Learn to Be a Forensic Nurse in 5 Steps

nurse shows reflective sheet to two doctors
nurse shows reflective sheet to two doctors

Forensic Nursing Career Fast Facts

What you’ll do: Treat victims of violent crimes and sexual assault, collect criminal evidence, advocate for victims in court, and bring awareness to issues relating to healthcare and the justice system.

Where you’ll work: Hospitals, correctional facilities, coroners’ offices.

Degree you’ll need: ADN or BSN

Median annual salary: $75,330


What Is a Forensic Nurse?

Forensic nurses provide care to incarcerated people as well as victims of abuse, trafficking, and violence. They can also serve as a liaison between victims and the legal and justice system. This nursing specialty can be very stressful and intense and requires sensitivity and compassion.

How to Become a Forensic Nurse

nurse looking out window at medical facility

1: Decide if forensic nursing is the right career for you.

Working with victims of assault and trauma requires emotional intelligence and mental well-being. You’ll need to be able to separate your work from your personal life and have other interests to nurture and take care of yourself if you work in this field.

nurse doing research online

2: Determine what education you’ll need.

To become an RN and specialize in forensic nursing, you’ll generally need to earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) from an accredited program. This degree takes four years to complete. You could earn an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) instead, but some employers may prefer a bachelor’s degree. So while an ADN takes only two years to complete, it could actually take you longer to move into forensic nursing with this degree.

nurse working on registered nurse certification

3: Get licensed as a registered nurse (RN).

Pass the national qualifying exam and obtain licensure in your state to apply for your first nursing job. You won’t be able to practice as a nurse without a license, so preparing for this test will serve you well.

sexual assault nurse with patient

4: Take a certificate course to become a sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE).

Taking this 40-hour course is the most common way to move into an entry-level position as a forensic nurse. You’ll take the course after you graduate and have your license.

forensic nurse looking at vial full of blood

5: Consider earning professional certification.

There are two certifications for forensic nurses, one that demonstrates expertise in working with adults and the other for working with children. Professional certification demonstrates expertise in your field and could help you earn more or advance your career.

Depending on which education and certifications you decide to earn, becoming a forensic nurse can take around 3 to 4 years.

What Does a Forensic Nurse Do?

Forensic nurses provide short- and long-term care to patients who have been victims of violent crimes such as:

  • Sexual assault
  • Intimate-partner violence
  • Human trafficking
  • Child and elder abuse
  • Attempted homicide

They also collect evidence to support criminal investigations, testify in trials, and assist coroners and pathologists in determining causes of death.

“​​Forensic nursing is a good path for any nurse interested in improving and supporting the health and well-being of patients affected by violence, their families, and the communities they live in,” says Nicole Stahlmann, MN, RN, SANE-A, AFN-BC, FNE-A, a forensic nursing specialist at the International Association of Forensic Nurses. “Being able to work collaboratively with other disciplines like law enforcement, advocacy, and prosecution while maintaining fundamental adherence to nursing standards is a must.” 

In addition to caring for patients, forensic nurses collect evidence to support criminal investigations, testify in trials, and assist coroners and pathologists in determining causes of death.

Responsibilities of a Forensic Nurse

Like most areas of nursing, forensic nurses can have different daily tasks depending on where they work and what type of forensic work they do. 

The main responsibilities of forensic nurses include:

  • Treating crime-related injuries 
  • Serving as a liaison between victims, perpetrators, and law enforcement 
  • Consulting with and providing support to victims’ families 
  • Collecting and preserving evidence, such as photographing injuries and saving torn clothing, to be used in court 
  • Testifying in court cases 
  • Working with communities to provide anti-violence education and advocacy 

Is Forensic Nursing a Good Fit for You?

Forensic nursing can be difficult but highly rewarding. FNs should be caring and resilient, and interested in the intersection of healthcare and criminal justice. 

  • Empathetic: The ability to provide compassionate care and understanding to victims and their families is crucial. 
  • Team player: Forensic nursing is cross-disciplinary. FNs work with many other medical and non-healthcare professionals, so it’s important to be able to engage with different professionals. 
  • Problem solver: FNs should be motivated to work toward solving not just healthcare issues but societal issues. 
  • Dedicated: A forensic nurse can be the only advocate that a patient has, so their support can be crucial to a patient’s recovery.
  • Honorable: With its strong ties to law enforcement, maintaining integrity is a key part of forensic nursing. 

“If someone is considering a career in forensic nursing, it is worth spending some time reflecting on what is driving them to consider this option, and how they plan to take care of themselves,” says Stahlmann. “Vicarious trauma has a real impact on the field, so knowing how to self-evaluate and plan your own care is an important aspect of the work.” 

Education to Become a Forensic Nurse

To become a forensic nurse, you’ll need to earn an ADN or a BSN. There are pros and cons to each. For example, earning an associate degree will take less time and money. A bachelor’s degree will provide you with a more in-depth education.

“​​Many hospitals may require a BSN, but forensic nurses come from a wide variety of educational backgrounds,” Stahlmann says. “No matter the degree level, obtaining solid clinical assessment skills is a must. The International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN) has members who hold associate, bachelor, master and/or doctorate degrees in nursing.”

In choosing your degree, it might be worth checking what local hospitals look for in a candidate and the requirements in your state. Stahlmann notes that some state nursing boards have specific education requirements for nurses who are sexual assault nurse examiners. 

Associate Degree in Nursing

  • Prerequisites: A high school diploma or GED; successfully completing biology and chemistry courses is highly recommended.
  • Curriculum: Core coursework will include nursing foundations, anatomy, physiology, microbiology, and communications.
  • Clinical requirements: Nursing students complete 700 clinical hours of training to earn their ADN. To gain relevant experience, nurses interested in forensic nursing should aim to spend as many hours as possible working with trafficking or sexual assault victims.
  • Time to complete: 2 years of full-time study 

Bachelor of Science in Nursing

  • Prerequisites: A high school diploma or GED; at least a 3.0 GPA, prior coursework in biology and chemistry, and volunteer experience in the healthcare field are recommended.
  • Curriculum: Expect core coursework in advanced nursing, ethics, sociology, and healthcare policy.
  • Clinical requirements: 860 or more hours of hands-on experience. Aspiring forensic nurses should aim to spend as many hours as possible training in a medical setting where they can learn to treat crime victims.
  • Time to complete: 4 years of full-time study

Online Programs

There are many accredited nursing programs that offer classes online. So long as you are disciplined, motivated, and able to thrive independently, you can do your coursework online and your clinical training in person.

An online program can be ideal if you are a parent or have other full-time responsibilities and need a flexible schedule. 

Licensure

After graduating, you’ll need to be licensed before you can practice. All prospective nurses must take and pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN). The exam is pass/fail and contains both multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank questions.

  • Format: Computerized and tailored to each student by basing questions on a test-taker’s answer to the previous question
  • Knowledge tested: Main topics include:
    • Safe and effective care management
    • Health promotion and maintenance
    • Psychosocial integrity
    • Physiological integrity 
  • Number of questions: 75 to 265
  • Time: Up to 6 hours
  • Test prep resources:  The National  Council of State Boards of Education (NCSBN) administers the test and offers free study resources on its website. You can also find fee-based resources online.

After you receive official notice that you passed the exam, you can apply to be licensed through your state’s nursing board. In addition to your test results, most boards require you to submit proof of your nursing degree, and some perform background checks. You can check the requirements in your state on the website of the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN).

Gain Experience

Many forensic nurses start their careers as a certified SANE. This certificate is not required, but with it, you can gain valuable education and experience before moving on to other forensic nursing roles.

Sexual assault nurse examiners serve as the first point of care for sexual assault victims. They complete forensic exams as well as provide holistic nursing care to patients.

Starting your career as a sexual assault nurse examiner can give you valuable education and experience before moving on to other forensic nursing roles. 

To become a SANE, RNs must earn a certificate by taking a 40-hour class and completing 40 hours of clinical training. The course aims to prepare nurses for the physical and psychological elements that are unique to trauma and assault victims.

Certification

Earning a certification as a forensic nurse is not required, but it can help you advance your career in terms of title and pay. Certification demonstrates professional expertise and knowledge, and it can help you stand out in a field of job candidates.

Here are the two certifications forensic nurses can earn. You can only get certified in these areas after you’ve completed the more general SANE certificate course.

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

  • Who Grants It: The International Association of Forensic Nurses
  • What It Is: A credential that shows expertise in caring for adult patients
  • Who It’s For: Forensic nurses who want to demonstrate the highest level of mastery in treating adult victims of assault
  • Requirements: Prior completion of SANE training and a minimum of 300 hours of SANE-related practice over the last three years
  • Exam and Prep: A four-hour computerized exam with up to 200 questions that cover assessment and documentation, evidence collection, patient management, legal issues, and professional practice, as related to adults. Test prep resources can be found online. 

Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner—Pediatric/Adolescent (SANE-P)

  • Who Grants It: The International Association of Forensic Nurses
  • What It Is: A credential that shows expertise in caring for children and adolescents
  • Who It’s For: Forensic nurses who want to demonstrate the highest level of mastery in treating children and young adolescent victims of assault
  • Requirements: Prior completion of SANE training and a minimum of 300 hours of SANE-related practice over the last three years
  • Exam and Prep: A four-hour computerized exam with up to 200 questions that cover assessment and documentation, evidence collection, patient management, legal issues, and professional practice, as related to children and adolescents. Test prep resources can be found online.

Types of Forensic Nurses

Forensic Gerontology Specialists

What They Do: Investigate cases surrounding elder abuse and exploitation
Where They Work: Nursing homes, hospitals, or retirement homes

Forensic Psychiatric Nurses

What They Do: Treat and manage victims and offenders with serious mental health issues or disorders
Where They Work: Hospitals, correctional facilities, behavioral facilities

Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners

What They Do: Administer care and forensic examinations to victims of sexual assault and related trauma. They also may testify in court on behalf of the victims they’ve treated.
Where They Work: Hospitals and health clinics

Forensic Nurse Investigators

What They Do: Work with law enforcement and death investigators to uncover causes of unexpected or violent deaths
Where They Work: Coroners’ or medical examiners’ offices

Nurse Coroners or Death Investigators

What They Do: Examine dead bodies to determine causes of death and look for related evidence for crime scene investigations
Where They Work: Coroners’ or medical examiners’ offices

Legal Nurse Consultants

What They Do: Assist attorneys with cases that need medical expertise, such as medical malpractice or personal injury lawsuits.
Where They Work: Government offices, insurance companies, legal departments

Correctional Nursing Specialists

What They Do: Provide routine and specialized care to those in jail, prison, and other correctional institutions.
Where They Work: Jails, prisons, correctional facilities

Salary and Career Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), RNs earn a median salary of $75,330. The top 10% earn $116,230 annually and the bottom 10% earn $53,410. 

The BLS doesn’t distinguish among different types of nurses, but specialized nurses with a BSN tend to earn more.

The BLS says that RNs with a specialty and/or a BSN may have a competitive advantage in the job market.

Job Outlook

Job openings for registered nurses will grow 9% from 2020 to 2030, according to the BLS, which is close to the average growth rate for all occupations. 

The BLS also notes that RNs with a specialty and/or a BSN may have a competitive advantage in the job market.

Professional Resources

Networking and continuing education are important to advancing your career. Meeting other healthcare professionals and learning about the latest developments in nursing and forensics can help you discover new and exciting opportunities that you may not have heard about otherwise.  

Stahlmann recommends these resources for forensic nurses:

International Association of Forensic Nurses: A professional networking association that also publishes the Journal of Forensic Nursing, position papers, and toolkits for continuing education. 

The Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner Technical Assistance (SAFEta): This association gives nurses access to the National Protocol for Sexual Assault Medical Forensic Examinations (both adult/adolescent and pediatric), as well as other resources like the National Training Standards for Sexual Assault Medical Forensic Examiners.

IAFN Conference on Forensic Nursing Science and Practice: This annual conference gives nurses access to over 100 continuing education activities. 


mimi polner

Written and reported by:

Mimi Polner

Contributing Writer

nicole stahlmann

With professional insight from:

Nicole Stahlmann, MN, RN, SANE-A, AFN-BC, FNE-A

Forensic Nursing Specialist, International Association of Forensic Nurses