Forensic nurses: protecting our communities

By Sarah A. Sherman | Apr 14, 2018

If you had asked me three years ago, “What is the role of a forensic nurse in our community?” I probably would have guessed that their work was like something you see on a television crime show. In reality, their purpose is far more important – because they work in hospital emergency rooms with victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, strangulation, child and elder abuse.

Forensic nurses are often the first responders for survivors of sexual assault and/or domestic violence. They provide comprehensive care for victims of violence – collecting evidence if appropriate, documenting what happened to the victim in the written medical record and through photographs, and assessing and treating injuries. By ensuring well-trained health care providers are available to perform the medical forensic assessment, the waiting period to receive care is minimized, trauma from the assault is reduced, the needs of the patient are attended to, and evidence is collected in a cost-effective manner that meets state standards and promotes successful prosecution. As the International Association of Forensic Nurses states, “By hiring and training forensic nurses, communities supply themselves with a vital link to the administration of justice.”

In order to be certified as a forensic examiner, a nurse must meet rigorous education requirements, which can take up to a year. After a 40-hour training, candidates must complete six hours of clinical practice, followed by an additional set of clinical components to master the skills needed to perform the medical forensic examination.

Once certified, these specialized nurses are part of a multi-disciplinary team that shares the common goal of creating a seamless, community-based response to the needs of victim/survivors. Forensic nurses can serve as a link with law enforcement and, with permission, can communicate with the patient’s primary care doctor.

They collaborate with sexual assault and domestic violence advocates, contacting them to assist at the emergency room with support and advocacy for survivors as they go through the medical forensic examination process. Advocates are a source of support and can connect victim/survivors to additional resources outside the hospital. Contact with these advocates early in the process is critical in building trust, and creating that trust can improve short- and long-term outcomes for survivors of violence and abuse. When patients leave the hospital, the forensic nurse may never see them again. However, domestic violence and sexual assault advocates are available to victim/survivors 24 hours per day, seven days per week, for as long as they are needed.

Currently in Midcoast Maine, a team of forensic nurses is on call and rotates between Waldo County General Hospital, Pen Bay Medical Center and the Miles campus of LincolnHealth. There are also excellent forensic nurses available at Midcoast Hospital in Brunswick and elsewhere in the state. Currently, there are more than 100 forensic nurses working in hospital emergency departments in every county in Maine. Once you are connected with the forensic nurse, advocates (locally, from New Hope for Women and/or Sexual Assault Support Services of Midcoast Maine) may also be available for support and information.

The Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner (SAFE) Program was brought to Maine in the late 1990’ by the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault with federal funding. When grant funds ran out, the state of Maine absorbed the program – first in the Office of the Attorney General, and since 2015, in the Office of Child and Family Services, Department of Health and Human Services. For more information about forensic nurses or information about how to become one, contact the SAFE Program at 626-8800.

According to a 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four women and one in seven men have been victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime. If you are a victim of domestic violence in Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Knox, or Waldo County, contact New Hope for Women at 800-522-3304.

A 2015 study by the Muskie School of Public Service found that one in five adult Maine residents reports having been a victim of rape or attempted rape during their lifetime. If you have been the victim of sexual violence at any time in your life and live in the Midcoast, contact Sexual Assault Support Services of Midcoast Maine at 800-871-7741.

Sarah Sherman is a legal advocate for New Hope for Women.

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