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Coroner’s goal: Accreditation

Russell says accomplishment would help boost office’s integrity

Kane County Coroner Rob Russell stands among his department's crowded files at their Geneva headquarters. Russell is in his second year as coroner.
Kane County Coroner Rob Russell stands among his department's crowded files at their Geneva headquarters. Russell is in his second year as coroner.

GENEVA – As part of his efforts to bring professionalism and integrity to his office, Kane County Coroner Rob Russell said he hopes to accomplish something no other Illinois coroner’s office has achieved: Accreditation.

The International Association of Coroners & Medical Examiners awards accredited status to agencies fulfilling more than a hundred standards in the categories of investigations, facilities, forensics and administration.

Fortunately, Russell said, the Kane County Coroner’s Office will be evaluated under the original standards and not the recently updated, expanded benchmarks. Already, he and accreditation manager Joe Tomanek are concerned that the coroner’s facilities might not be up to par.

“It’s the facility that may hinder us from being accredited,” Tomanek said.

Now in his second year as coroner, Russell campaigned on promises that he would restore integrity to an office previously marked by controversy. Chuck West, the previous coroner, had been charged with official misconduct. West died before the case went to trial.

Last year, Russell began to rebuild and reconstruct the office with such efforts as generating and rewriting the policy and procedure manual; finding proper resting places for cremated remains stored at the coroner’s office; and compling and cooperating with an in-depth audit conducted by the county’s auditor, according to a list of achievements he compiled.

“This office needs to breathe and grow beyond my tenure,” Russell said.

The first-term coroner also has advocated for better facilities, as those he inherited are inadequate, he said. Problems include asbestos in the floors, poor insulation, old plumbing and, he said, a lack of storage space.

Additionally, he said, it lacks features that a coroner’s office should have, such as a locker room and showers for those who work in the morgue, office space dedicated for forensic pathologists and a proper room for visitors.

“If you lost a loved one ... would you want to sit over here?” Russell said, comparing the visitors’ area to a dungeon. “I wouldn’t.”

Russell and Tomanek noted the facility – which is at the Kane County Government Center campus in Geneva – wasn’t built for coroner purposes. It previously was owned by the Society of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart seminary.

“This was a laundry facility,” Tomanek said.

Concluding discussions for a new facility and establishing concrete plans to move forward are among Russell’s goals this year.

“We know what we’re doing here,” Russell said, gesturing toward the certificates hanging in his staff’s office. “We need to be supported.”

Kane County Board Chairman Chris Lauzen said when specific plans are brought forward they will be put in the county’s capital planning process.

Lauzen – who clashed last year with Russell over budget requests – declined to speak further for this story. He said he wanted to keep his comments confined to those he made during the December board meeting.

At that time, he criticized Russell for using the broken freezer last November as a way to advance his budget position and presented a proposal for moving forward. Re-evaluating the cost of autopsies, reviewing autopsies and defining the coroner’s investigation role with law enforcement were among the suggestions.

The bottom line, Lauzen said Friday, is “we’ll be working together for the next three years.”

Meanwhile, Russell has set nine goals for 2014. They include obtaining more grant funding, establishing a Coroner’s Needs Assessment Group, continuing to educate the public about his office and obtaining accreditation.

If all goes well, Tomanek said, the office could be accredited by July.

Accreditation should help the coroner’s office attract top talent and help it get more significant grants, Tomanek and Russell said.

“It’ll pay for itself many times over,” Russell said.

He noted the $3,500 accreditation fees are being paid for by a grant.

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