Rachel Drummond, MEd
In the case of sexual assault, a human being, not a crime scene, is the place of investigation. Forensic nurses provide essential healthcare and legal support for patients in need. When victims of sexual assault violence come forward to report their traumas, forensic nurses are on the front lines providing compassionate medical care. To aid in legal investigations, forensic nurses collect evidence from sexual assault victims, provide them with options, and help them seek justice should they choose to prosecute.
If a victim is unable to remember specific details or speak aloud about what happened, forensic nurses can help victims recall what happened through other methods of communication. In the case of domestic violence, rape, battery, or assault, time-sensitive medical evaluation can save lives, help with healing and recovery, and protect recurrent criminal behavior. Forensic nurses serve as health and legal advocates for victims and perpetrators, providing mental and physical health support to victims of sexual assault and partner violence.
Any registered nurse can pursue specialized training that leads to a rewarding career in forensic nursing. The International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN) provides two certification programs and examinations: Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner – Adult/Adolescent (SANE-A) and Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner – Pediatric/Adolescent (SANE-P). These programs center on the patient experience by providing forensic nurses with knowledge, advocacy, and networking to support vulnerable populations, and sexual assault violence prevention.
Read on to learn about schools with forensic nursing programs (both on-campus and online), including prerequisites for enrollment, program accreditation, and professional licensure for forensic nurses.
There are two common pathways to becoming a forensic nurse: an RN or an APRN with a master’s degree or higher.
The first pathway to forensic nursing is becoming a registered nurse (RN), earning experience, and pursuing a certificate program or certification in forensic nursing.
The second way is to complete a master of science in nursing (MSN) or doctor of nursing practice (DNP) to receive more advanced hands-on training and education, including conducting original research at a graduate level. Certification in forensic nursing is recommended for those with MSN and DNP degrees.
Nursing certification and degree programs 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.
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The International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN) offers two globally-recognized forensic nursing certifications which provide the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) credential. SANE certification is a stand-alone credential for RNs who meet the training and experience qualification.
The IAFN provides 40-hour online and in-person certificate training programs for forensic nurses. The IAFN is accredited by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC).
Certification through the IAFN is an option to pursue on its own or in addition to the degree and certificate programs featured below. Some programs include IAFN-approved SANE courses as part of their curriculum.
The forensic nursing certification section below provides more information about the SANE certification.
Who should enroll in an online certificate program?
Online certificate programs are 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 of clinical work), particularly for the more advanced or specialized certificates.
Applicants to these programs typically need to be RNs, although some programs may allow nurses to work concurrently toward that goal and certification.
Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions provides a unique graduate-level certificate program in forensic trends and issues in contemporary healthcare. This one-year online interdisciplinary program aims to prepare students to conduct targeted and sensitive assessments of victims and offenders of interpersonal violence and other crimes, and provide appropriate clinical and medico-legal responses.
Courses include forensic science foundations, victimology, forensic mental health, and interdisciplinary perspectives of health law. Applicants to this nine-credit program must have a bachelor’s degree in a health-related field and be current RNs.
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 comprises courses in criminal law, forensic science, and the legal system.
It also includes a capstone project for students to conduct their original research to contribute to the advancement of the discipline. Graduates from this program are prepared to sit for the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) certification exams. This program does not require any on-campus visits and can be completed completely online.
Penn State University offers an online, 12-credit forensic nursing certificate designed to teach students how to document, collect, and analyze evidence from delicate crimes, paying attention to the legal and ethical considerations of the field.
This undergraduate certificate can prepare people for various careers, including medical examination, nursing in a correctional institution, and becoming a legal nurse consultant. Students in the RN-to-BSN program can apply credits earned in forensic nursing courses to their degree program or pursue this as a separate certificate.
The University of California at Riverside (UCR) Extension hosts an online professional certificate program in forensic nursing. With 16 units of required coursework in areas such as forensic approaches to blunt force and firearm injuries, courtroom testimony by a healthcare 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 units, which are required to maintain licensure.
In addition to the online certificate options, there is a wealth of online forensic nursing degree programs. Most online graduate forensic nursing programs are designed for RNs wanting to advance their careers while working full-time jobs.
Who should enroll in an online degree program in forensic nursing?
Online nursing programs at the graduate level typically require students to have at least a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) or a related field to be eligible for admission. Other prerequisites include:
An online master’s degree in forensic nursing usually involves completing between 30 and 50 credits over two to three years.
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 can 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.
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. A prep course for the SANE-A certification exam is included in the curriculum.
Fitchburg State University in 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.
Graduates from this program are educated in trauma-focused nursing as it applies to health and legal settings. Core courses include nursing theory, introduction to forensic nursing, caring for victims and perpetrators, and a practicum in forensic nursing.
In addition to the online program options above, there are on-campus certificate and degree programs in forensic nursing to consider.
Binghamton University of New York offers a post-baccalaureate certificate in forensic health, ideal for entry-level instruction. Applicants to this nine-credit program do not need to be students at Binghamton University. Courses include forensic health essentials, medicolegal death investigation, and forensic pediatrics.
Penn State University offers a 12-credit undergraduate certificate in nursing forensics. This program prepares students to collect and preserve evidence, recognize signs of domestic violence, and how to navigate regulatory requirements while advocating for patients.
Coursework covers how to interact with victims and perpetrators of physical, psychological, and social violence. This program is open to registered nurses and includes courses such as an introduction to forensic nursing and a seminar in forensic nursing.
The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) offers a series of three Advanced Forensic Nurse (AFN) subspecialty courses. The AFN program is designed in conjunction with the master of science in nursing program at UAB or as a post-MSN degree option for nurse practitioners with MSN degrees. Courses include advanced forensic nursing I and II.
Admission for this subspeciality is available starting fall semester. New cohorts begin every fall semester, and courses include advanced forensic nursing I and II. Graduates from this program are eligible to sit for certification exams.
The University of Tennessee Health Science Center offers an advanced practice forensic nursing (APRN) certificate to nurses with MSN and DNP degrees. Admission to this 9-credit program is competitive, requiring a minimum GPA of 3.2 in the previous degree program, three recommendation forms, and an interview.
Applicants to this program must be residents of one of the 21 counties in West Tennessee, have received all required immunizations before matriculating, pass a criminal background and drug screening test, show evidence of current cardiopulmonary and advanced life support certification. Graduates are prepared for SANE certification exams upon completion of this program. A community-based SANE certification program is also available.
Oakland University in Michigan offers an MSN program in forensic nursing. Students in this program learn how to work as members of forensic teams and provide care to patients and communities suffering from trauma and violence. This 39-credit program is the only forensic nursing degree program offered in Michigan, and students can complete some courses online.
Students in this program gain clinical experience in local healthcare agencies, including domestic violence shelters, medical examiner offices, legal settings, and elder care services. Oakland University also offers an on-campus 18-credit graduate certificate in forensic nursing that can be completed in 16 months.
Xavier University of Cincinnati provides a traditional master of science in nursing (MSN) degree with a forensic nursing track 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.
When evaluating forensic nursing programs, it’s essential to verify the accreditation status of the program before enrolling. Accreditation agencies consider factors such as program outcomes, quality of curricula, institutional finances, student-to-instructor ratios, and the condition of physical facilities to gauge the program’s overall effectiveness.
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 also look for institutional accreditation.
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 a professional certification that can enhance one’s employment prospects.
The International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN) offers two professional credentials specific to forensic nursing the field of sexual assault:
To qualify to take the SANE exam, applicants must meet the following requirements:
The SANE certification exams are offered twice per year in April and September. Certification is valid for three years, and exam fees range from $275 to $475 depending on IAFN membership status and country of residence.
From 2012 to 2017, the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) provided the advanced forensic nursing board certification (AFN-BC) following a candidate’s clinical portfolio evaluation, but this certification has since been retired.
Rachel Drummond, MEd
Rachel Drummond has given her writing expertise to ForensicsColleges.com since 2019, where she provides a unique perspective on the intersection of education, mindfulness, and the forensic sciences. Her work encourages those in the field to consider the role of mental and physical well-being in their professional success.
Rachel is a writer, educator, and coach from Oregon. She has a master’s degree in education (MEd) and has over 15 years of experience teaching English, public speaking, and mindfulness to international audiences in the United States, Japan, and Spain. She writes about the mind-body benefits of contemplative movement practices like yoga on her blog, inviting people to prioritize their unique version of well-being and empowering everyone to live healthier and more balanced lives.