiners (SANE), a forensic nurse specialty area helping victims. In addition to an RN license, SANE programs prefer at least two years in practice conducting advanced physical assessments of patients.

    Students should select a training program that meets the standards set by the International Association of Forensic Nurses. Additional requirements may vary as mandated by state boards of nursing.

    Once students complete 40 hours each of classroom and clinical training and begin practicing as SANEs, they can opt to take one of two board certification exams: SANE-A to care for adults and adolescents or SANE-P to help children.

    Some jurisdictions hire forensic nurses trained as death investigators. Nurses interested in this specialty should have experience in emergency or intensive care nursing and take an American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators certification exam. Depending on local laws, forensic nurses act as medical examiners or coroners.

    Salary and Job Outlook for Forensic Nurses

    As an RN specialty area, forensic nursing pays a median annual salary of $73,300, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The advanced skills required of forensic nurses, such as documentation, attention to detail, critical thinking, and communication, may affect salaries. PayScale reports the annual earning range for forensic nurses as between $59,000 and $89,000.

    The BLS reports the employment rate of RNs in general should grow by a projected 7% from 2019-29. This should translate to more than 220,00 new jobs nationwide.

    Salaries and job openings also vary by location. California tops the list for both salary and employment level of RNs, paying a mean annual wage of $113,240, but the state has only filled 17.42 out of every 1,000 available jobs.

    A nationwide shortage of SANEs indicates the need for forensic nurses in this specialty in all areas. In Virginia, for example, only 16 of the state’s 122 licensed hospitals offer forensic exams, and just 150 out of 94,000 Virginia RNs practice forensic nursing.

    Other top-paying states include Hawaii, District of Columbia, Massachusetts, and Oregon, in which all RNs earn an annual mean wage that exceeds $90,000.

    Forensic Nurse Specializations and Work Environments

    In addition to sexual assault, forensic nurses can choose from a number of other specializations and careers, including forensic nurse examiner (FNE), legal nurse consultant, forensic psychiatric nurse, nurse death investigator (NDI), correctional nurse consultant, and forensic nurse educator.

    General medical and surgical hospitals employ the largest numbers of RNs in the U.S., but forensic nurses can be found in a wide variety of settings. Forensic nurses work in hospital emergency rooms, urgent care centers, psychiatric facilities, prisons, community anti-violence programs, government agencies, and in offices of coroners and medical examiners.