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Forensic Nurses Provide Care, Help Solve Crime

Keri Mucci, July 1, 2009

Nurses all too often see the brutal aftermath of gun shootings, sexual assault, child abuse, and other violent acts when caring for patients, but since undergoing unique forensic training some can also see clues that trace back to the victimizers.

William S. Smock, MS, MD, professor of emergency medicine at University Hospital and Louisville Metro Police surgeon in Louisville, KY, created the voluntary program that teaches nurses how to collect forensic evidence in medical situations. The program requires nurses undergo 400 hours of training, including ride-alongs with police officers, visits to crime scenes, forensic photography training, and shifts with the state's medical examiners office. Nurses must also complete examinations and a research project, and attend weekly lectures.

"The goals of the program are to provide the highest level of medical care and also the highest level of forensic care for victims of violent crime," says Smock. "And these two are not mutually exclusive."

Four out of the eight nurses that began training in September 2008 received their official certification last week. In obtaining this new knowledge, nurses can gather crucial evidence when encountering wounded and abused patients that helps the Louisville Police Department (LPD) determine what really happened during incidents. For example, a forensic nurse can look at a wound and identify the weapon that was used, or determine when and where a bullet exited.

"I have always seen the need to have a forensic evaluation performed in the emergency department on victims of violence and crimes," says Smock, who has 25 years of living forensic evaluation experience. "It is the ideal place to provide a high level of care, but make sure evidence is preserved, injuries are recognized, and evidence is documented."

The forensic nurses are involved in a wide range of cases, such as domestic assault, elder abuse and neglect, traffic incidents, and gun shootings. It is because of this that they must complete Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (i.e., SANE) training to be eligible for forensic training. Other qualifications include five years of nursing experience and "a commitment and sincere interest in forensic nursing," according to Smock.

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