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Forensic Nurse Career Overview

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Forensic nurses are registered nurses (RNs) who treat survivors of assault or abuse and serve as patient advocates. They also collect evidence and may testify in court cases. In addition, many forensic nurses obtain certification as sexual assault nurse examiners (SANE).

What Does a Forensic Nurse Do?

ADN or BSN required
certification optional


Forensic nurses provide an important connection between healthcare and the criminal justice system. These nurses receive specialized training to treat survivors of violence and advocate on their behalf. While specific duties vary by employment setting, key responsibilities include the following:

Primary Responsibilities

  • Examine patients to assess and collect evidence of trauma and injuries before referring them to the next stage of medical treatment
  • Provide support to survivors and their families
  • Gather and submit evidence for criminal investigations
  • Coordinate with law enforcement and testify in court

Skills Learned

  • Ability to deal with trauma
  • Understanding of criminal justice and legal systems
  • Critical thinking
  • Communication skills
  • Compassion

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Where Do Forensic Nurses Work?

Hospitals, community anti-violence programs, and medical examiners’ offices provide the majority of forensic nursing jobs. As the demand for these specialized nurses increases, career opportunities expand in other settings, such as psychiatric clinics, correctional facilities, and emergency government services.

Hospitals


Hospital-based forensic nurses document injuries and gather evidence from survivor of trauma. Those with SANE certification treat sexual assault cases and file reports to police and protective services agencies.

Community Anti-Violence Programs


These programs provide vital services to the vulnerable, including survivors of gang violence, domestic abuse, and sexual assault. They may assist immigrants and refugees exploited in sex trafficking rings or dangerous work settings.

Medical Examiners Offices


Nurses employed as forensic examiners or coroners investigate causes of death, assist in autopsies, and collect evidence from corpses, clothing, and the crime scene.

Why Become a Forensic Nurse?

Forensic nurses integrate healthcare and criminal justice training into one specialized career. While the constant exposure to trauma can take its toll, the field offers nurses considerable personal and professional satisfaction.

Advantages to Becoming a Forensic Nurse

  • Making a difference in survivors’ lives, holding perpetrators accountable, and working to keep communities safe
  • Broadens RN skills with forensic training in evidence collection, criminal procedures, and legal investigations
  • More flexible schedules than other RN positions that require shift and evening work
  • Expanding career opportunities through a variety of specializations and certifications in sexual assault, child abuse, elder abuse, correctional nursing, and medical examiner investigation
  • Higher salaries than other RN specialties

Disadvantages to Becoming a Forensic Nurse

  • Vicarious trauma syndrome, e.g., feelings of grief, anger, and depression triggered by the high levels of stress from intense working conditions
  • Desensitization and burnout from exposure to extreme cases
  • Heavy workload that includes nursing duties, detailed evidence documentation and legal reporting, and the pressure to achieve required levels of accuracy and thoroughness
  • Constantly shifting professional roles and communication styles interacting with patients and their families, healthcare professionals, law enforcement, lawyers, and court officials

How To Become a Forensic Nurse

To become a forensic nurse, students must complete the necessary education, pass the NCLEX-RN exam, receive their RN license, and earn certification.

Earn a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN).
The BSN can take 3-4 years to complete. Prospective forensic nurses should consider taking courses in forensics, if available, as part of their undergraduate training.

Pass the NCLEX-RN to receive RN licensure.
Administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) verifies a candidate’s nursing knowledge in key competency areas to establish their eligibility for an RN license.

Consider a certification as a sexual assault nurse examiner.
The International Association of Forensic Nurses offers two SANE certificates, the SANE-A for nurses working with adults and adolescents and the SANE-P focusing on pediatric patients.

For an advanced degree, earn a master of science in nursing (MSN) or doctor of nursing practice (DNP).
Although forensic nurses do not need an MSN or DNP to enter the field, earning a graduate degree with a forensic nurse practitioner specialty can enhance career and salary prospects.

Consider a forensic nurse specialist certification offered by the American Institute of Health Care Professionals.
Open to RNs and advanced practice nurses, this certification demonstrates knowledge and competency in forensic practice and forensic pathology within the scope and standards of professional nursing.

Certification Options for Forensic Nurses

  • Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner-Adult/Adolescent (SANE-A)

    SANE-A nurses work in hospitals and rape crisis centers conducting sexual assault evidentiary examinations for adult and adolescent survivors of rape and molestation. SANE-A training covers forensic evidence collection, crisis intervention, sexually transmitted infections testing, drug testing, and emergency contraception.

  • Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner-Pediatric (SANE-P)

    SANE-P nurses receive training in forensic examination, photography, and procedures for providing court testimony. Both SANE-A and SANE-P nurses must complete 40 hours of coursework and 40-96 hours of clinical training before taking the certification exam.

  • Forensic Nurse Specialist Certification

    This certification requires five continuing education classes, equivalent to 250 contact hours in forensic nursing theory and practice and forensic pathology. Certified forensic nurse specialists pay a $200 fee that covers the first four years of certification.

How Much Do Forensic Nurses Make?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not supply forensic nurse salary and employment data but includes them in their projections for all RNs. Job prospects for RNs continue to make gains, with a projected increase of 7% from 2019 to 2029, faster than the average for all occupations. The economy could add 222,000 RN positions during this period.

RNs earn an annual mean salary of $77,460, significantly higher than theaverage yearly wage of $53,490 for all U.S. occupations. Nursing salaries also vary by education and specialty. For example, RNs with a graduate degree and a nurse practitioner specialty earn an annual salary of $111,840. Graduate-trained forensic nurses with SANE or other certifications may experience relatively higher levels of compensation.

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Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long does it take to become a forensic nurse?

    Forensic nurses can enter the field with a two-year associate degree or a BSN, which typically takes 3-4 years to complete. Earning an MSN generally adds another two years of study. Nurses can shorten the length of time for degree completion by enrolling in an RN-to-BSN, an RN-to-MSN, or a BSN-to-MSN program, which builds on existing nursing experience and previously earned credits.

  • Can forensic nurses prescribe medicine?

    Depending on the state where they practice, only forensic nurses who hold a master’s degree and a nurse practitioner license (or other advanced practice specialty) may administer prescriptions and controlled drugs, medical devices and services, and other equipment and supplies. However, each state nursing regulatory board determines whether advanced practice registered nurses may hold prescriptive authority.

  • How much does a forensic nurse make in a year?

    Forensic nurse salaries, such as those for all RNs, vary considerably by degree level and certification, years of experience, geographic location, and type of employer. While the BLS does not have figures for forensic nurses specifically, the lowest earning 10% of RNs made less than $52,080 a year, while the top 10% made more than $111,220. Nurse practitioners earn a median salary of $115,800, reflecting their graduate training and advanced certification.

  • What is a sexual assault nurse examiner?

    These forensic nurse examiners have completed specialized training to provide comprehensive, culturally sensitive, and appropriate services to sexual assault survivors. SANE certification allows forensic nurses to gather medical histories, assess injuries, collect evidence, and offer follow-up services with medical and law enforcement partners and survivor advocates. They also testify as fact or expert witnesses in court cases.

Resources for Forensic Nurses


  • International Association of Forensic Nurses The only international professional association representing the interests of forensic RNs, this group offers online continuing education and certification programs. Members benefit from networking opportunities, conferences, chapter events, and a job board. Through a partnership with the Office on Violence Against Women, IAFN promotes best practices for conducting sexual assault medical forensic examinations.

  • Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner Technical Assistance Sponsored by IAFN, this initiative advocates for the dignified and compassionate care and treatment of sexual assault patients. Service providers may access the free helpline and free training information to comply with national protocols for forensic examination practice, policy, and procedures. Based on an interdisciplinary and community-based model, this program assists sexual assault responders who work with both adults and children.

  • National Sexual Violence Resource Center This nonprofit organization provides tools and information for individuals, communities, and providers to prevent sexual violence and assist survivors. NSVRC offers training, consulting services, technical assistance, and a resource library. The center also sponsors a national conference and an annual month-long sexual assault awareness campaign to educate the public about the causes and impact of sexual violence.

  • Academy of Forensic Nursing Committed to advancing forensic nursing science and evidence-based care in clinical practice, this organization offers membership to forensic nurses, attorneys, advocates, physicians, law enforcement, and other first responders. AFN sponsors annual conferences, discussion groups, free podcasts, and webinars. Members may participate in the online discussion board and mentoring opportunities. AFN also offers continuing education and e-learning training programs.

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