Not to die for: Chesco Coroner’s Office fails accreditation due to facility shortcomings

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Stretchers at the Chester County morgue facility

The Chester County Coroner’s Office has failed to achieve accreditation by the International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners (IACME) because of the deficiencies of its morgue and autopsy facilities. The Office’s Medicolegal Office Practices, Investigative Practices, and Laboratory Services all met or exceeded required standards. The high number of autopsies performed by the contracted forensic pathologists was the only other area of deficiency.

The National Institute of Justice has recommended accreditation of coroner and medical examiner offices to improve death investigation in the United States. At this time, such accreditation remains a voluntary effort. The National Association of Medical Examiners and the IACME are the two recognized accrediting bodies. Both recognize those coroner or medical examiner offices that meet an extensive list of international standards.  In Pennsylvania, six counties, Lehigh, Lancaster, Adams, Cambria, and Washington, have applied for and achieved accreditation.

The accreditation inspection included a tour of the administrative office at the Government Services Center and the morgue and autopsy facility at a local hospital, and meetings with representatives from Emergency Services, Chester County Hospital, a municipal Police Department, and the County Commissioners’ Office.  In addition to the infrastructure deficiencies, the audit commented on the need for increased staffing in order to decrease job turnover, increase training time, and ensure prompt response to calls. Currently law enforcement often has to wait on scene for a response from the Coroner’s Office, since there is usually only one Coroner’s Investigator on duty at a time covering the entire County.  In contrast, there are 68 police departments and 2 state police barracks covering the same jurisdiction. The IACME Accreditation Report is available on the Chester County Coroner’s Office website.

Chester County has never had a County morgue or forensic facility. Morgue storage and autopsy space have been donated by local hospitals since 1966, according to Dr. Donald Harrop, Chester County’s Coroner from 1966-1990. Chester County Coroners, beginning with Dr. Harrop, have long advocated for a physical facility. This year, however, is the first time the County Commissioners formally recognized the need for a facility by establishing a Forensic Facility Advisory Group.  Coroner Christina VandePol, M.D., notes “I applaud the Commissioners for stepping up and getting this started. Unfortunately, it’s too little too late as it will take years to realize this goal, while the lack of infrastructure is impacting our operations on a daily basis. The combination of the opioid epidemic, a booming population, and the aging of our population means we’re stretched to the breaking point already.”

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