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Changes coming at Cook County morgue after corpses pile up

Thursday, January 26, 2012
Chicago Sun-Times
by LISA DONOVAN

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle will announce a series of “policy, personnel and procedural” changes at the Cook County morgue Thursday in the wake of Chicago Sun-Times reports about bodies piling up at the West Side facility and workers complaining about unhealthy working conditions.

Morgue staffers told the paper that bodies were piling up at the office of the Cook County medical examiner, stacked atop each other in blue, plastic tarps against a wall of the storage cooler. One source office called it “sacrilegious.”

All of the storage trays — roughly 300 — in a body cooler there are full, and many have a second body on them, according to sources in the medical examiner’s office. About 400 adults and 100 babies were being kept in the cooler, which is designed for fewer than 300 bodies, according to a source.

“There are so many bodies in there now, they can’t keep it cool enough. The stench is like nothing I’ve ever seen,” another source in the office told the paper two weeks ago.

The stack-up lefth blood and other bodily fluids covering the floor of the cooler. The Illinois Department of Labor is “aware” of the alleged problems there, a spokeswoman told the Sun-Times last week.

Medical Examiner Dr. Nancy Jones has come in for criticisme by Preckwinkle, who says management is at the heart of the problem there.

Jones confirmed on Jan. 13 that, “yes, we do” have moref bodies than normal, but she said then that it wasn’t as many as others claimed.

“What we currently have in our cooler is somewhere around 300 bodies,” she said. “There is not twice that number.”

She blamed cuts in state funding and a change to county ordinance for the backup in getting bodies buried, which, in turn, left more bodies at the morgue.

Last year, critics raised questions about the remains of babies and fetuses — many who had died at birth or as a result of miscarriage — being combined for burial. County commissioners then started requiring remains of babies and fetuses to be placed in separate compartments.

“We haven’t been able to do any infant or fetal burials because we are waiting for some special boxes to be designed and built,” Jones said.

Typically after examination or autopsy, bodies remain at the office for a few days, until funeral directors pick them up for burial or cremation.

But when grieving families can’t afford a burial, the county and possibly the state step in.

In the interview earlier this month, Jones said the increase in the number of bodies is the result, in part, of state aid to help pay for burials of those on public aid. Last summer the state cut $13 million from the program.

“That is really the big part of it,” Jones said, noting that the funding had just recently been reinstated.

Otherwise, unclaimed bodies might go in to pauper’s graves at Homewood cemetery, and the county has picked up the tab for that — estimated at around $300. Last fall, the medical examiner’s office announced a controversial plan to to donate to science any remains that go unclaimed after only two weeks, unless families objected.

Last week, Preckwinkle dispatched senior staffers to see for themselves what’s going on in the medical examiner’s office, which is under her direct authority. But Preckwinkle said her hands were tied because Jones, appointed by previous County Board President Todd Stroger, had an open-ended term.

On Wednesday, Commissioner John Fritchey said he would introduce a measure to make it easier to fire the morgue chief. The current ordinance states “the medical examiner’s term continues until he or she resigns or is removed for cause following notice and an opportunity to be heard.” Uunder Fritchey’s proposal, Preckwinkle could remove the medical examiner with the support of a majority vote of the board.



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