A look at forensic nursing

Forensic nursing supports abuse survivors, collects evidence, and restores dignity. Progress has been made, but there's more to achieve.

This story was published in the Spring-Summer 2023 issue of The Washington Nurse.

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I think I understood how powerful it was to have the ability to share a space with a survivor after an assault during my first exam. The air tastes different, the flourescent lights are more unforgiving, and the trauma that is shared between the forensic nurse and the patient is that of understanding.

The understanding? The complete and total control by the survivor to set the pace, tone, and outcome of the exam and the involvement by law enforcement.

I have worked with survivors of all ages. I have seen and carried pain, and I have validated the right to exist after all humanity has been stripped.

Virginia Lynch proposed forensic nursing as a specialty in 1986 due to her own interest in where law and medicine intersect. The first graduate studies program for forensic nursing was launched at the University of Texas at Arlington’s School of Nursing. When thinking about forensics, the most common application is the sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) nurse; however, forensic applications span beyond sexual assault and can aid in the advocacy for all victims of abuse and violence.

As a SANE nurse, I have employed science to collect evidence, relied on strong documentation skills, and practiced calm in the face of unrepeatable acts. I have seen some of the worst humanity has to offer and some of the best examples of strength and resolve I have had the privilege of working with. I have cried with survivors, sat in silence, and have been the subject of a snapchat or two for a teenager who needed the distraction to get through the exam.

I have learned more about the neurobiology of trauma and the exact pressure per square inch (PSI) of the human jaw needed to inflict a crush injury.

We assume in error that these crimes are recognized as serious violations of humanity, but marital rape wasn’t illegal in all 50 states until 1993.

My mental Rolodex sometimes keeps me up at night as I think about how I could be more open to experience. I meet people where they live, even if that place is nowhere in particular. There is a need for empathetic forensic nurses who are unafraid to testify to their care, learn documentation to convey the horrors of violence within the justice system, and advocate for those left behind. There is a need to restore humanity, to restore dignity, and to restore trust.

A candidate for forensics should have strong assessment skills, a willingness to learn, and a heart that knows when to shield and when to soften. A nurse who is gentle, yet confident, and enters into a space where most are uncomfortable to sit quietly.

A nurse who knows the importance of caring for their own trauma as they care for others.

With each survivor, I learned something new about the strength of human will. I learned to affirm the right to be safe even for the moment, and most importantly, I learned how far we have come and how far we must go.

Shawn Mork (Reed) is a nurse representative for WSNA who worked as a ER nurse and S.A.N.E. nurse. Her lived experience and passion for writing makes her a great columnist for The Washington Nurse.