Detective shows may have made forensics fashionable but what does this area of nursing involve? We speak to Carol Rooney to find out
Examining cuts to identify the object used as a murder weapon. Checking if a child’s wounds are consistent with the accident described by a parent or if the toddler is a victim of abuse. Talking to a woman to ascertain if she’s been sexually assaulted by her partner. All parts of the role of a forensic nurse.
Forensic nursing has got itself on the public’s radar recently, thanks to television series such as Bones and CSI, which show how important it is to understand injuries and a victim’s or criminal’s state of mental health when solving crimes.
Forensic nurses collect evidence at crime scenes and from victims, and are the point of contact between the medical profession and the criminal justice system.
Most forensic nurses work in a hospital, in secure psychiatric units or accident and emergency. At A&E, nurses identify injuries and advise on what may have caused them, and will know how to treat them so as not to destroy evidence that could be vital for a trial.
In mass trauma situations, such as after a hurricane, forensic nurses identify victims based on evidence from body remains.
The role also involves caring for victims and perpetrators of crimes in secure psychiatric units. This is the case with Carol Rooney, deputy director of nursing at St Andrew’s Healthcare. For her, the appeal was spending time with people.
Having trained as a staff nurse, she saw an advertisement for staff for a medium-secure unit being set up in Milton Keynes.
“The attraction of a forensic service is being able to work with people over a long time, and getting to know them and the root of the issue. In acute situations, I felt like it was a revolving door and I never got to the heart of the problems.”
A nurse’s role in the medium-secure hospital unit is to assess patients and help them recover, where possible, and take on roles back in their communities.
“As a nurse working on the ward, I could spend a day doing anything from helping someone write a letter to playing volleyball,” she says.
“The job is more about problem solving. It’s about knowing everything about a patient. So, if someone asks to go out for a walk, you need to know about their medication and whether they’ve talked about anything that may lead you to be concerned about them being alone.”
Ms Rooney says the core skills are about listening and problem solving - nursing in its purest form.
“We are about finding ways for people to trust us and others again - people who have had difficult experiences, such as being abused in children’s homes or had other difficult issues to contend with,” she says
“The most rewarding thing is seeing them come out the other side and develop hobbies, change their attitudes and stop reoffending and get jobs. For that to happen, it’s important for us not to behave in too custodial a way.”
The environment now feels freer than when Ms Rooney began her career. She is now part of the senior nursing team providing leadership to the many nurses looking after more than 700 patients at St Andrews Healthcare. Mental health awareness has improved the understanding of her job in the profession and in the public eye, she says.
Dealing with so much emotional trauma can be highly challenging.
“There’s lots of training around setting boundaries, and trying not to get too emotionally involved,” she says. “There’s a Department of Health campaign about security called See, Think, Act, and the aim is to help nurses make decisions and take action but always be aware of their own practice.”
Her advice to others seeking this type of work is to look for placements in secure environments during nurse training. There are also further education courses.
When you see patients improve, Ms Rooney says the work is very satisfying.
“It’s very rewarding,” Ms Rooney says. “You have a real connection with patients, and are charged with keeping them safe. That’s intense, pure nursing.”