How to Become a Forensic Nurse


    Forensic nurse working in a morgue

    Do you love crime dramas? Would you like to be part of an investigative team which helps victims get justice?  For nurses with an interest in criminal justice and caring for crime victims, forensic nursing provides a challenging and rewarding career option.

    Find Nursing Programs

    Forensic nurses provide compassionate care to victims of violent crime, abuse, or neglect while gathering evidence to support law enforcement. By doing this, they play a vital role in both our healthcare and criminal justice systems.

    Forensic nurses may also help their communities by working side by side with pathologists and coroners to identify accurate causes of death and ensure accurate reporting of vital statistics and epidemiology trends.

    Forensic Nursing FAQs

    •  How Much Does a Forensic Nurse Make a Year?

      • The average salary for Forensic Nurses is $73,985 per year. 
    • What is the Role of a Forensic Nurse?

      • Forensic nurses bridge the gap between law and medicine by working with victims of crimes to gather medical evidence and provide expert testimony that can be used in court. 
    • Where Can a Forensic Nurse Work?

      • Forensic nurses can work in hospitals, anti-violence programs, psychiatric institutions, coroners’ and medical examiners’ offices, communities (after natural disasters), and correctional facilities. 
    • Is Forensic Nursing in Demand?

      • Forensic nursing is a new and emerging field. As long as there is crime, there will be an ongoing need for these types of nurses. It is speculated that forensic nursing will be one of the fastest-growing field in the nursing profession due to their specialty. Popular TV shows like CSI and Bones, are intriguing individuals to specialize in forensic nursing. 

    Part One What Is a Forensic Nurse?

    A forensic nurse is someone who works with crime victims to gather medical evidence and provide expert testimony that can be used in court. Forensic nursing is a unique specialty that blends the worlds of nursing, science, and the legal system. 

    According to the International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN), forensic nurses do far more than address victims’ physical and emotional needs. They also collect evidence, provide medical testimony in court, and consult with legal authorities. Because nurses are skilled in effective communication, assessment, and documentation, they are the perfect professionals to fill forensic roles.
    Forensic nurse roles including providing care, gathering evidence, and testifying

    Real-world forensic nurses work with many types of people in diverse settings. You can find forensic nurses in many different places, such as hospitals, anti-violence programs, psychiatric institutions, coroners’ and medical examiners’ offices, communities (after natural disasters), and correctional facilities.

    In their many roles, they may work with victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, abuse, neglect, as well as psychiatric patients, law enforcement, courts of law and public health organizations. 

    Some of the work responsibilities of forensic nurses are:

    • Providing comfort and psychosocial support to victims of violent crimes and their families/significant others
    • Treating physical injuries
    • Collecting and preserving evidence that’s admissible in court (e.g., victim’s clothing, bullet(s), and other physical samples)
    • Assessment of alleged perpetrators and collecting evidence as indicated

    Forensic nurses bridge the gap between law and medicine.

    Show Me Nursing Programs

    Part Two Forensic Nurse Salary

    According to PayScale, the average salary for Forensic Nurses is $30.61 per hour, or $73,985 annually. While the median annual wage for a registered nurse working in a hospital setting according to the BLS was $77,730 or $37.37 per hour. Forensic nurses earn a slightly lower salary than the average hospital nurse, but forensic nurses usually work in the private sector and pay can be lower.

    Forensic nursing is a relatively new field and because of the diversity of work settings, salaries for forensic nurses can vary greatly. It’s important to research your geographic area carefully to uncover details about job opportunities and potential salary for specific positions.

    Also, it’s important to clarify with any employer what the expectations are for being on-call, and what the compensation for on-call availability will be.

    Registered Nursing salaries vary by location. Here are the 5 highest paying states for registered nurses and their average annual incomes.

    The Highest Paying Cities and States for Forensic Nurses

    Top Paying States for Registered Nurses

    • California: $106,950
    • Hawaii: $98,080 
    • District of Columbia: $92,350 
    • Massachusetts: $92,140 
    • Oregon: $91,080 

    Top paying metropolitan areas for Registered Nurses

    • Salinas, California: $131,710 
    • San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, California: $128,990 
    • San José-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, California: $ 128,610 
    • Santa Cruz-Watsonville, California: $127,440 
    • Sacramento-Roseville-Arden-Arcade, California: $120,530 

    Top paying nonmetropolitan areas for Registered Nurses

    • Eastern Sierra-Mother Lode Region of California nonmetropolitan area: $102,470 
    • North Valley-Northern Mountains Region of California nonmetropolitan area: $96,930 
    • Alaska nonmetropolitan area: $95,780 
    • Hawaii / Kauai nonmetropolitan area: $93,220 
    • North Coast Region of California nonmetropolitan area: $92,320 

    Other Salary Considerations

    When you evaluate a total compensation package, look at the big picture. Does the employer provide continuing education tuition support and paid education days? Is health insurance part of the benefits package, and if so, what is your responsibility for self, spouse/partner, and dependent coverage? How many paid days off can employees earn per year?

    Be sure to research the cost of living expenses in your chosen geographic area, including housing, taxes, transportation costs, and many others. 

    Advanced Practice Salaries For Forensic Nurses

    Advanced practice nurses generally earn higher salaries. Some forensic nurses obtain a master’s or doctoral degree in forensic nursing (see part 4 of this guide). 

    The BLS reports that in May 2018, the median annual income for nurse practitioners was $107,030, with the bottom 10% of NPs earning $78,000 and the top 10% earning $150,320. Advanced practice salaries are affected by the same factors that shape RN salaries nationwide. 

    Part Three How Do I Become a Forensic Nurse?

    Forensic nurses require a mixture of nursing science and legal expertise. Here are the steps for becoming a forensic nurse.

    Step One: Earn your nursing degree

    You must first graduate from one of the following:

    • A two-year program for an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN)
    • A three-year program for a diploma in nursing (usually hospital-based)
    • Four-year college or university program leading to a bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN)

    Step Two: Take the RN licensing exam

    After graduation, you will need to pass the NCLEX (National Council Licensure Examination). The NCLEX is a nationwide examination for the licensing of nurses in the United States and Canada. Once you pass this exam, you may apply for your first nursing job.

    The NCLEX exam is a standardized, computerized exam that all individuals must pass in order to earn their RN license. 

    • Cost: $200
    • After submitting payment, the board will send an Authorization To Test which is valid for 90 days.
    • Time Limit: 6 hours with 2 optional breaks
    • Unofficial results are available online after 2 business days for $7.95
    • 75 to 265 questions (will shut off automatically depending on pass/fail percentage)

    Step Three: Gain relevant experience

    Forensic nursing employers most often will prefer that you have prior clinical nursing experience. A background in medical-surgical, pediatric, or psychiatric nursing (for nurses wishing to pursue forensic psychiatric nursing) is a good start.

    Step Four: Consider a forensic nursing certificate program

    Certificate programs can train you for the unique skills needed for this specialty. They include programs in continuing education or post-graduate departments of nursing schools. Certificate programs vary in length and may include a practicum. Earning this type of certificate is not the same thing as becoming board certified in forensic nursing.

    Board certification isn’t required to work in most forensic nursing roles, however, it does show that you have the expert knowledge to meet the highest standards of practice. It also demonstrates your commitment to the profession.

    IAFN offers two certifications for sexual assault nurse examiners (SANEs): the SANE-A for working with adults and adolescents, and the SANE-P for working with pediatric patients. Before taking the exam, candidates must have at least two years of experience as a registered nurse and meet any other eligibility criteria established by the Forensic Nursing Certification Board.

    Before taking the exam, candidates must have at least two years of experience as a registered nurse and meet any other eligibility criteria established by the Forensic Nursing Certification Board. The IAFN certification web page describes how to obtain SANE certification.

    Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Certification Requirements (Adult and Pediatric):

    • Hold an active, unrestricted license as a registered nurse (RN) in the United States or a US territory
    • Have practiced nursing for a minimum of 2 years as an RN
    • Have successfully completed an adult/adolescent sexual assault nurse examiner education program that grants a minimum of 40 hours of continuing nursing education contact hours from an accredited provider OR
    • Have successfully completed an adult/adolescent sexual assault nurse examiner education program that comprises a minimum of 40 hours of academic coursework or the national equivalent from an accredited educational institution OR
    • Have successfully completed a combined adult/adolescent/pediatric sexual assault nurse examiner education program that grants a minimum of 64 hours of continuing nursing education contact hours from an accredited provider OR
    • Have successfully completed an adult/adolescent/pediatric sexual assault nurse examiner education program that comprises a minimum of 64 hours of academic coursework or the national equivalent from an accredited educational institution
    • Have successfully completed a sexual assault nurse examiner clinical preceptorship as outlined in the most current edition of the IAFN Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Education Guidelines
    • Have practiced as a sexual assault nurse examiner for a minimum of 300 hours within the past 3 years. At least 200 of those 300 hours must comprise SANE-related practice that is focused on the adult patient population
    • Exam is held twice a year: April and September
    • IAFN Member Fee: $275
    • Non-Member Fee: $425

    Earning this type of certificate is not the same thing as becoming board certified in forensic nursing.

    Step Five: Apply for an advanced degree program

    Master’s or doctoral degree programs in forensic nursing are also an option. These degrees prepare you to work in clinical forensic roles, teaching, legal nurse consulting, research, forensic psychiatric nursing (evaluation of alleged perpetrators of violent crime), violence prevention programs, and roles that require collaboration with the criminal justice system.

    Bear in mind that having an advanced degree in forensic nursing is not a guarantee of finding a forensic nursing job that fits. You may need to be creative and advocate for a role that matches your level of expertise.

    Step 6: Determine how to pay for your advanced degree

    Deciding how to finance an advanced degree as an MSN can seem like a daunting task, and that’s ok. Luckily, there are many options to help offset or lessen the burden of the cost, including grants, scholarships, and student loans -- federal and private. If you're already paying off existing student loans, you can also consider refinancing them to a lower interest rate to save money. 

    >> Learn everything you need to know about private student loans

    Part Four What Is the Career Outlook for Forensic Nurses?

    The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that nursing employment will grow at a rate of 12 percent through 2028 – much faster than the average for all jobs. Plus, the aging of baby boomer nurses who are nearing retirement and the growing health demands of boomers are causing a current and predicted future nursing shortage.  

    A 2014 report found that states in the South and the West will have the highest demand for nurses from 2012-2025. As of May 2018, there were 3,059,800 nurses in the United States with a projected need of roughly 371,500 new nurses by 2028. 

    The states with the highest projected demand are Arizona, North Carolina, Colorado, Maryland, Nevada, Washington, Georgia, Oregon, California, New Mexico, Alaska, Rhode Island, Maine, Montana, South Carolina, and Hawaii.

    States that have a high demand for RNs, organized by need

    In addition to the growing need for nurses, violent crime is ever-present in our society. Although crime rates in the U.S. rise and fall, tens of thousands of Americans will suffer from violent crime each year. Some statistics that may affect the demand for forensic nurses in the future:

    • In 2018, an estimated 1,206,836 violent crimes occurred nationwide, a decrease of 3.3 percent from the 2017 estimate
    • When considering 5- and 10-year trends, the 2018 estimated violent crime total was 4.7 percent above the 2014 level but 9.0 percent below the 2009 level.
    • There were an estimated 368.9 violent crimes per 100,000 inhabitants in 20183
    • The estimated number of murders in 2018 was 16,214. There were 5.0 murders per 100,000 people in 2018. 
    • Of the estimated number of murders in the United States, 46.2 percent were reported in the South, 22.0 percent were reported in the Midwest, 19.9 percent were reported in the West, and 11.9 percent were reported in the Northeast. 
    • An estimated 139,380 rapes. 
    • There were an estimated 282,061 robberies nationwide in 2018. The estimated robbery rate of 86.2 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2018 showed a decrease of 12.6 percent when compared with the 2017 rate. 
    • In 2018, the average dollar value of property stolen per reported robbery was $2,119. Robberies accounted for an estimated $598 million in losses. 
    • In 2018, there were an estimated 807,410 aggravated assaults in the nation. 
    • The estimated number of aggravated assaults decreased 0.4 percent when compared with the 2017 estimate and decreased 0.6 percent when compared with the 2009 estimate. 
    • The estimated rate of aggravated assaults in 2018 was 246.8 per 100,000 inhabitants. 
    • FBI UCR data also show that violent crime rates are higher in metropolitan areas and cities in nonmetropolitan areas than in nonmetropolitan counties. 
    • Violent crimes are defined by the (FBI) as murder and non-negligent manslaughter, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault.

    Show Me Nursing Programs

    Part Five Forensic Nursing Schools

    Top Schools for Forensic Nursing

    The IAFN does not endorse a specific program for forensic nursing; there are numerous top school throughout the country including:

    • Xavier University - Cincinnati, OH
    • Duquesne University - Philadelphia, PA
    • Fairleigh Dickinson University - Teaneck, NJ
    • Aspen University - Denver, CO
    • DeSales University - Center Valley, PA
    • Mount Mercy University - Cedar Rapids, IA
    • Monmouth University - West Long Branch, NJ
    • Penn State World Campus - University Park, PA
    • University of California, Riverside - Riverside, CA
    • Fitchburg State - Fitchburg, MA
    • University of Alabama at Birmingham - Birmingham, AL
    • Boston College - Boston, MA
    • Cleveland State University - Cleveland, OH

    Forensic Nursing Masters Programs

    Forensic Nursing Master Programs are between 34 and 40 credits. The curriculum is a mixture of didactic coursework and clinical hours. Courses include: 

    • Evidence-Based Practice
    • Theoretical Foundations for Population Health
    • Introduction to Forensic Nursing
    • Crime/Victimology/Social Justice
    • Sociology of Crime and Delinquency
    • Interpersonal Violence
    • Forensic Methodologies 
    • Population Assessment & Intervention
    • Advanced Assessment, Pathophysiology & Pharmacology 
    • Introduction to Demography & Epidemiology
    • Ethics for Nurses
    • The Legal System
    • Psych Bases of Criminal Behavior
    • Advanced Criminological Theory

    Show Me Nursing Programs

    What You Need to Get Into a Forensic Nursing Masters Program

    Though every MSN Forensic Nursing degree program is different, most have similar entry requirements, which generally include:

    • A minimum of two years of nursing experience in a relevant field
    • Satisfactory completion of an accredited baccalaureate program with at least 3.0 GPA on a 4.0 scale
    • Submission of official transcripts from all postsecondary schools attended
    • Unencumbered, active RN license in state of practice (Some programs will require a RN license in the state of the program)
    • Two or three professional references
    • Completion of undergraduate statistics with a grade of C or better
    • Written statement of professional goals for graduate study and nursing career
    • Professional resume or curriculum vitae
    • Successful completion of a personal interview with the Nursing Admissions Committee
    • GRE if applicable
    • TOEFL test if applicable

    Part Six What Certifications Are Required for Forensic Nurses?

    Board certification isn’t required to work in most forensic nursing roles, however, it does show that you have the expert knowledge to meet the highest standards of practice. It also demonstrates your commitment to the profession.

    IAFN offers two certifications for sexual assault nurse examiners (SANEs): the SANE-A for working with adults and adolescents, and the SANE-P for working with pediatric patients. Before taking the exam, candidates must have at least two years of experience as a registered nurse and meet any other eligibility criteria established by the Forensic Nursing Certification Board.

    Before taking the exam, candidates must have at least two years of experience as a registered nurse and meet any other eligibility criteria established by the Forensic Nursing Certification Board. The IAFN certification web page describes how to obtain SANE certification.

    Certification exams are offered twice a year, in May and October, and can be taken at testing sites across the U.S. and internationally.

    An Advanced Forensic Nursing Certification (AFN-BC) is also available from IAFN, in collaboration with the American Nurses Credentialing Center. This certification requires submitting a portfolio documenting your expertise rather than taking an exam and involves a stringent peer review process.

    Some communities use RNs as coroners or death investigators. Check with your local agencies to see if they currently hire nurses as death investigators, and if so, the type of education and experience you need to qualify.

    Some universities offer courses in forensic nursing, either as electives for undergraduates or as part of a graduate degree in forensic nursing.

    Part Seven What Is it Like to Be a Forensic Nurse?

    Violence is a healthcare problem. Forensic nurses work to end violence, help victims through the experience, and work closely with the criminal justice system to support investigative and legal processes.

    Forensic nurses must be detail-oriented, organized, skilled in collecting and preserving evidence that’s admissible in court, and committed to accurate and careful documentation. Forensic nursing is an emotionally challenging field. Developing good self-care practices is critical to keeping professional and personal balance.

    The IAFN recommends that you read about vicarious trauma so you know how a forensics career can affect your personal and professional life. It also advises watching the following documentary video on forensic nursing:

    Show Me Nursing Programs

    Part Eight What Are the Continuing Education Requirements for Forensic Nurses?

    Clinical practice and continuing education requirements for renewing a nursing license, certification, and advanced practice certification vary by state and credentialing agency. Check with your state board and professional organization for the rules on keeping your RN license and certification up to date. 

    You can also visit our CNE Guide for details.

    Part Nine Where Can I Learn More About Forensic Nursing?

    Learn more about forensic nursing by searching the web and talking with nurses currently working in the field. You may also want to review copies of forensic nursing textbooks in your local public or nursing school library. 

    Helpful websites include:

    International Association of Forensic Nursing

    American Forensic Nursing

    American Institute of Forensic Education

    Academy on Violence and Abuse

    American Academy of Forensic Sciences

    Canadian Forensic Nurses Association

    American Board of Medico-Legal Investigators

    Part Ten Where Can I Find the Best Forensic Nurse Jobs?

    Many sources can get you started on your search for forensic nursing positions. Many online resources are available including hospital websites, nursing social media pages, and dedicated nursing sites such as our job board

    Many forensic jobs, such as those with a coroners’ or medical examiners’ office, are available through county governments. Check your local government employment websites to determine the types of jobs available, and to find out about any openings. 

    Forensic nursing is a fascinating and emotionally challenging career path offering a chance to work with a variety of patients, work settings, and skills. You can play a vital role by providing compassionate care and bringing criminals to justice.

    Find Nursing Programs


    Sources:
    1. National Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016 Occupational Employment Statistics - Registered Nurses. Retrieved from: www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes291141.htm#st
    2. US Department of Health and Human Services, The Future of the Nursing Workforce: National- and State-Level Projections, 2012-2025.  Retrieved from:
    https://bhw.hrsa.gov/sites/default/files/bhw/nchwa/projections/nursingprojections.pdf
    3. Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2015 Crime in the United States. Retrieved from: https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2015/crime-in-the-u.s.-2015/home 
    4. NursingSchoolHub.com, Top 7 Forensic Nursing Programs. Retrieved from: http://www.nursingschoolhub.com/top-7-forensic-nursing-programs/

    *Indicates an affiliate link. At no additional cost to you, Nurse.org will earn a commission if you click through and use this service.

    Nursing Scholarship
    Email Signup

    Nurse.org

    Find a job, learn, connect and laugh.

    Try us out.

    Join our newsletter