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Spotlight on Forensic Nursing with Duquesne's Dr. Alison Colbert
By Nancy Kennedy

Alison ColbertSomeone once wrote that wherever there is human suffering, nurses will be there. Nurses, offering their unique mix of science, art and humanity, respond to human need in an endless variety of ways, so it is not surprising to learn that a relatively new advanced practice specialty has emerged within the profession. Forensic nursing is making an impact from the Emergency Department to the courtroom, as nurses with highly specialized training treat, care for and advocate for victims of violence, trauma and abuse.

At Pittsburgh's Duquesne University, the School of Nursing and the Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law have joined forces to offer an online, multidisciplinary graduate program in forensic nursing that blends nursing science with the legal and criminal justice systems. It is one of fewer than two dozen such programs in the United States. Alison Colbert, R.N., Ph.D., a professor of nursing who teaches in the forensic program, is herself a pioneer in the field, and is enthusiastic about the positive impact that forensic nurses are having. "Forensic nursing is where the practice of nursing intersects with the legal system. It focuses on addressing violence and its consequences. Students in our program study ethics, theories of violence, civil law, criminal law, the legal system, evidence collection and many other topics. They do a clinical rotation with a preceptor, often working with forensic professionals, medical examiners, legal nurse consultants or domestic violence service providers. Our graduates are prepared to treat victims of violence and abuse, provide expert testimony, perform sexual assault examinations, identify and evaluate injuries, consult with law enforcement and much more. They investigate crimes, elder abuse, child abuse, and domestic violence. They are valuable professionals, wherever they work – hospitals, prisons, child abuse and domestic violence programs, law firms and police departments."

One of the sites where forensic nurses make a significant impact is in the Emergency Department. In fact, forensic nursing has its roots in the ED. According to Colbert, it was a group of emergency nurses, frustrated by treating crime victims and then seeing prosecutions fail due to faulty evidence collection, who decided to take matters –literally – into their own hands. "These activist nurses wanted justice for victims," Colbert explains. "They decided to make evidence collection part of good patient care, in this setting. That was the beginning of the specialty of Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, which eventually led to forensic nursing."

Colbert began her professional life in journalism, but developed an interest in health care following a high school volunteer experience in a program for young women with HIV. That spark of interest was ignited when she met Carol Cody, a nurse practitioner who had established a specialty hospital for persons living with HIV. "Carol Cody changed my life," she says. "She showed me that nursing was not what I thought it was. There was room to do so many things, to be innovative and creative." Inspired, Colbert enrolled in an accelerated nursing program, worked in a jail, and obtained her master's in nursing from the University of Texas at Austin in 2002. From there, she moved to Los Angeles to work for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a position that she loved. But her husband, Greg Barhnisel, had applied for a teaching position at Duquesne, and so she found herself in 2003 in Pittsburgh.

"I had become interested in research, so Pittsburgh was a great setting for me. I enrolled in the doctoral program at the University of Pittsburgh, and had my two children while in that program. When I completed it in 2007, I met Dr. Kathleen Sekula, another nurse who has had a huge impact on my life. She's the founder and director of the forensic nursing program at Duquesne, and her philosophy, that nursing has a unique role to play in preventing violence and helping people affected by it, appealed to me."

Colbert was named a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Nursing Faculty Scholar in 2010 and was awarded a three-year grant to research the healthcare needs of women coming out of prison and establish programs to help them develop and maintain healthy lifestyles, which includes making choices that reduce their vulnerability to violence. She encourages nurses to consider the field and the countless opportunities within it for nurses to contribute to making the world a safer place.

"Forensic nursing is a wonderful field and Duquesne's program is progressive and innovative. We believe that when nurses bring their perspective to violence, with nursing's emphasis on the whole person, the family and society, we make a difference. Forensic nursing is the nursing response to violence in our communities; we care for both the victim and the perpetrator and our primary long-term goal is violence prevention."

Dr. Colbert can be reached at colberta@duq.edu or (412) 396-1511. To learn more about Duquesne University's graduate program in forensic nursing, visit ww.duq.edu/academics/schools/nursing/graduate-programs/master-science-nursing/forensicnursing. To learn more about forensic nursing, visit the web site of the International Association of Forensic Nurses at www.forensicnurse.org.

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