Advanced Practice Nursing

How to Become a Forensic Nurse (Where Medicine and Criminal Justice Meet)

How to Become a Forensic Nurse (Where Medicine and Criminal Justice Meet)
Some forensic nurses are crime scene investigators; they collect evidence to be used in criminal trials and may also be called upon to provide expert medical testimony in court. Image from Unsplash
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Christa Terry October 10, 2019

Healthcare and criminal justice are very different fields that sometimes intersect. Forensic nurses bridge the gap between law and medicine, working as both investigators and healthcare providers in settings as diverse as correctional facilities and nursing homes.

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Forensic nurses (sometimes called forensic nurse investigators) are specialists in the medical elements of forensic investigations. They:

  • Identify victims of abuse or neglect
  • Collect medical evidence from crime scenes
  • Process rape kits
  • Testify in court as expert medical witnesses
  • Participate in death investigations

Some forensic nurses specialize in sexual assault examinations, others in legal consulting. Others still become nurse coroners for cities and counties.

For those fascinated by both medicine and criminal justice, forensic nursing is a natural fit. When you become a forensic nurse, your day won’t always feel like an episode of CSI (nor would you want it to), but you can count on your work to be engaging and varied most of the time. Whether you work for a law enforcement agency, public health agency, or a hospital, every day will be a new opportunity to help victims get the support they need and the justice they deserve.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • What do forensic nurses do?
  • Best educational programs for becoming a forensic nurse
  • Certifications for forensic nurses
  • Is becoming a forensic nurse the right career for you?

What do forensic nurses do?

Forensic nurses serve in a variety of roles. Some forensic nurses are crime scene investigators; they collect evidence to be used in criminal trials and may also be called upon to provide expert medical testimony in court. Other forensic nurses work primarily with victims of abuse, neglect, or sexual assault.

In all roles, forensic nurses look at medical evidence—directly or in case files—to draw conclusions about what happened in the event of a death, injury, or criminal accusation.

Forensic nursing subspecialties include:

Forensic clinical nurse specialists

These nurses have earned a master’s degree in nursing with a forensics concentration, qualifying them to work in a variety of settings to provide direct care, conduct research, and perform administrative duties. Forensic clinical nurse specialists work in:

  • Sexual assault examination programs
  • Emergency rooms
  • Psychiatric treatment facilities
  • Death investigation teams

Forensic gerontology specialists

These forensic nurses specialize in elder abuse. They work in nursing homes, hospitals, and other facilities that provide eldercare. They investigate cases that involve:

  • Physical abuse
  • Neglect
  • Exploitation
  • Unexpected deaths

Legal nurse consultants

Not all forensic nurses investigate crimes or work with victims directly. Legal nurse consultants are employed by attorneys specializing in:

  • Personal injury
  • Workers’ compensation
  • Medical malpractice
  • Probate law

These nurses research, analyze, and interpret medical evidence to help lawyers determine whether claims are valid.

Forensic nurse investigators

These specialists are typically employed by medical examiner’s or coroner’s offices. They look for causes of unexpected or violent death by:

  • Examining bodies
  • Performing autopsies
  • Researching medical histories
  • Collecting evidence at crime scenes

Forensic psychiatric nurses

These nurses work with criminal defendants and inmates in correctional facilities who have been diagnosed with psychological and behavioral disorders. They may evaluate alleged perpetrators of violent crimes and work with both perpetrators and victims who have experienced emotional and physical trauma.

Nurse coroners

Some forensic nurses work as death investigators. They:

  • Visit the scenes of suspicious deaths
  • Examine the scene and the body
  • Determine an approximate time of death
  • Look for clues into how or why death occurred
  • Assist in autopsies

Sexual assault nurse examiners

These forensic nurse examiners are specially certified to care for victims of sexual assault with gentleness and compassion. They evaluate and treat injuries while collecting and packaging forensic evidence related to an assault. They may also represent the victim in court. This job is often the entry point to forensic nursing.

Forensic nurses earn about $75,000 per year, though pay rates can vary considerably by state and specialization . According to, forensic nurses earn the most in New York and Massachusetts and the least in North Carolina and Florida.

Best educational programs for becoming a forensic nurse

The best educational program for your forensic nursing career depends on how ambitious you are. You can pursue a master’s degree in forensic nursing that will open a wide range of opportunities in the field. However, it’s also possible to become a forensic nurse without even earning a bachelor’s degree in nursing. You just need to be a registered nurse (RN) to get started (although your options will be limited).

State requirements for licensing vary by state but often include experience as a registered nurse and passing a certification test (depending on your chosen specialty).

However, if your goal is to become a forensic nurse investigator or to work in another subspecialty that’s closely tied to the criminal justice system, you will need to earn your master’s degree.

To earn the credentials to become a forensic nurse, your options include LPN to registered nurse programs, which allow LPNs to enter nursing associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree programs at the second-year level> This makes it possible to earn an ADN in just a year or a BSN in three years or less.

There are no forensic nursing BSN degrees, though there are certificate programs in forensic nursing open to BSN (and MSN) holders who also have a nursing license. These continuing education programs typically focus on:

  • Trauma identification
  • Legal concepts
  • Best practices for dealing with victims
  • Collaborative strategies for working with law enforcement, attorneys, and social services organizations

Forensic nursing certificate programs typically include courses such as:

  • Foundations of Forensic Nursing
  • Crime Scene Investigation Practices
  • Forensic Methodologies
  • Death Investigation
  • Evidence Collection and Preservation
  • Pathophysiology
  • Nursing Leadership and Administration
  • Gerontology
  • Domestic Violence
  • Courtroom Presentation Practices

Universities offering forensic nursing certificate programs include:

Any of these may be enough to help you land your first forensic nursing job. You’ll qualify for more, and higher paying, positions with a MSN in forensic nursing. This will allow you to become a nurse practitioner. A number of universities offer Master of Science in Nursing degrees with forensics concentrations, including:

Certifications for forensic nurses

The Commission for Forensic Nursing Certification (CFNC) currently offers two professional credentials for forensic nurses:

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

In the past, the CFNC partnered with the American Nurses Credentialing Center to offer the Advanced Forensic Nursing Certification, but this peer review and portfolio credentialing program was phased out in 2017 due to low applicant volumes. Only nurses who currently hold the credential can apply to renew.

Is becoming a forensic nurse the right career for you?

Forensic nursing exists because violence is primarily a healthcare problem. While some forensic nurses work mainly with legal cases involving workplace injuries or negligence related to consumer products, most deal with:

  • Abuse
  • Caregiver neglect
  • Sex crimes
  • Murder

That’s a lot to take on, and not everyone is up to the challenge. You may be organized, detail-oriented, caring, and a great nurse, but it takes more than that to work in forensics. You need:

  • The keen mind of a detective
  • The patience to collect and preserve evidence using court-mandated procedures
  • The ability to compartmentalize when you’re dealing with extreme trauma

Before you decide this is the specialty for you, consider the pros and cons of becoming a forensic nurse.

Pros of becoming a forensic nurse

  • You’ll receive specialized training in forensics, and your work will be very different from that of clinical nurses.
  • You’ll get to work closely with highly skilled professionals in law enforcement.
  • Many forensic nursing jobs have fixed schedules, although, at times, you will be on call.

Cons of becoming a forensic nurse

  • You need to be especially meticulous because your errors could undermine a criminal investigation.
  • You will see the dark side of humanity regularly in this job. Trauma and violence will become part of your daily experience.
  • Exposure to so much misery is stressful, so it is vital to learn to compartmentalize in this job. If you can’t do it, this is not the career for you.

Forensic nursing combines two fascinating fields—medicine and criminal justice—in one profession. If that’s where your interests lie, and if you can manage regular exposure to human cruelty and suffering, forensic nursing could be the career for you.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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Categorized as: Advanced Practice NursingNursing & Healthcare