Forensic nurses provide an invaluable link between the realms of medicine and law, paying thought not only to the mental and physical health of victims of crimes, but also to the success of future legal proceedings against criminal perpetrators. When a crime is committed—especially those that are sensitive in nature such as sexual assault or domestic violence—it’s necessary to have a multi-talented professional to bridge the gap between the immediate needs of medical attention and the important collection of evidence from traumatic events. Forensic nurses use clues on victims’ bodies in an emergency room or elsewhere to help determine what may have happened and then document those clues to aid in a legal case or investigation.
Whether it is domestic violence, rape, battery, or assault, forensic nurses are specially trained to help identify whether a crime has been committed and to provide the time-sensitive treatment that can save lives, help with healing and recovery, and assist the legal system in bringing criminals to justice.
Read on to learn about what to expect from forensic nursing programs (both on-campus and online); prerequisites for enrollment; program accreditation; and professional licensure for forensic nurses.
There are varied paths to becoming a forensic nurse. Some of these aspiring heath care professionals first become registered nurses (RNs), garner some experience, and pursue an advanced certificate in forensics or a related discipline. Others may complete bachelor’s, master’s, or even a doctoral program to receive more formal hands-on training and education, including the opportunity to conduct original research at a graduate level. These programs can prepare students to become forensic nurses or related positions such as sexual assault nurse examiners (SANEs), nurse coroners, trauma nurses, nurse investigators, forensic psychiatric nurses, and legal nurse consultants, among others.
For the first pathway—RNs interested in getting a certificate—the International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN) recommends preparing as a sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) and even provides a 40-hour online training program for candidates. IAFN is accredited by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). As part of the curricula, students are offered the chance to complete an additional 16-hour simulation training to further enhance their counseling, nursing, and evidence-collecting proficiencies for victims of traumatic events.
Who should enroll in an online certificate program? These programs can be ideal for registered nurses (RNs), licensed vocational nurses (LVNs), licensed practical nurses (LPNs), advanced practice nurses (APRNs), paramedics, and other licensed healthcare professionals. Depending on the program level, prerequisites for pursuing a certificate in forensic nursing may include having a bachelor’s or master’s degree in nursing. Some certificate programs also have experiential requirements (e.g., one to two years clinical work), particularly for the more advanced or specialized certificates. Finally, students typically need to be at least RNs, although they may be able to work concurrently toward that goal in some programs.
Other online certificate options for prospective forensic nurses include the following:
Penn State offers an online, 12-credit forensic nursing certificate designed to teach students how to document, collect, and analyze evidence from delicate crimes, paying mind to the legal and ethical considerations of the field. This undergraduate certificate can prepare people for a variety of careers including medical examining, nursing in a correctional institution, and becoming a legal nurse consultant.
Drexel University provides a unique post-baccalaureate certification in forensic trends and issues in contemporary heath care. This one year interdisciplinary program aims to prepare students to conduct targeted and sensitive assessment of victims and offenders of interpersonal violence and other crime, and also to provide appropriate clinical and medico-legal responses.
The University of California at Riverside (UCR) Extension hosts an online professional certificate program in forensic nursing. With 14 units of required coursework in areas such as forensic approaches to blunt force and firearm injuries, courtroom testimony by a health care specialist, and forensic approaches to mental health assessments, UCR prepares its students for the delicate work of identifying, collecting, and documenting evidence of traumatic injuries and communicating the findings to multidisciplinary teams. These courses also qualify for the California Board of Registered Nursing’s continuing education which is required to maintain licensure. This program typically takes nine to 18 months.
Duquesne University offers an online post-master’s certificate in forensic nursing to prepare advanced practice nurses for this line of work. This 24-credit program comprises courses such as pathophysiology for advanced practice nurses, forensic science and the legal system, and a capstone project for students to conduct their own original research thus contributing to the advancement of discipline. Duquesne also pays special mind to the Synergy Model of Patient Care—a system developed by the American Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACN)—which posits that the unique needs of patients and their families should inform the competencies of nurses.
Please note that some online programs require limited on-campus requirements.
In addition to the certificate options, there is a wealth of online forensic nursing degree programs as well.
Who should enroll in an online degree program in forensic nursing? Since most online nursing programs occur at a post-baccalaureate level, students typically need to have at least a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree. Other prerequisites may include a minimum GPA (e.g., >3.0), an unrestricted RN license, letters of recommendation, test scores (e.g., Miller Analogies Test [MAT], Graduate Record Examination [GRE]), an entrance essay, completion of specific courses (e.g., statistics), and valid CPR certification.
Here is a selection of quality online programs in forensic nursing, which usually involve completing between 30 and 50 credits over a two-to-three year period:
Fitchburg State University of Massachusetts provides an online master of science in nursing (MSN) degree in forensic nursing. This 39-credit program is a 100 percent distance-based educational track with classes including scientific foundations for forensic nursing interventions, caring for victims, and a supervised clinical practicum to be completed at an approved preceptor site. This program is accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE).
Duquesne University of Pittsburgh offers an online MSN program for aspiring forensic nurses. This broad-based curriculum includes hands-on, supervised clinical work at an approved preceptor, completion of a capstone project, and didactic instruction in areas such as criminal law and the courts, heath care ethics, and forensic science and the legal system.
Cleveland State University hosts an online 34-credit MSN program in forensic nursing with classes such as forensic methodologies, theory development in nursing, and the legal system. Students have the option to conduct original research through the completion of a thesis. For students interested in applying to PhD programs—one terminal degree option of the discipline—it’s recommended that they choose the “thesis track” to enhance their applications and garner valuable research experience.
In addition to the online program options mentioned above, there is a number of more traditional, face-to-face program options.
Here is a featured selection of on-campus certificate programs in forensic nursing:
Binghamton University of New York offers a post-baccalaureate certificate in forensic health which can be ideal for entry-level instruction in the basics. There are currently four specializations available in forensic health: focus on adults, focus on children, forensic health across the lifespan, and forensic health and medicolegal death investigation.
The University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (UCCS) provides two certificate options, undergraduate and graduate, which each require 12 credit hours. The former is ideal for newcomers to the discipline—particularly for registered nurses (RNs) and those pursuing a bachelor’s degree—with courses such as practice paradigms in forensic nursing, substance abuse, and the many facets of child maltreatment. The latter is recommended for post-baccalaureate students with some nursing experience. It includes classes such as healthcare policy, ethics, and legal aspects of forensic nursing.
Here are some featured on-campus degree programs in forensic nursing:
Xavier University of Cincinnati provides a traditional master of science in nursing (MSN) degree in forensic nursing which generally takes two years to complete. With rigorous coursework in criminalistics, interprofessional collaboration, and foundations of forensic nursing, Xavier prepares its graduates for careers in forensic psychiatric nursing, legal nurse consulting, and death investigation. Furthermore, this MSN can be pursued jointly with a master of science in criminal justice (MSCJ) degree.
Boston College (BC) offers an MS program not only to those with BSNs, but also to RNs with associate degrees as well a “direct entry option” for people with bachelor’s degrees in disciplines other than nursing. This MS program allows students to choose from a number of different nurse practitioner tracks, each associated with an advanced nursing patient population, and also specialize in areas like forensic nursing. Students interested in the forensic nursing specialization should note that this program offers forensic courses as electives that they may take as they work toward their MS degree. Through comprehensive coursework and supervised clinical experience, BC imparts a solid foundation for those interested in working in emergency and acute care, adult protective services, medicolegal death investigation, and related fields.
When evaluating forensic nursing programs, it’s important to verify the accreditation status of the program prior to enrolling. Accreditation agencies take into account factors such as program outcomes, quality of curricula, institutional finances, student-to-instructor ratios, and condition of physical facilities in order to gauge the overall effectiveness of the program.
There are various types of accreditations available to forensic nursing schools. One of the most common types is programmatic accreditation provided through an organization such as Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing, Inc. (ACEN). Approval from one of these organizations is typically recommended, although some schools may have institutional accreditation as well. This type involves the university as a whole and is given by regional organizations such as: the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (HLC-NCA), the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE), the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), theNorthwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU), the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), or the Commission on Colleges for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).
Finally, following the completion of an accredited forensic nursing program, it may be advisable to seek professional certification which can enhance one’s employment prospects. The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) provides the advanced forensic nursing board certification (AFN-BC) following the evaluation of a candidate’s clinical portfolio. This certification is open to registered nurses (RNs) with a graduate degree in nursing; two years of experience as an RN; 2,000 verified practice hours in forensic nursing; 30 hours of continued education; as well as two additional professional development qualifications such as completing original research, professional service, or delivering presentations.