Learn to Be a Forensic Nurse in 5 Steps

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

Forensic Nurse at a glance

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

What you’ll do: Treat incarcerated individuals as well as victims of violence and sexual assault, collect evidence, assist with autopsies, and possibly testify in court.

Minimum degree required: ADN or BSN, but some employers prefer that nurses have a BSN.

Who it’s a good fit for: Working as a forensic nurse can be very emotionally intense, because you are serving victims and/or criminals of violent crime. Aspiring forensic nurses should be highly empathetic and understand the emotional burden of what they do. They also must be honest and thorough, since they often work alongside law enforcement.

Job perks: You may be involved in criminal investigations and get to do your part in bringing criminals to justice.

Opportunities if you pursue a higher degree or certification: The International Association of Forensic Nurses offers two types of certifications for forensic nurses: Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner–Adult/Adolescent (SANE-A) and Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner–Pediatric/Adolescent (SANE-P). These certifications demonstrate your mastery in treating victims of sexual assault which could lead to more promotional opportunities and higher pay.

Median annual salary: $77,600

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

Decide if forensic nursing is the right career for you.

nurse looking out window at medical facility

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.

Determine what education you’ll need.

nurse doing research online

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.

Get licensed as a registered nurse (RN).

nurse working on registered nurse certification

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.

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

sexual assault nurse with patient

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.

Consider earning professional certification.

forensic nurse looking at vial full of blood

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.

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 effectively with different professionals. 
  • Problem solver: FNs should be motivated to work toward solving not just healthcare issues but also 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. On the other hand, 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 out 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, but note that you’ll need to do your clinical training in person at a healthcare facility.

So long as you are disciplined, motivated, and able to thrive independently, 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:
    • 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 Nursing (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 NCSBN website.

Gain Experience

Many forensic nurses start their careers as certified sexual assault nurse examiners (SANEs). This step isn’t required, but it can give you 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 to determine the causes of unexpected or violent deaths
Where They Work: Coroners’ or medical examiners’ offices

Nurse Coroners or Death Investigators

What They Do: Examine 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 $77,600.

Registered Nurses

National data

Median Salary: $77,600

Projected job growth: 6.2%

10th Percentile: $59,450

25th Percentile: $61,790

75th Percentile: $97,580

90th Percentile: $120,250

Projected job growth: 6.2%

State data

State Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
Alaska $99,110 $77,450 $127,020
Alabama $60,510 $47,390 $78,670
Arkansas $61,530 $47,510 $79,440
Arizona $78,260 $60,750 $100,200
California $125,340 $78,070 $165,620
Colorado $78,070 $60,550 $100,870
Connecticut $83,860 $61,470 $110,580
District of Columbia $95,220 $62,700 $129,670
Delaware $75,380 $59,900 $99,780
Florida $75,000 $49,680 $95,630
Georgia $75,040 $58,400 $98,410
Hawaii $111,070 $75,380 $129,670
Iowa $61,790 $48,290 $79,260
Idaho $75,560 $59,640 $98,030
Illinois $77,580 $59,640 $100,650
Indiana $62,400 $48,400 $90,260
Kansas $61,790 $47,630 $79,360
Kentucky $62,480 $48,000 $82,410
Louisiana $64,450 $48,920 $94,360
Massachusetts $94,960 $61,180 $151,310
Maryland $78,350 $60,420 $101,650
Maine $75,040 $59,640 $98,780
Michigan $76,710 $60,120 $98,510
Minnesota $79,100 $60,850 $101,610
Missouri $61,920 $47,350 $94,690
Mississippi $60,790 $47,210 $78,670
Montana $75,000 $60,320 $97,260
North Carolina $72,220 $51,420 $95,360
North Dakota $73,250 $59,810 $95,360
Nebraska $64,000 $55,040 $84,910
New Hampshire $77,230 $59,900 $99,580
New Jersey $94,690 $70,920 $117,990
New Mexico $78,340 $60,320 $98,660
Nevada $79,360 $61,790 $119,530
New York $96,170 $61,260 $127,080
Ohio $74,080 $59,540 $94,690
Oklahoma $62,170 $47,960 $79,940
Oregon $99,410 $76,180 $127,680
Pennsylvania $76,940 $59,640 $98,680
Rhode Island $78,900 $61,340 $101,650
South Carolina $72,650 $47,860 $86,820
South Dakota $60,550 $47,470 $77,360
Tennessee $62,390 $48,190 $81,950
Texas $77,320 $59,780 $99,070
Utah $75,000 $59,640 $95,160
Virginia $76,900 $59,170 $100,990
Vermont $75,380 $59,640 $98,030
Washington $96,980 $74,070 $127,320
Wisconsin $76,560 $60,060 $98,970
West Virginia $62,390 $47,450 $87,440
Wyoming $75,000 $59,650 $98,140

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2021 median salary; projected job growth through 2031. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.

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 6 percent through 2031, 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