A Snapshot of AAFS Forensic Nursing Science Section Chair Joyce P. Williams, DNP

As a young and eager nurse, the specialty of critical care was the perfect role this new graduate! Joyce Williams admits that she was challenged by caring for the patients who were experiencing life-threatening medical conditions, those recovering from complex surgeries, and the many others who had incurred traumatic injuries. However, after attending just two forensic science seminars in Florida in the late 90s, Joyce became fascinated by the field of forensic science and its relevant connections to patient care. Never again would her nursing assessments be complete without probing into the proximal cause of the illness or injuries identified upon the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) admissions. In 2000 after attending her first AAFS meeting, it became clear to Joyce how a career in forensic nursing would add a new dimension to patient care as well as contributing to the investigative efforts of law enforcement. She realized that keen clinical observations and precise documentation may be of significant value to legal authorities.

Joyce later transitioned to work in the Emergency Department where she was instrumental in the establishment of a sexual assault program.  Up to this time, the hospital lacked dedicated services for forensic patients. Sexual assault nurse examiners were the singular group of forensic practitioners recognized by the medical and affiliated community. They demonstrated the unique contributions of a clinical nurse who had specialized skills and training to serve this population and set the stage for eventual expansion of the role of the clinical forensic nurse specialist into care for other victims of trauma and abuse. Not long afterward, the community established a Child Advocacy Center.  Not surprisingly, Joyce developed the medical component, complementing the team effort comprised of social workers, therapists, law enforcement officers, and victim advocates.

When 9/11 events unfolded, Joyce was deployed to Shanksville, PA, as part of Disaster Mortuary Response Operations Team (DMORT) under the National Disaster Medical System (NDMS). This experience exposed her to the variety of forensic science measures used to identify victims. Working side-by-side with a forensic pathologist and then as part of the DNA extraction team, she was provided the opportunity to sharpen death investigation skills. Her work with DMORT continues as a member of the Victim Information Center Team, working with families to help identify the missing and the dead. Furthermore, she assumed the role of a death investigator for the state, putting to use many of the skills developed during the years of her earlier endeavors in emergency and critical care and the valuable field experiences from 9/11.

The experiences of responding with DMORT increased  her desire to pursue additional forensic education in order to learn more about the world of forensic sciences and how to incorporate scientific standards with medical theories. The search led to a graduate education program at Oklahoma State University in the Forensic Science Administration program. This was followed by the entering the Forensic Nursing Science DNP program at University of Tennessee, Memphis, further connecting the knowledge base of nursing and the forensic sciences.

Just before the interview for admission to the University of Tennessee, a position became available  at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP). The experience was opportune, becoming part of a research team, analyzing mortal injuries and coding them, with the goal of discovering strategies that would help to prevent specific injuries. Joyce remarks, "The team efforts changed and enhanced the protective armor that soldiers and sailors wore while others worked with vehicles to amplify the safety features to ward off  Improvised Explosive Device (IED) effects. The research led to further appreciation of the work of forensic engineers and their duty to protect populations across the globe."

Nearing completion of formal education, Joyce had the opportunity to work with another forensic nurse practitioner to develop a forensic certificate program at The Johns Hopkins School of Nursing. This curriculum will educate the forensic nurse scientists of the future and allows her to give back to the profession. While working in the academic setting, Joyce performed volunteer work for a state task force dedicated to the identification of and response to trafficked persons. She created a protocol and established guidelines for forensic medical services for victims of human trafficking. This resulted in an ongoing training program provided to health care professionals, allied health care associates and stakeholders who serve this population.

Along the way, Joyce admits that there have been many challenges, but many rewards. The ability to share knowledge and expertise at professional conferences such as the World Safety Conference, the World Association of Disaster and Emergency Medicine, the International Association of Forensic Nurses, and the American Academy of Forensic Sciences has afforded unique opportunities to network with forensic science professionals from many countries across the globe.


The views and opinions expressed in the articles contained in the Academy News are those of the identified authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Academy.