President’s Spotlight—General Section

Source: Joanna L. Collins, MFS, General Section Board Representative

During the year, we have been presenting presidential spotlights from the Academy sections to highlight the latest significant research or improvements within its discipline. Examples include cutting-edge technology, standards, or methods that improve the practice. Alternatively, they may show a historical account/timeline of the discipline’s use of innovative technology or research. These are presented to inform all members of how each discipline is responding to the challenges of a modern forensic science world—our theme for the year. This featured submission is from the General Section.

The American Academy of Forensic Sciences: Response to a New Section for a New Scientific Era

The American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) was the first organization to formally recognize the potential of a forensic scientific role for nurses as an essential partner to other forensic specialists.

Forensic nursing science is a body of diverse and collective knowledge drawn from the application of the forensic sciences to the nursing process in the investigation and intervention of trauma, death, and court testimony in public or legal proceedings. Forensic nurses are licensed, registered nurses, and qualified in the academics and experience of the Forensic Nursing Science discipline. An advanced curriculum includes scientific techniques, clinical technology, artificial intelligence, digital photo documentation, and recovery of highly perishable and fragile biological evidence. This knowledge base includes the physiological, psychological, and behavioral sciences relevant to medicolegal matters

Historically, forensic nursing assessments of mentally disordered offenders and the investigation of fatal and non-fatal trauma have been practiced within the framework of the forensic sciences. AAFS Distinguished Fellow Virginia 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 violence: sexual assault, intentional vs. non-intentional trauma, interpersonal violence, child and elder abuse, and associated deaths. Lynch 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 contemporary domain of scientific knowledge, health care, and legal and human rights. Forensic nursing care includes traditional psychosocial intervention while simultaneously applying an investigative, interpretative search for the truth. In 1992, the International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN) was founded to provide a forum for nurses who practice in 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.

A brief history indicates that the advances and contributions of forensic nursing science are a core component in promoting truth and justice. By 2002, the State Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed the expert witness testimony of the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) in criminal and civil litigation, based on the extensive clinical forensic education, experience, and qualifications these nurse specialists possess. Concurrently, the ANA recognized forensic nursing as one of the four dominant areas for future nursing advancement. In 2014, the United States Congress and President Obama signed into law a provision recognizing that the SANEs 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.

In February 2014, the National Institute of Standards and Technology 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. 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 for collecting and managing physical evidence from victims 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 nurses are not criminal investigators; rather, they serve as the clinical investigator of trauma and liaise with criminal justice, advocacy, and legal agencies.

After three decades of membership, forensic nursing is on the cusp of becoming the 12th AAFS section, identified as the Forensic Nursing Science Section.  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 evolve as a state-of-the-art science for the 21st century and beyond.