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 is 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 a master of science in nursing (MSN) or doctor of nursing practice (DNP) to receive more advanced 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?
Online certificate programs can be ideal for registered nurses (RNs) and advanced practice nurses (APRNs). 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 RNs, although some programs may allow nurses to work concurrently toward that goal and certification.
Featured Online Forensic Nursing Certificate Programs
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 assessments 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 California Board of Registered Nursing’s continuing education units, which are required to maintain licensure. This program typically takes nine to 18 months to complete.
Duquesne University offers an online post-master’s certificate in forensic nursing to prepare advanced practice nurses to work in a variety of settings. This 15-credit program is comprised of courses in criminal law, forensic science, and the legal system. It also includes a capstone project for students to conduct their own original research to contribute to the advancement of the 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. This program does not require any on-campus visits and can be completed in as little as one year, completely online.
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. A degree in forensic nursing usually involves completing between 30 and 50 credits over a two to three year period:
Featured Online Forensic Nursing Degree Programs
Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania offers an online MSN in forensic nursing for BSN-prepared nurses looking to make a difference in the lives of victims of crime and traumatic events. This program is one of the first of its kind and has been around for more than 15 years. This is a 33-credit program and nurses can earn their MSN in forensic nursing in as little as 2.5 years. This new field prepares nurses as clinical experts who can lead teams to provide optimal nursing care for patients when their health care needs intersect with the legal system.
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).
Cleveland State University hosts an online 38-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 are a number of more traditional, face-to-face program options.
Binghamton University of New York offers a post-baccalaureate certificate in forensic health which can be ideal for entry-level instruction in the basics. Applicants to this program do not need to be students at Binghamton University and will complete a total of nine credits to earn the certificate. Courses include forensic health essentials, medicolegal death investigation, and forensic pediatrics.
The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) offers a series of three Advanced Forensic Nurse (AFN) subspecialty courses. The AFN program is designed to be taken in conjunction with the master of science in nursing program at UAB. Courses include advanced forensic nursing I and II and admission for this subspeciality is available starting fall semester.
Here is a featured on-campus degree program 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.
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 students should look for institutional accreditation as well.
This type involves the university as a whole and is given by regional organizations such as:
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. As of 2021, the Commission for Forensic Nursing Certification (CFNC) currently offers two professional credentials specific to forensic nursing the field of sexual assault. Nurses can earn the credentials: the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner-Adult/Adolescent (SANE-A®) and the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner-Pediatric (SANE-P®). Applicants must be RNs with at least two years relevant experience who have completed SANE training and passed the certification exam.
From 2012 to 2017, the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) provided the advanced forensic nursing board certification (AFN-BC) following the evaluation of a candidate’s clinical portfolio but this certification as since been retired.
Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. Rachel writes about meditation, yoga, coaching, and more on her blog (Instagram: @oregon_yogini).