This month’s Presidential Spotlight focuses on the Academy’s newest section—the Forensic Nursing Science Section. This article provides an introduction to the section as well as the discipline’s history.
Sources: Virginia A. Lynch, MSN, RN, AAFS Retired Fellow, and Joyce P. Williams, DNP, RN, Section Chair
Genesis of a New Era of Forensic Science
Forensic nursing science is an interdisciplinary science that has fused the art and science of nursing with the 11 distinct disciplines existing within the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS). Forensic nursing science is unique but shares the same philosophy and principles of investigation as a tool to determine the outcome of a search for truth. It is a shared journey from the crime scene to courtroom—from trauma to trial.
Forensic nurses are licensed, registered nurses highly qualified in the academics and experience of the Forensic Nursing Science (FNS) discipline. An advanced curriculum includes scientific techniques, clinical technology, Artificial Intelligence, digital documentation of physical findings, and recovery of highly perishable and fragile biological evidence. This knowledge base includes the physiological, psychological, and behavioral sciences relevant to medicolegal matters. AAFS Distinguished Fellow Virginia A. Lynch designed the singular Master of Science in Nursing in the clinical specialty of forensic nursing (1986, University of Texas, Arlington). This program identified nursing roles practiced in addressing human assault and injury: sexual, emotional, intentional vs. non-intentional trauma, interpersonal violence, child and elder abuse, and associated deaths. Forensic nursing education is now offered at all levels, from certificates to doctoral degrees in 92 United States colleges and universities. Virginia was invited to present her initial concept of a forensic specialist in nursing science to the AAFS in 1991. The concept was formally recognized as a scientific discipline and deemed eligible for Academy membership as an essential discipline that recognizes human violence through a concomitant domain of scientific knowledge, health care, pertinent issues of law, and human rights.
In 1992, the International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN) was founded to provide a forum for nurses who practice a specialty where health care and law intersect. Acceptance by national nursing bodies soon followed. The American Nurses Association’s (ANA) Congress of Nursing Practice accorded forensic nursing formal specialty status in 1995. Concurrently, the ANA recognized forensic nursing as one of the four dominant areas for future nursing advancement.
Forensic nursing care includes traditional psychosocial intervention while simultaneously applying an investigative and interpretative search for the truth. In 2014, the United States Congress and President Obama signed into law a provision recognizing that forensic Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) should work with military physicians to help reduce and prevent sexual assault in the United States Armed Forces. The SANE nurse has become the primary face of forensic nursing roles worldwide. However, forensic nurse examiners within the discipline’s members are active in an extensive range of subspecialties: pediatric and adult forensic health, psychiatric mental health, nursing jurisprudence, death investigation, intimate partner violence, child and elder abuse, human trafficking, refugee health, and other areas where forensic assessments are analyzed, including genocide, torture, and mass disaster response. Forensic nurses are not criminal investigators; rather, they serve as the clinical investigator of trauma and liaise with criminal justice, advocacy, and legal agencies.
Advanced practice requires advanced research. In February 2014, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) established the Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC) for the forensic sciences to facilitate the development of sound technical forensic standards and encourage their adoption across the forensic science community. According to Joyce Williams, Chair of the OSAC Forensic Nursing Subcommittee, these standards define minimum requirements, best practices, standard protocols, and other guidance to help ensure that the results of forensic analyses are reliable and reproducible. OSAC launched a Forensic Nursing Subcommittee in October 2021 to draft standards for the evaluation and intervention of all forensic patients. The initial goal of the subcommittee is to draft standards that pertain to all aspects of sexual assault. The ultimate goal is to improve the quality of care for victims, prevent wrongful convictions, and help ensure that injuries and evidence are properly identified, collected, and preserved.
Forensic nursing goals are universal. As a forensic science specialty within the nursing profession, we embrace a security science safety commitment to join with the United Nations for the 2030 affirmative outcomes to address essential issues where nursing intersects with the law. These goals include the following aspects of the FNS Section:
- Achieve a universal forensic health paradigm through forensic nursing science foci in public health and safety
- Promote forensic nursing science guidelines and principles to medical and nursing students at all levels of health care education within the United States by distributing a model curriculum to all nationally accredited programs by 2024
- Expand relationships of forensic nurses across the globe through increased communication and outreach programs
- Increase global humanitarian and human rights efforts to support vulnerable populations encompassing domestic poverty areas in countries with issues of prevalent crime and the need to ensure human rights where they have been limited by governments and cultural norms; and global war-torn environments through collaboration with the AAFS Humanitarian Human Rights Resource Center (HHRRC) and the International Affairs Committee by sponsoring a coalition of forensic nursing experts who will be dedicated to work with counterparts in countries experiencing widespread violation of human rights as a result of failed governmental oversight or inherent cultural norms
The AAFS FNS Section is recognized for providing critical and defining forensic assistance to global humanitarian and human rights efforts in Africa, India, Japan, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Ireland, Turkey, and throughout the United States among numerous developed and developing countries through its advanced practice in teaching both basic and advanced FNS education, clinical experience, ethics, and scholarship. The Balkan Academy of Forensic Sciences (BAFS) is the most recent example of the inclusion of FNS. Currently, the BAFS is implementing the AAFS’s exemplar of developing a unique section for forensic nurses evolving throughout the 11 countries of the Balkan Region. The AAFS FNS Section goals reflect nursing’s efforts to provide scientific expertise, technical assistance, education, and training throughout the global forensic sciences aligning with the goals of the International Affairs Committee and the HHRRC. Contemporary influences continue to shape the evolution of nursing education, practice, scholarship, and research involving the consequences of human violence and social justice. Collectively, these goals provide assistance in the reduction and prevention of human violence by acting as a substantial resource for this forensic nursing intervention. This section is in the process of developing a list of forensic nurse specialists who have volunteered assistance and expertise, and an online page of centralized academic work, courses, and other resources.
The global evolution of forensic nursing science and its relationship with the various forensic specialties will influence the current and future application of forensic nursing science. We must strive to nurture a clinical partnership between nurses and other forensic partners from all countries with similar interests in eliminating global threats to health and justice
After three decades of AAFS membership, forensic nursing is honored to become the Academy’s 12th scientific section, identified as the Forensic Nursing Science Section in 2022. Contemporary influences continue to shape the evolution of nursing education, practice, scholarship, and research involving the consequences of human violence and social justice. This specialized nursing role has evolved into a fully designated, evidenced-based practice and will continue to advance as a state-of-the-art science for the 21st Century and beyond.