Forensic nursing and law: how the different disciplines interact


Forensic nursing and law: how the different disciplines interact 1

Forensic nursing is the application of healthcare practice to the science of investigation into violence-related trauma and death resulting from criminal activity, abuse, and accidents. The foundations of forensic nursing practice include the identification of crime victims, recovering and documenting evidence, and reporting this evidence, abuse, and suspicious behavior to the relevant legal agencies.

The 1980s saw the beginning of a movement inspired by Virginia Lynch, who advocated for a specialty in nursing that would cater to the evaluation and treatment of a victim of violence, combined with the preservation of evidence required to build a legal case. Before this, important forensic evidence was lost in the process of initial patient care by healthcare workers.

The urgency of the treatment — such as the swift application of anti-bacterial substances and the closing up of wounds before taking photographs — destroyed evidence of the crime. Without training, emergency healthcare personnel did not know what to look for or how to document the evidence. Law enforcement officers generally depended on the medical staff to report such evidence.

Forensic nurses (FNs) have become a valuable link in the relationship between medical practice and the justice system. Forensic nurses (FNs) have become a useful link in the relationship between medical practice and the justice system. The addition of law to nursing practice was not intended to turn nurses into investigators but to combine proper medical care with forensic tasks when working with victims. The resulting forensic evidence is handed over to the criminal justice system for further investigation.

A forensic nurse will receive a subpoena to testify in a court of law. The nurse may testify as a factual witness who will describe the procedure taken during the examination of the victim, as well as observations made during and after the test. Alternatively, they may appear as expert witnesses, testifying based on their educated opinion. FNs must always remain unbiased and not allow their compassion for the patient to interfere in their role as impartial witnesses.

A qualified nurse fascinated by the science of forensics, with compassion for people in traumatic circumstances and a calm nature, is an ideal candidate for the forensic nursing online programs at Cleveland State University. This program will combine your nursing skills with forensic science and expand your role to promote recovery, health, and justice.

Training and Duties of Forensic Nurses

The International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN), founded in 1992, has become the primary professional association for forensic nursing standards and training, striving to increase the number of FNs in practice worldwide.

FNs can specialize in a particular field of work, such as sexual assault cases in adults or children, child abuse, death investigations, or abuse of older adults. They can work in psychiatric hospitals or correctional facilities, hospitals, coroners’ offices, and medical examiners’ offices. They can also be called upon to assist in disasters or crises.

Various kits and guidelines are available for investigations, such as sexual abuse and non-fatal strangulation. In addition, the United States Department of Justice sets national training standards, specifically for sexual assault cases. Individual states, too, have developed guidelines and standards for forensic practice.

Traumatic injury is not always obvious to the untrained eye. Still, forensic nurses learn to identify signs such as subcutaneous bleeding, bladder or bowel control loss, voice changes, and other nervous reactions.

Documentation of evidence is aided using cameras, voice recorders, swabs, rape kits, and high-powered lights that detect fluids such as saliva and semen or minor bruises that are not visible to the naked eye. In cases where witnesses are unavailable, FNs can assist in providing insight into the cause of injuries.

Trauma patients have a higher incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, suicidal tendencies, and other stress-related medical complications, which means that — in addition to the documentation of evidence — forensic nurses are required to treat trauma victims with sensitivity and compassion.

Forensic nurses help patients understand their legal rights when undergoing medical examinations and pursuing legal action. Before treating a patient, FNs must obtain consent from the patient or a family member.

FNs are trained to appear as expert witnesses in a court of law, working with attorneys on civil and criminal defense matters. Their training includes the fundamentals of testimony, trial preparation, and handling direct and cross-examination and redirection by the prosecutor.

The forensic nurse as part of a multidisciplinary team

Because forensic nursing is a fairly modern science, the ethics and boundaries surrounding FNs’ interactions with professionals in other disciplines — such as law enforcement officers, lawyers, and judges — are still relatively new. There is a need for a collaborative relationship and mutual respect between forensic nurses and law enforcement officials when interacting in the emergency department and the courts. Patient care is a priority in nursing and should remain the focus of the FN, regardless of whether the patient is a victim, an accused, or an offender.

As part of a multidisciplinary team of healthcare workers, forensic scientists, and law enforcement agencies, the FN is involved in establishing a holistic approach to evaluating and treating violence-related trauma.

Protocols for patient handling

Protocols exist to facilitate victim-centered care by prioritizing patient privacy and safety during examinations, the presence of support personnel, explanations of the patient’s legal rights and confidentiality, and their access to physical comfort.

Forensic nursing and social justice

Social justice is respecting people’s rights, regardless of race, economic status, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability, health status, or spirituality. Forensic nurses are encouraged by the IAFN to advocate for human rights and equity within communities. They are also encouraged to screen patients for potential home abuse, such as corporal punishment, which leads to child abuse.

An honorable profession

The forensic nurse witnesses all the horrors that humanity is capable of. Still, the ability to help and care for people with a dire need for comfort and reassurance is certainly rewarding. The ability to keep a cool head while testifying in court and the satisfaction of seeing perpetrators placed behind bars certainly add to the job satisfaction.