An Interview with Joyce Williams
“To succeed as a forensic nurse, you must be ethical and hardworking. If you are somebody who tends to cut corners and skip steps, you won’t do well in this field because you must be willing and able to follow the different criteria, protocols for examinations, and documentation. If you don’t, you will miss critical evidence and the victims you are supposed to serve will not be treated properly.”
Joyce Williams is a nurse who specializes in forensic nursing at Safe Place, a child advocacy center for children who are reported victims of child abuse. She earned a diploma in nursing from a hospital program in 1972, a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Antioch University in 1976, and a Doctor of Nursing Practice in 2007 from the University of Tennessee.
Joyce learned about job opportunities within forensic nursing through a seminar she attended with her husband, who is a forensic dentist. She has also worked for the government to determine the causes of death in combat. When she isn’t working, she volunteers with several healthcare organizations, including the State of Maryland’s human trafficking task force and the World Association for Disaster and Emergency Medicine.
In your own words, what is a forensic nurse?
A forensic nurse is a nurse who specializes in how medicine and the law intersect. Forensic nurses are responsible for treating patients who have been victims of crimes, including violent crime. The information in a forensic nurse’s medical report can be used as evidence in court.
In previous work, I cared for trauma patients, but in my current job I perform medical forensic exams on children from birth to age 18 who are suspected victims of physical or sexual abuse. I have been working with children for the past 10 years.
If a student said to you, “I am interested in becoming a forensic nurse,” what would your response be?
If a student wanted to become a forensic nurse, I would encourage them. But I would want them to ask questions about the reality of the profession and about the different types of jobs that are available in this field. This is not a particularly uncommon job, but until you get into nursing you don’t know much about it.
One good thing that I find is that professionals are very willing to help you in this field. They want to help you to achieve more, so there is a lot of mentoring and collaboration. Even though I have been doing this for several years, I love that I can call up a friend of mine who can help me with any problem I am facing, whether I need a second opinion or want to find literature on a certain practice.
What level of education is necessary to become a forensic nurse?
In my opinion, the minimum level of education that you need in this field is a bachelors degree in nursing. But I think that a graduate degree is also important. There are many elements to this job, and you have to be able to synthesize knowledge of forensic science and medicine. A graduate degree teaches you how to think that way.
Are there any licensing or certification requirements to become a forensic nurse?
The certification that you need to be a forensic nurse depends on the job you want to do. For instance, if you want to be a sexual assault examiner, then you need to take an approved course and fulfill the licensing requirements through your state. Some jobs don’t require that certification, but I have found that the more knowledge you can obtain, the better you will be able to treat your patients.
Why did you decide to become a forensic nurse?
I decided to become a forensic nurse because I enjoyed the process of problem solving. I like to use pathology to determine the root cause of an injury. I also like to help people who have been injured. Many of the patients who I treat have experienced intentional assault. In my job, I am able to assess their injuries and recommend ways to help them recover in order for them to live normally again.
What do you enjoy most and least about being a forensic nurse?
What I like most about being a forensic nurse is that I get to work with people who have experienced trauma and help them see that life can get better again. It may not get better immediately, but I can do something to speed up their recovery process.
However, the aspect of the job that I least enjoy is the paperwork. It is necessary because everything needs to be properly documented so that it will be useful in a court of law, but it can be time consuming.
What is a typical week like for you?
My week varies because I work as part of a multi-disciplinary team. In my role, I interface a lot with my team members. R esponsibilities include consultations, review of records, grant writing, as well as providing medical treatment. I am on call Monday through Friday from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. This does not mean that I have to report immediately. Instead, I answer questions over the phone and I set up appointments to meet with children on Thursdays, when I perform medical exams. The rest of the week, I work with other members of the team, such as child protection services workers, therapists, law enforcement officers and attorneys. I maintain a flexible schedule, although some weeks are very busy.
How do you balance your work and your personal life?
I balance work and personal life by setting aside time just for myself and staying well organized. I take care of myself by exercising regularly. In addition, I am involved with several volunteer organizations. Finally, I have a wonderful husband who is familiar with the field because of his work as a forensic dentist. I appreciate having him and a close network of friends who I can talk to when I am feeling overwhelmed.
What personality traits do you think would help someone succeed as a forensic nurse and what traits would hinder success?
In order to succeed as a forensic nurse, you must be ethical, hardworking, and attentive to detail. If you are somebody who tends to cut corners and skip steps, you won’t do well in this field. You must be willing and able to follow the different criteria, protocols for examinations, and documentation. Otherwise you will miss critical evidence and the victims you are treating will not be served properly. Carelessness cannot be allowed to seep into your work.
Looking back at your formal education, is there anything you would have done differently?
Yes, I think I would have chosen to become a nurse practitioner because that would have allowed me to have a little more freedom in my work. I am successful as a forensic nurse, but if I were a nurse practitioner I could do my own billing and have an office.
What classes did you take during your schooling that you have found to be the most and least valuable for the work you do today?
All of my classes have been valuable. Every bit of knowledge that you can gain in this field will help you to do a better job as a nurse. Some of the most useful classes I have taken were forensic engineering, forensic psychology, and management.
What words of advice or caution would you share with a student who is interested in becoming a forensic nurse?
One thing I would say is that this isn’t a job that will make you a lot of money, so if you are just in it for the salary, you should look for a different career path. Beyond that, you should prepare yourself to learn as much as you can about emergency operations and treatment, because you will be amazed at the opportunities there will be for you. Even though education costs money, it will be worth it when you are able to manage your own practice.