Forensic Nursing: Interview with Wendy Taylor, RN, Ph.D., CNS

My Specialty

Forensic Nursing: Interview with Wendy Taylor, RN, Ph.D., CNS

A nursing professor says do not believe what you see on TV

By Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, CPC, NC-BC
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Wendy Taylor, RN, Ph.D., CNS, Director Accelerated BSN Program
Mount St. Mary's College of Nursing, Los Angeles

How long have you been a forensic nurse? 

I’ve been a forensic nurse since 1988, the year I graduated from nursing school. My two passions are forensic nursing and academia and I have moved between those two areas throughout my career.

I started out as a nurse counselor in the family violence program at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. After I completed my MSN, I became the director of the family violence program at Rush and then the director of a sexual assault response team in downtown L.A. I also served as a sexual assault examiner and have had my research published.

I went on to get my Ph.D. in nursing, specializing in issues related to violence against women. I served as an educator at the University of Hawaii and successfully incorporated my knowledge into the courses I taught.

In the late 1990s, I saw an ad in the Journal of Nursing Scholarship and landed a position at the University of Hong Kong. I became involved in the forensics community there, collaborating with family planning groups, forensic pathologists and others. We were working to get legislation passed on marital rape, a law the government opposed.

Where do you work now?

In my current position as director of the Accelerated BSN Program at Mount St. Mary’s College, I am responsible for the day-to-day functions of the program, including hiring faculty, lecturing, student admissions, college and community service and scholarship.

Tell us about forensic nursing.

This is a relatively new specialty, recognized by the ANA in 1995. When I first started doing forensic nursing, the specialty didn't really have a name.

Forensics have to do with the intersection of healthcare and the law. The healthcare system comes directly into contact with the legal system when assessing or treating patients who have experienced a crime. Forensic nurses interact with law enforcement, the prosecutor’s office and the judicial system. Forensics is generally an interdisciplinary approach with nurses, police, physicians, detectives and other entities working together.

There are many misconceptions about forensics, often related to unrealistic portrayals on television and in the movies. We need to view the field of forensic nursing as an umbrella term. Under this umbrella, you will find legal nurse consultants; sexual assault nurse examiners (SANE); and specialists in elder abuse, interpersonal violence and child abuse.

Some forensic nurses serve as death investigators within a police department. There are also forensic nurses who serve as coroners. However, you must be a medical doctor in order to function as a medical examiner.

If any readers would like more information about the origins of forensic nursing, look up Virginia Lynch, who is the mother of the specialty as we know it today.

What drew you to this field?

When I graduated from nursing school with my BSN, I immediately went to work in the ER as a staff nurse. Because I was the new kid on the block, they gave me all the domestic violence cases because no one else wanted to deal with them. I’ve always been a real advocate and supporter for women’s rights.

At the same time, I was a new grad who had just started my MSN program. One of my electives was a class on trauma. We had a lecture on domestic violence and sexual assault that was simply fascinating. My interest was piqued and the juices started flowing.

I had a conversation with the guest lecturer and found they had an opening for a nurse counselor in the family violence program. I left my ER position to join that program as a nurse counselor so that I could learn more about child abuse, elder abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence.

I found the work fascinating and I loved working with that population. It was powerful, exciting, rewarding work. I learned so much from my patients, who were strong, resilient individuals. Forensic nursing became a passion for me and remains so to this day.

What’s most satisfying about this specialty?

Working with the patients is the most satisfying part of forensic nursing, especially since you can make such a difference in a patient’s life very quickly.

When patients enter the ER following a sexual assault or other traumatic event, we are their first contact with the healthcare system. We have the opportunity to work with them in that crisis state and help them move towards a positive, empowered recovery that gives them the chance to regain control of their lives.

It’s advisable for a hospital to have a special program so the members of the ER staff are not taken away from their work and so the specialists are allowed to handle such situations. Assessing and treating a victim of rape or domestic violence requires expertise and special training to prevent healthcare workers from unknowingly doing more harm than good.

If you’re working with a patient who has experienced a sexual assault, the initial interview can take up to two hours even before the physical exam. Both the interview and exam are very invasive, so you don’t want to risk re-traumatizing the patient.

What populations do you work with?

A forensic nurse may work with the elderly, women and men of all ages, children, gay and lesbian individuals, transgender patients and sex workers. All of these populations are vulnerable to assault and violence. People don’t know much about marital rape because it isn't really discussed in our culture, but there can be rape in any form of marital relationship.

I spent one academic year teaching nursing in the Higher Colleges of Technology in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. It was the first BSN program in Abu Dhabi. My students were fascinated to hear about domestic violence, assault and rape because no one there had ever spoken with nursing students about these issues before. On the day I was scheduled to lecture on reproductive health for one hour, the class lasted three hours because the students wouldn’t leave.

What should a nurse do if she or he is interested in forensics?

There are a few colleges that offer courses in forensic nursing as a specialty, including Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts; Johns Hopkins in Baltimore; Duquesne University in Pittsburgh; Mount Royal College in Calgary, Canada; and Beth-El College in Colorado Springs. There are others, which can be found on the International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN) website.

There are also courses offered online as well as MSN tracks in forensics. Nurses may also pursue applicable post-baccalaureate courses, certificates or CEUs in forensics. Nurses specifically interested in sexual assault and rape can take a sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) course, which generally includes 40 hours of didactic learning and a 96-hour clinical component.

The IAFN is a very good resource for those interested in obtaining more information. Informational interviews or shadowing a forensic nurse are also excellent ways to learn more.  

What is your vision for the future of forensic nursing?

I would like to see more forensic education in nursing schools at the entry and graduate levels. Nurses will encounter forensic patients in every specialty area. Whether you’re in the ER, OB or oncology, you’re going to have patients who are victims of trauma. However, it’s quite a challenge to get nursing academia to buy into the importance of forensic education.   

Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, CPC, NC-BC, has worked as a nurse since 1996 and has maintained the popular nursing blog Digital Doorway since 2005. He offers expert professional coaching for nurses and nursing students.


The First Call: Understanding the Work of a SANE

A Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) is specifically trained to work with rape victims. When a SANE call comes in, the nurse strives to be the first point of contact for the victim in order to provide a safe and supportive environment. After gently interviewing the victim about the attack, photos are taken with a digital camera and a culposcope, which is a microscope with a camera attached. The nurse looks for bruising and other signs of violence, and carefully inspects the genital area for semen, hair strands and other DNA evidence, which is packaged into a rape kit for analysis. Photo: Malinda Wheeler, RN, FNP, SANE-A, SANE-P, founder and director of Forensic Nurse Specialists.

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