If you’re interested in becoming a forensic nurse, this resource guide will help you understand what forensic nursing entails, what it takes to become a nurse specializing in forensics, where forensic nurses work and how much forensic nurses might earn. For those interested in taking the next step, your path begins with completing a nursing degree from an accredited university.
What Is Forensic Nursing?
Forensics is the marriage of science and law. Any science used for the purpose of law, whether in a criminal or civil case, is forensic science, according to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS). As it applies to nursing, forensic nurses might be registered or advanced practice nurses who care for people who’ve been victims of crimes. They are experts who may be called to testify in legal proceedings, according to the International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN).
AAFS says that forensic science can be used in legal proceedings to:
- Resolve civil disputes
- Enforce criminal laws and government regulations
- Protect public health
Forensic nurses have the opportunity to work in a variety of fields including working with victims of crimes and violence, criminal investigations, corrections and disaster relief. They’re also involved in collecting, preserving, analyzing and presenting evidence.
How to Become a Forensic Nurse
There are many employment opportunities within forensic nursing, but how do you become one?
Step 1: Earn a Nursing Degree
The first step to becoming a forensic nurse is to earn a nursing degree. There are a number of ways to become a nurse. Here are some common paths:
- Licensed practical nurse to registered nurse (LPN to RN)
- Registered nurse to master of science in nursing (RN to MSN)
Step 2: Pass Licensing Exams
The second step is to pass a nurse licensing examination in your state. Nursing license requirements vary by state. You’ll want to find the unique requirements for the state in which you live or want to work.
Step 3: Earn a Forensic Nursing Certificate
Certification isn’t required to work as a forensic nurse, but it can help you enter the field. The IAFN offers two certifications for forensic nursing: sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE-A works with adults and SANE-P works with pediatrics) and advanced forensic nursing (AFN-BC), which can only be renewed.
Step 4: Apply for Jobs as a Forensic Nurse
Obtaining state licensure and a certificate in forensic nursing, may increase your chances of getting hired as a forensic nurse. Again, it is not required that you get a SANE certification to become a forensic nurse but it could help with applications and hiring.
What Do Forensic Nurses Do?
Forensic nurses are known to help people who have been harmed in crimes such as assault, sexual assault, child neglect and abuse, elder neglect and abuse, and homicide. But the forensic nurse role is in fact twofold: they provide care and expert witness.
The Care-giving Role
Forensic nurses work in emergency departments, hospitals, psychiatric institutions, prisons, coroners’ offices and community agencies that focus on crimes and crime prevention. In addition to providing expert medical care to treat injuries, forensic nurses provide comfort, support and counsel to victims.
The Expert Witness Role
While forensic nurses are treating injuries and counseling their patients, they have the sensitive task of collecting and preserving evidence that may be used in court. They may be called to testify and provide factual evidence based on their findings.
Where Do Forensic Nurses Work?
Forensic nurses may work in:
- Jails and prisons
- Hospitals, emergency rooms and emergency departments
- Agencies that help victims of sexual assault and work to prevent sexual assault
- Coroner and medical examiner offices
- Psychiatric and mental health facilities
A forensic nurse’s expertise is also crucial when mass disasters occur or in community crisis situations. While these job settings are different, the core duties of a forensic nurse remain the same.
Forensic Nurse Salary
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t provide salary information for forensic nurses, but it does provide salary information for registered nurses, in which forensic nurses are included. The national median annual wage for registered nurses was $75,330 in May 2020. The lowest 10% earned less than $53,410, and the highest 10% earned more than $116,230.
The BLS also offers median salary information for nurses by work environment:
- Government: $84,490
- Hospitals; state, local, and private: $76,840
- Ambulatory healthcare services: $72,340
- Nursing and residential care facilities: $68,450
- Educational services; state, local, and private: $64,630
Job Growth for Forensic Nurses
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t report job growth projections specific to forensic nurses. However, you may consider job growth for registered nurses (9% job growth between 2020-2030).
It is important to note that forensic nurses can work in other capacities since they are registered nurses. For example, a nurse may work for a women’s health clinic, treating female patients for a variety of health care concerns. Part of his or her job might also include forensics, and working with women who’ve been victims of assault or other crimes.
Forensic Nurse Certifications
If you’re ready to launch your career in forensic nursing, start by exploring nursing degrees that can help you enter this exciting field, then consider certifications.
If you’re interested in forensic nursing, it’s best to start with a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) certification, requiring 40 hours of classroom training, a completion of a SANE clinical preceptorship, two or more years of practice as RN, and 300 hours of SANE practice within the last three years. This training may include a set number of hours observing court cases, riding with local law enforcement, and engaging in direct patient care. Additionally, you may choose to enroll in a master’s or Ph.D. program for forensic nursing.
Last updated October 2021.