Q&A
with Arlene Kent-Wilkinson

Arlene Kent-Wilkinson

Arlene Kent-Wilkinson (PhD’08) could write a book about her 40 years of nursing and experience as a pioneer in forensic nursing education and forensic psychiatric nursing practice. Having written several courses, including the world’s first online courses in forensic nursing, she has seen various sub-specialties of forensic nursing grow in popularity over the years. Now, as a member of the Forensic Interdisciplinary Research: Saskatchewan Team (FIRST), and as a member of the steering committee for the University of Saskatchewan’s Forensic Centre Initiative for Forensic Behavioural Sciences and Justice Studies, Kent-Wilkinson and colleagues in various disciplines at the U of S seek to continue breaking ground with new interdisciplinary research.

G&W What is forensic nursing?

A K-W Forensic nursing is a specialty of nursing, not a specialty of forensics—I am always a nurse first. It is an area of nursing where health care and the law intersect.

Within forensic nursing there are quite a few sub-specialties that are all very different areas of work. Forensic correctional and forensic psychiatric mental health nursing are my focal areas, but there is also forensic legal nurse consultants, clinical forensic nursing and forensic sexual assault examiners.

G&W What do you mean by “where health care and law intersect?”

A K-W The intersection or interface may involve the legal aspects of care, or where a patient has some difficulties with the law. Forensic nurses play an important role in gathering evidence, providing health care promotion and prevention, and in the care and support of offenders, victims, and the families of both. We can be involved in child abuse, elder abuse, spousal abuse, sexual assault, trauma and violence of any kind.

In forensic psychiatric nursing, we work with a multidisciplinary team that prepares a letter for the courts to determine fitness to stand trial. The role of forensic nursing on that unit is to provide nursing care of the offender 24-hours a day during a 30-day assessment. As a team we do not determine whether our patient/client is guilty or innocent; that is for the court to decide based on all the information they have.

G&W Tell us a little about your nursing career and your progression into forensic psychiatric nursing.

A K-W After working for 10 years in emergency departments in Ontario, I moved west to Calgary in 1980. I just happened to work a private duty nursing shift at the Calgary Remand Centre (jail) and was intrigued by the area; it was very different from where I had worked before. I found offenders had extreme problems and difficulties with their health and mental health. They were not the ‘walking worried’; they had some major problems. I became very interested, and I worked with corrections full-time for three years.

I then heard about the forensic psychiatric unit at the Calgary General Hospital, and I transferred to that unit.

In the early 1990s, when I finished my master’s degree, forensic nursing was becoming more popular. We had an international association located in the US, but there were no courses available one could take. Being the type of person that likes to write courses and manuals, I began to write some courses. I started a classroom course at the University of Calgary that ran for seven years. Because of its popularity, Mount Royal College (now a university) asked me to write online courses, so I did, and they developed into a certificate program— forensic studies. It was exciting to be doing something new that was not out there already.

G&W So really, you pioneered the online courses in this area.

A K-W Yes, and I was fortunate to receive some recognition and awards for my pioneering efforts in forensic nursing and forensic education. It was satisfying; it was fun to do something new and exciting.

G&W Tell us a little about forensic interdisciplinary work at the U of S.

A K-W Academics at the U of S with a background in forensic psychology, forensic psychiatry, law and forensic nursing all have a clinical practice and research focus on the offender population. Many of us began to know each other through conferences and interest groups, but for the most part we were doing research and teaching in isolation rather than working together. Because the mental health issues of the offender are so vast, it only made sense for us to start to work together to try to address the needs of an increasingly complex mentally disordered offender population.

So in 2009, we started the research group FIRST and applied for the Forensic Behavioural Sciences and Justice Studies Initiative to become an interdisciplinary centre. It will foster research, education and engagement activities to better understand critical issues of crime and justice. We are really fortunate to have a federal presence in the Regional Psychiatric Centre that attracts academics from a variety of specialties. The U of S now has great resources for graduate students in the forensic behavioural sciences.