Penn State Researcher and Forensic Nurse Works to Support Sexual Assault Victims

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Forensic nursing has emerged as a discipline to help curb the harmful effects that sexual assault victims face.

According to the International Association of Forensic Nurses, “forensic nursing is the practice of nursing globally when health and legal systems interact.” Usually, it involves a nurse with highly specialized training in areas like forensic evidence and collection, and knowledge of the legal systems and how to interact with the evidence found in the hospital with a sexual assault case in the courtroom.

The forensic nursing field is expected to have a 26 percent growth rate in the next decade, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Jocelyn Anderson, a forensic nurse and researcher at Penn State, found her calling in the forensic nursing field after experiencing a final nursing practicum in a South African intensive care unit.

“There were two kinds of violence that we saw primarily there every day,” said Anderson. “Physical, gun violence and sexual-assault violence.”

She explained that often the victims of sexual assault would come to the intensive care unit after attempting suicide following the attack.

“I come from the middle-of-nowhere-Minnesota, a rural community where I had not been exposed to that in my training,” Anderson said.

Although she was familiar with forensic nursing, her actual realization of the opportunities the field had to offer merged during her weeks in South Africa and led to her enrolling in a forensic nursing graduate program to help victims recover from sexual assault trauma.

For aspiring nurses like Anderson, after earning a nursing degree and passing the RN licensing exam, there are several forensic nursing certificate programs as well as graduate programs available to get started in the field. After completing these programs, they begin to serve as the first line of treatment to victims.

Individuals with training in forensic nursing can become sexual-assault nurse examiners (SANEs), nurses specializing in domestic violence, child abuse nurses, death investigators, legal nurse consultants, and more.

Following her graduate program, Anderson worked at the Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center as a forensic nurse.

“As the forensic nurse responding in these hospitals, we were responsible for providing both forensic and medical care to those patients after a sexual assault,” she explained. “The physical impacts as well as the mental ones on these patients were the two main aspects we focused on right when they entered through the door.”

Anderson also helped patients who wanted to seek criminal justice for the crimes committed against them. She provided patients with interventions, such as evidence collection and photo documentation, and collaborated with law enforcement officials and attorneys to facilitate prosecuting these sensitive cases.

After treating their physical injuries and providing immediate comfort, it is important to collect and preserve evidence that’s admissible in court, explained Anderson. This could include items, like clothing or evidence of weapon usage, as well as any bodily injuries. Following evidence collection, the forensic nurse can be available as an expert witness in the trial or to help the patient with the next steps in the legal process.

“My role as a [forensic] nurse is to help them in that first step of moving through that trauma and being there to help address whatever steps they are ready to take to move through; that is a very powerful and rewarding place to be,” said Anderson.

Anderson stressed that the field of forensic and sexual assault nurses is relatively new but will help provide better care for these victims dealing with sexual assault trauma.

Research examining these programs, she said, has shown that patients who received care from a specifically trained forensic or sexual assault nurse after an assault were more likely to be given the appropriate care and medication and more likely to have a sexual assault kit collected correctly. Therefore, they are also more likely to have their criminal case moved forward and the traumatic experience will be lessened if more nurses were being forensically trained to help these individuals.

“This specified training and knowledge is not something that every ER nurse or every trained physician can or should be doing,” she said.

Organizations such as the International Association of Forensic Nurses help train and certify more nurses globally to be able to equip the skills needed to effectively take care of sexual assault victims.

Measures are being taken to widen the field, explained Anderson. A proposed bill would require all U.S. hospitals by 2022 to have sexual assault victims be treated by these specifically trained nurses, within 90 minutes of them entering the hospital. At Penn State, the Sexual Assault Forensic Examination-Telehealth Center (SAFE-T Center) is developing and testing unique training and mentoring models for providing access to SANE certified nurses to rural hospitals using telehealth.

This April marks the 18th anniversary of National Sexual Assault Awareness Month, begun by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center to raise awareness and prevention of sexual assault, harassment and abuse. In accordance with the month, Anderson stressed the importance of recognizing the problem and being able to provide the help and training needed for trained officials to help victims.