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Kane County coroner to investigate hospice deaths, perform inquests

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2012 6:58 a.m. CDT

GENEVA – Kane County’s new coroner has announced new initiatives, including the resumption of inquests and random spot-checks of deaths in hospice.

Kane County Coroner Rob Russell said the policies come as a way of restoring trust in an office that had been hounded by scandal, and trust in hospices and similar institutions that care for those nearing the end of life.

Russell first publicly announced the random checks of hospice deaths Friday to a Kane County Board committee.

Speaking after the meeting, Russell said his office has not yet determined how it will decide which deaths to investigate.

“It can’t just be something like, ‘We’ll do one out of 10,’ because then people will just be counting down,” Russell said. “But we’re discussing it, and coming up with a system we think will be equitable and fair.”

Russell acknowledged the policy announcement marks “a little bit of a change” from his position during the campaign, when he said he believed investigating hospice deaths would not make for an efficient use of the coroner’s office’s time or budget.

Russell said he still believes the office has “neither the time nor the budget” to investigate every hospice death.

But he said he believed that certain news reports on suspicious deaths have shed an unwarranted bad light on hospice.

“I want to use these random checks to silence the critics,” Russell said. “I believe the vast, vast majority of hospice agencies are doing a great job. And I think these checks will show that to be the case.”

Russell also told the County Board on Friday that he intends to resume inquests, when warranted. An inquest is an investigation into the cause of a unexplained or suspicious death.

Russell did not know precisely when the last inquest was performed in Kane County, but he believed it could have been as many as “two or three years ago.”

“The law changed in Illinois a while ago from ‘shall’ to ‘may’ regarding performing inquests,” Russell said.

He said he believed a number of other counties have also gone months or years without performing an inquest into a death, reserving them only for “the most convoluted of cases.”

Russell said the coroner’s office intends to perform an inquest next month in a case that he said “fits most of the criteria” for an inquest.

Russell also noted the policy changes come amid several other changes he has instituted since taking office earlier this month, following his election as coroner in November.

Russell said he has created a formal plan of succession within the office to determine who is in charge should he and his chief deputy coroner become unable to perform their duties.

He has also formally sworn in his deputy coroners and supplied them with official commission cards to accompany their badges.

And, Russell said, he has submitted the coroner’s office’s financial documents to the county auditor for a full audit. He said a report from that audit is expected in coming weeks.

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