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Whom to call: coroner or funeral home? Essex Co. debates

August 9, 2019
By ELIZABETH IZZO - Staff Writer , Lake Placid News

ELIZABETHTOWN - Two coroners, two police chiefs and a funeral home director weighed in during a public hearing Monday on a proposed law governing how coroners operate in Essex County.

The hearing, spurred by alterations to the proposed legislation, was the third the county Board of Supervisors has held on this topic this year.

Supervisors are set to vote on adopting the latest version of the law at their regular session Monday.

Article Photos

News photo — Elizabeth Izzo
Essex County Coroner Frank Whitelaw speaks at a public hearing in the county Board of Supervisors chambers in Elizabethtown Monday on proposed coroner regulations.

This version mirrors the original version proposed in February, barring a few minor changes. If it passes, new regulations and ethical standards would take effect.

The proposed reforms to the county's coroner system follow more than a decade of conversation among lawmakers in Essex County and multiple Enterprise articles highlighting faults in the system.

Transportation, dispatch

Under the proposed law, a centralized dispatch system would be put in place to curb favoritism toward any single coroner and to notify the nearest coroners and funeral homes at the same time when a call comes in.

If a coroner isn't a licensed medical physician, he or she wouldn't be able to authorize an autopsy without a physician's sign-off, and the responsibility of transporting human remains would shift to licensed funeral homes.

These regulations appear to be the more controversial measures in the law.

"Regarding the transportation of the deceased, I cannot think of a good reason why you would restrict the coroner from performing this function," said Donna Whitelaw, a retired St. Lawrence County coroner and practicing funeral director. "Most coroners in this and most other counties possess the proper equipment, training and knowledge of any legalities or health issues to professionally and effectively perform this function."

Whitelaw said coroners often have to wait long periods of time at the scene for the body to be released before remains can be transported. That waiting period is longer than a funeral director would want to hang around.

"I am strongly opposed to the idea of dispatching a funeral home simultaneously without the coroner dispatch to an unattended death," she said.

Frank Whitelaw, an Essex County coroner and Donna's husband, said another factor to consider is the possibility of a funeral director being busy with another call when a report of a death comes in.

"If the funeral home is in the middle of another call or working calling hours for a funeral," he said, "they can't leave, which results in another delay."

To cut down on possible favoritism toward any single funeral home, under the new law, families would be asked if they have a preferred funeral home.

"To have dispatch asking family during the initial call if they have a preference for a funeral home won't fly," Frank Whitelaw said. "This is usually a high-emotion call.

"Asking the caller about their funeral home preference, before a death is confirmed, is wrong and most likely to be met with overwhelming hostility. Now a whole new situation has been created for responding EMS and law enforcement.

"You also take the risk of a contracted funeral home being a funeral home that the family absolutely hates. I've encountered this several times, where families say, 'Under no circumstances will we allow the so-and-so funeral home to take him/her.'"

Whitelaw said coroners also forge personal connections with the families of those who have died.

"We spend a lot of time with them, and they come to trust us with their loved one. This section of law will now force the family to send their loved one with what amounts to a removal service. Death is extremely personal and intimate," he said.

Two village police chiefs, Charles Potthast of Saranac Lake and William Moore of Lake Placid, each said in statements submitted to the county Board of Supervisors that coroners should remain authorized to transport remains.

"This request is made purely from an operational standpoint," wrote Potthast. "There is more flexibility with the coroner being allowed to transport, especially if a funeral home cannot be reached in a timely manner. Delays in responses to death scenes tie up available patrols which is a real problem for small departments."

Moore agreed.

"Many times, as police officers, when we are on scene, a funeral home is not a viable option," he wrote. "There have been cases where we have waited over three hours for a funeral home to arrive for removal."

The lone person to publicly submit a statement in support of the new regulations was John Kelly, the owner of Edward L. Kelly Funeral Home in Schroon Lake.

Kelly dismissed concerns about the change in transportation responsibilities as "bull" presented by "certain people with self-interests."

"Essex County funeral homes and funeral directors as well as our peers in the counties around us are always available 24 hours a day 7 days a week and 365 days a year," he wrote. "We all have cell phones some have pagers, nearly all of us having answering services and backup funeral directors to be available at all times."

Other changes

Under the proposed law, coroners would be required to document all calls they respond to and physically arrive on the scene. They would be required to provide notice when they're unavailable.

Although a "101" class is already required for every coroner, the law would let the county pay for coroners to get additional training on topics such as blood-borne pathogens, mass fatalities and synthetic opioids.

The original draft floated changes to existing fees and stipends for body bags and transportation, but those are gone in the current version.

Currently, coroners receive a $300 call and removal fee if a funeral home can't remove a body and the coroner has to transport it using his/her vehicle. A previous draft would've seen that dropped to $100, but the current version being discussed doesn't specify a rate.

Essex County Attorney Daniel Manning, who drafted the law, has said the omission will allow supervisors to alter the fees by resolution, rather than having to call for a public hearing and go through the process of altering the law.

Last December, the Enterprise published an article called "Essex County coroner fed up with 'lazy' colleagues." Whitelaw told the Enterprise at the time that he was ready to turn in his resignation letter in part because the other three coroners at the time - Paul Connery of Ticonderoga, Walter Marvin III of Elizabethtown and Kellie Valentine of Moriah - were difficult to reach. He said they responded to far fewer calls than he did, even though some of the deaths he responded to were closer to where the others lived. The other coroners later denied his claims and said they were efficient workers.



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