TAWN PARENT Commentary: Our dead deserve better than this

September 25, 2006

Forget coming late to the daylightsaving time party. Even higher on the list of things we Hoosiers should be embarrassed about is our coroner system.

Of course, embarrassment isn't the half of it. More troubling is that we elect and counties pay coroners who need no qualifications whatsoever, other than being adults and living in the county where they're elected. (Their day jobs range from truck driver to boat pilot.) Worst of all is the hindrance these underqualified officials can be to the criminal justice process and the unnecessary anguish they can bring on families coping with the death of a loved one.

Recent months have seen a string of unfortunate incidents revealing problems in our coroner system, from the well-publicized case of misidentifying two college students last spring to firing contracted forensic pathologists without apparent cause to failing to notify families of the death of one of their own.

The Marion County prosecutor is now investigating the Marion County Coroner's Office because of $3,000 allegedly stolen from a body as well as other alleged security lapses. The Marion County chief public defender says such lapses call into question the integrity of the evidence handled by the Coroner's Office and could result in appealing some prior convictions.

Enough is enough. We all need to stand up and say we're not going to take it anymore.

No Indiana coroners are up for re-election in November, but we need to press now for legislators to lay the groundwork for overhauling-not tweaking-this political relic. Since the office of coroner was created by the Indiana Constitution, it will take an amendment to change it. That requires approval by two consecutive state Legislatures and ratification by voters, a process that will take at least four years.

If we're going to go to all that trouble, let's make it worthwhile. There has been rumbling among lawmakers about introducing legislation next year to mandate training for coroners. Talk about too little, too late.

Indiana is one of only 11 states still exclusively using coroners, and one of only six in which coroners need neither a medical degree nor any training. The coroner is an outmoded job that dates to medieval times. Originally called "crowners," they were responsible for looking into deaths to make sure death duties were paid to the king. Times have changed, and Indiana needs a system that takes advantage of the now-sophisticated field of forensic science.

People charged with the vital tasks of identifying the dead, determining cause of death, and ordering autopsies need years of education to do the job well. It can take a trained eye to tell the difference between accidental death and child abuse, for example. It chills me to think that Indiana considers my college-freshman stepson qualified to be a coroner.

We should follow the lead of 22 other states using exclusively medical examiners, who typically are physicians specially trained in investigative techniques. Only 10 of Indiana's 92 coroners are medical doctors. To keep the focus on professional qualifications rather than popularity, medical examiners should be appointed instead of elected.

Placing a medical examiner in each of our 92 counties, some of which handle only a handful of deaths a year, doesn't make financial sense. Best would be a solution The Indianapolis Star has been promoting for months: a network of regional medical examiners that would allow one examiner to cover several rural counties.

Coroners, who no doubt would oppose such a change, might be a powerful lobby, but so is the business community. Businesspeople owe it to themselves and the state to take a strong stand on this issue, and make that stand loud and clear.

Who better than the business community to understand the need for appropriate qualifications as a condition to employment? Who better than the business community to understand the need for effective management and use of the most modern methods and technology? Who better than the business community to understand that, in the midst of government budget cuts, we don't have the cash to waste on fouled-up court cases and the bad publicity that goes along with them?

Which brings us back to the embarrassment factor. The five-week-long mixup of Taylor University students Whitney Cerak and Laura VanRyn brought Indiana unwelcome national attention this year. That example of incompetence, along with recent problems in the Marion County Coroner's Office, reinforce the stereotype of Hoosiers as ignorant rubes. That doesn't do our economic development efforts any favors. We can't afford for bad government to taint all that's going right in Indiana.

So let's get to work changing the constitution. It's likely to be a long, painful process, but, if done right, it could end a world of hurt.

Parent is associate editor of IBJ. Her column appears monthly. To comment on this column, send e-mail to tparent@ibj.com.
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