The 3400 member IAFN was formed to promote and support the specialty of Forensic Nursing throughout New Jersey and the world. Forensic Nursing is the application of Nursing Science to the Administration of Justice. Forensic Nurses specialize in caring for victims of violence. They care for the physical, psychological, and social trauma that occurs in patients who have been assaulted or abused. Forensic nurses possess significant specialized knowledge of the legal system and collect evidence, provide medical testimony in court, and provide consultation to legal authorities.
Following a vote of the membership, Rita O’Connor was selected to serve as Secretary for the association’s New Jersey Chapter. O’Connor will serve on the Board of Directors of the association and the education committee. Her responsibilities include planning and organizing educational opportunities for forensic nurses and assisting members in securing mandated educational certification credits. New Jersey’s Chapter of Forensic Nurses sets clear standards and practices for New Jersey’s Forensic Nurses.
Prosecutor Coronato stated, “Rita’s reputation is not only as a well-trained leader and competent nurse, but also as a warm and caring person striving constantly to assure the medical and psychological recovery of the victims she tends. It gives me great pride and confidence that she is a member of the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office.”
After working for many years as a Registered Nurse, in 1998 Rita O’Connor heard about a new statewide program, SART (Sexual Assault Response Team), which was being developed to help sexual assault victims. Her interest in becoming a team member led to her becoming certified in the newly formulated field of nursing -- Forensic Nurse Certified in Sexual Assault. With this certification, O’Connor could provide comprehensive and compassionate care to sexual assault victims while ensuring that all potential evidence is collected in a timely and appropriate manner, therefore increasing the likelihood of a successful prosecution of the attacker. For the first time throughout New Jersey, teams were trained as first responders to ensure that rape victims received the best possible care and treatment. Rita, as a certified SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner), works with law enforcement personnel who specialize in sex crimes and victim advocates to help women in crisis.
O’Connor’s passion for her work as a SANE nurse led to her to relocate to Ocean County in 2005 where she is currently the SART/FNE Coordinator. In Ocean County there is an average of 89 reported assaults requiring nursing intervention per year -- rape does not occur during business hours and historically the successful prosecution of sexual assault cases has been difficult. Oftentimes the survivor is the only witness to the crime and documentation of physical trauma as well as the collection of physical evidence may be necessary to substantiate an allegation or to strengthen a case for court. As Ocean County’s SART/FNE administrator, Rita ensures that County sexual assault victims receive professional expert care and treatment 24 hours per day, seven days per week.
O’Connor coordinates the teams’ training and supervises 13 SANE nurses who like herself are on-call days, evenings, and weekends. They respond on an as-needed basis to assist victims and police at the four hospitals located throughout the county. Because the job of collecting evidence in sexual assault cases has traditionally fallen to physicians and nurses in hospital emergency rooms, O’Connor visits the hospitals at least once a month and ensures that emergency department personnel are trained in the SART protocols to increase the chances that some type of physical evidence will be found and properly documented when immediate attention is given to a victim by forensically trained health care personnel.
O’Connor is also responsible for recruiting nurses who are interested in becoming a forensic nurse examiner. Like Ms. O’Connor the nurse must have critical thinking skills, have worked in a critical care or psychiatric emergency services setting and be compassionate as it is essential that the first individuals who interact with the victim use a sensitive and compassionate approach. To become an expert in the field as a Forensic Nurse Examiner, the person must be a registered nurse in good standing for at least two years, take a basic SANE course and, if qualified, receive certification as a Forensic Nurse – Certification in Sexual Assault. The nurse is an expert witness and can testify when a sexual assault case goes to trial.
In addition, O’Connor continually works to expand her skill, knowledge, and expertise in this sensitive service, as well as, teach other nurses and law enforcement personnel through lectures and trainings. She studied at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of NJ and Ramapo College of NJ to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing. She also focuses on rape prevention among the County’s youth having provided several presentations including “Reducing the Risk of Sexual Assault/Drug Facilitated Sexual Assault to High School Students.”