Collecting the evidence

Published 11:47 pm Saturday, November 13, 2010

Forensic nurses gather details that help solve crimes

When many people hear the term “forensic nursing,” they might think about what they seen on popular television shows like “CSI,” “Forensic Files” and “Bones.”

But a forensic nurse isn’t a detective out on the scene of the crime.

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Their crime scene is much more sacred.

A forensic nurse is a part of a multi-disciplinary team of individuals from various agencies that helps their patients find justice after a crime – be it sexual assault, interpersonal violence, neglect or other forms of intentional injury.

“We’re part of a team that responds to sexual assault,” said Angie Laing, a “SANE” nurse and coordinator of the forensic nursing program at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital. SANE stands for Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner.

“We’re one piece of the puzzle, but we provide medical care and testing for the patient when they come in. Thirty to 40 percent of women who are raped decide to go through with prosecution, and we want to be there for the women who do and ensure they get justice.”

Nov. 8-12 is Forensic Nurses Week to recognize the work they do to secure justice for their patients and to help bring awareness to their growing presence in the medical community.

Forensic nurses go through specialized training in forensic evidence collection, criminal procedures, legal testimony expertise and more. The nurse becomes a liaison between the medical profession and the criminal justice system.

“The details of the job are collecting evidence from the patient, doing an interview, getting the history and putting together a [kit] to hand over to law enforcement,” Laing said. “It can take four to five hours because it’s completely patient driven. When they come in we do the interview first. Then they’ll go through an interview with detectives. And if they don’t want to prosecute right then, we can still collect the kit so it can be stored in the event they change their mind.”

Forensic nurses also work with law enforcement and the commonwealth’s attorney’s office, and often are called as expert witnesses in court.

“The purpose of the team is to have specially trained individuals there to work through a patient every step of the way,” Laing said. “We’re there from the beginning through the prosecution and aware of each other’s roles so we know how to best prepare a patient, take care of their needs and prepare them for the process. You want to have a successful trial for your patient to receive justice. That’s the focus.”

In addition to being a registered nurse, a forensic nurse undergoes a year and a half of training to receive their certificate. The year includes 40 hours of training; 60-100 hours of clinical training; and visits to sexual assault detectives, defense attorneys and prosecutors to understand their roles.

Another important focus of a forensic nurse’s job includes educating the community about what rape and sexual abuse are and what help is available to them.

“There are a lot of women who are worried that the police won’t believe their story,” Laing said. “There’s situations that are gang related, they’re intimate partner violence victims or they were out drinking and are afraid to come out and say it. They think it’s normal and try to make excuses or they’re scared of what might happen, but it’s not and they shouldn’t be. This is our job. We’re here to help.”

Forensic nurses are commonplace at all hospitals, but it is a position that is gradually becoming more widespread. Locally, there are 14 forensic nurses at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, private companies with forensic nurses, nurses at Bon Secours Maryview Medical Center and forensic nurses who specialize in pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters.

“Our program has been in place since 2006, and it’s something you’re starting to see more of,” Laing said. “What drives me is that it could be your mom, sister, daughter or a male member of my family and who would be there to help them? If it were my family I would want someone who does my job to be there and working on a team. It’s the community coming together to help find justice.”