The bill passed recently by Colorado legislators to exempt the autopsy reports of minor children from the Colorado Open Records Act is a product of good intentions, but it’s a bad idea that won’t achieve its stated goals.
According to an article in The Durango Herald, the bill’s supporters – including the Colorado Corners Association – argue that releasing autopsy reports “is an invasion of privacy for survivors and could induce copycat teen suicides.” Democratic Rep. Matt Gray, a bill co-sponsor, said young peoples’ autopsy reports don’t “need to be the subject of internet fodder.”
Rep. Gray is right to condemn the cruelty of social media. But I question whether most of the cretins who use the internet as a weapon to terrorize grieving families read autopsy reports in the first place. And I’m fairly sure a lack of facts won’t deter intrusive speculation and vicious gossip.
The concern about copycat suicides seems born of a desperation to “do something” about youth suicides in general. That’s laudable. But it’s telling that no witness who testified for the bill provided a documented example of a copycat death.
I didn’t see one convincing example in 30 years as a medical examiner and coroner. So, I don’t think fear of mainly hypothetical copycat suicides is sufficient grounds for denying public and media access to autopsy reports. I support open records because factual information serves the public better than ill-informed speculation.
There’s another possible reason why coroners and medical examiners might argue for the confidentiality of youth autopsy reports: Most are unlikely to admit it to anybody other than another medical examiner, but we dread having confrontational arguments with the bereaved over the public nature of autopsy findings.
I hated those conversations, and I know my colleagues do because I’ve been privy to plenty of hand-wringing conversations about how far to go to ease – or at least not exacerbate – familial grief. It may not always be obvious, but coroners and medical examiners have human emotions, too.
The youngest child suicide I encountered was an 8-year-old. That precocious kid would be almost 40 now, had he not hanged himself after expressing his rationale in a detailed suicide note to his parents. I’ll never forget him.
Medical examiners go through contortions as they decide whether to certify the death of such a young child a suicide. Quite a few prefer accident, saying a little kid doesn’t understand death is final and can’t form intent.
In private, they admit they prefer accident because that determination might ease the burden on the family just a bit and make conversations with them less intense. Others use “undetermined,” mostly for the same reasons. When a little kid has clearly taken his or her life, accident and undetermined are euphemisms that make people feel a little better. Laws that keep reports confidential are intended to make people feel better, too.
Here’s the problem: One of the coroner or medical examiner’s primary roles is to help the public learn from death in the hope some good can be derived. But nothing will be learned from euphemisms used to avoid unpleasantness or from concealing facts from the public, even when the motive is compassion.
When was a societal problem ever solved by the application of a euphemism? When was a societal problem ever ameliorated by hushing it up?
When societies have problems, it’s best to be as open about them as possible. I dislike doing things that hurt people as much as anybody, but I’ve always thought it was in the public interest for everybody to have the right to find out what I said and to ask me why I said it.
So here’s a different idea: If your child or a child you know completes suicide, don’t try to hide it. Let other young people see your grief. Show them the effects of a child’s death on his or her family and friends. Maybe some kids will be motivated to talk with their own parents about their feelings. Maybe some parents will be motivated to talk with their kids.
Pay attention to young people you know. You’ll recognize troubled kids if you look for them. Befriend them. Mentor them. Care about them. Tell a teacher, a pastor, a counselor. Volunteer for a youth organization or start one.
Talk with your children. Teach them to defend the bullied. Teach them to see value in being “different.” Encourage them to accept themselves and others and set the example yourself. My dad was really good at it. He has always befriended misfits – one of his most admirable traits.
I’m retired. I’ll never do another autopsy on a body that’s so heart-breakingly young. I’ll never have to explain myself to another angry, grieving family. But my colleagues will. Hiding the details of youth suicides won’t diminish their numbers. I hope Gov. John Hickenlooper will think about that as he considers the bill sent to him for his signature.
Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, served as La Plata County coroner from 2003-12. She now lives in Florida and Maryland. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.