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Christiana's Forensic Nurse Examiner program receives DOJ Award

Monday August 11, 2014
Nurses from Christiana Care Health System’s Forensic Nurse Examiners Program work on a case. The program investigates cases of sexual assault, domestic violence and incidents of trauma such as gunshots and stabbings, and gathers evidence for victims of child or elder abuse.
Nurses from Christiana Care Health System’s Forensic Nurse Examiners Program work on a case. The program investigates cases of sexual assault, domestic violence and incidents of trauma such as gunshots and stabbings, and gathers evidence for victims of child or elder abuse.
(Photo courtesy of Christiana Care Health System)
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Jennifer Oldham, RN, BSN, always knew she could do a lot of good as a nurse, but believed she could do even more to help society.

So when Oldham attained her nursing credentials a few years ago, she immediately set out to join the team of forensic nurse examiners at Christiana Care Health System, just southwest of Wilmington, Del.

“My dad was a detective and my mom was a nurse. From the first day I got my nurse’s license, I wanted to be on this forensic team,” said Oldham, who has worked as a nurse in Christiana’s ED for five years and been a member of the Forensic Nurse Examiner team for the last three.

Since the program’s inception in the middle 1990s, the team of forensic nurse examiners at Christiana Care has steadily grown in skill and depth over the years and has even received national recognition. Most recently, Christiana Care’s Forensic Nurse Examiner program was honored by the U.S. Department of Justice as part of the agency’s National Crime Victims’ Rights Service Award for “providing physical and emotional care to the victims of crime while collecting and preserving evidence,” according to a DOJ news release.

Designed originally to enhance the collection of physical evidence to support investigations of suspected sexual assaults, the FNE program at Christiana Care has expanded its scope and reach over the years. In 1999, the team began working on cases of domestic violence, and now gathers evidence for victims of child or elder abuse, fires and traumas, including shootings, stabbings and other potentially life-threatening injuries, said Christiana Care’s Forensic Nurse Examiner Program Coordinator Anita Symonds, RN, MS, BSN, SANE-A, SANE-P.

Helping law enforcement

Working in the emergency department at Christiana Care, which boasts the only Level 1 trauma center between Philadelphia and Baltimore, the 24 forensic nurse examiners support not only victim care but also law enforcement in real time, Symonds said.

FNEs are trained to recognize the characteristics and differences between inflicted and accidental injuries, Symonds said. They also locate and preserve DNA evidence, which can often prove crucial in a variety of criminal investigations, particularly sexual assaults. About three years ago, Symonds said the team collected DNA evidence from the victim of a sexual assault that, when run through a FBI DNA database, helped police identify and arrest the rape suspect and connect the man to other sexual assaults in the region.

Symonds said the preservation of evidence and recording of a victim’s physical condition upon arrival at the hospital also can be critical in helping police investigate crimes where the victims die days later, potentially saving vital clues that posthumous investigations might no longer be able to uncover.

Making a difference

Jennifer Henry, RN, BSN, CEN, who became an ED nurse at Christiana in 2007, joined the FNE team in 2009 after watching the forensic nurses in action. “As an outsider looking in, I could see what they did for victims was great,” Henry said.

“We forensic nurses make such a big difference,” she added. “The smallest details we see can make a big difference for the people we serve.”

FNEs also are called upon routinely to testify in court in criminal prosecutions. Oldham said being called to testify in court cases can be difficult, “but it’s very rewarding at the same time, because of the potential to do good for society.”

As their scope of expertise has grown, so, too, has the number of patient cases Christiana Care’s FNEs handle. The number averages 2,000 per year, Symonds said. The hospital’s FNEs are recruited solely from the 290 nurses in Christiana Care’s ED, she said. To staff the ED, FNEs each work one to two 12-hour shifts per week, in addition to regular nursing duties during their other weekly shifts.

Symonds said the praise and recognition the Christiana FNE team has received from others, including the nation’s top law-enforcement officials, is welcome validation of the work they do.

Jonathan Bilyk is a freelancer writer.


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