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As Bill Heads To Governor's Desk, Clash Continues Over Restricting Access To Kids' Autopsy Records

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Gov. John Hickenlooper is considering a bill that would restrict public access to the autopsy records of children across Colorado.

An unexpected bipartisan moment at Colorado's Capitol came courtesy of a little-known bill late in the session. Republican and Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate overwhelmingly voted for legislation to restrict the public's access to the autopsy records of children. The bill, which is now on Gov. John Hickenlooper's desk, has sparked ongoing debate between advocates for the privacy of grieving families and advocates for the public's interest in children's deaths.

Under Senate Bill 223, coroners across the state won't have to release those autopsy records to the public, as they do now. Rather, the records would be released only to parents and guardians, as well as to others with an interest, like criminal investigators or lawyers in specific cases. 

Rep. Matt Gray, a Boulder area Democrat and one of the bill's main sponsors, told members of the House Judiciary Committee during a hearing earlier this month that autopsies contain highly descriptive language with details that can surface in media, causing more pain to families as they mourn a child.

"That is information, if you think about that from a parent's perspective, that doesn't need to be subject of internet fodder or anything along those lines," Gray told fellow lawmakers. "It's not information that any person who walks down the street should have access to."

Yet if the bill becomes law, even some family members, like grandparents, would not be granted immediate access to the documents unless the parents or guardians share it with them.

One of the bill's most vocal lobbyists, El Paso County Coroner Bob Bux, a forensic pathologist who represents the Colorado Coroners Association, said in an interview that he is concerned about the suicide "contagion" effect. He says when details about a suicide become public, it may result in copycat suicides.

"If a suicide -- a teen suicide -- is posted and lots of information is given and the person's life is reviewed and all of this, it may set off a subsequent suicide in that school within a just few weeks," Bux said.

Social media can magnify news reports of suicides, public health officials note. It's part of a suicide problem that officials in Colorado are already working to address. The state has consistently been in the top 10 for suicides in the United States. Among youth and young adults (ages 10 to 24), suicide is the leading cause of death (PDF) .

But critics of the bill, including groups representing journalists and those that advocate better public access to official records, say there's no evidence of a direct correlation between the release of autopsy reports and increased suicides.

Jeff Roberts, who directs the nonpartisan Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said officials who oppose the release of autopsies on children are already able to go to court to ask a judge to seal the records. He said that happened after the shootings at Columbine High School.

"Those autopsies were not made public for a while," he said.

If the bill becomes law, the tables would be turned. Researchers and journalists -- or "any person" not granted access to children's autopsy reports -- would have to go to court and demonstrate a "significant public benefit" to releasing the reports. 

Advocates for print, TV and radio news organizations say that the proposed law constitutes an unfair burden on the press, particularly smaller organizations, because action in court can be costly and delay or prevent access to information the public may have an interest in.

Roberts' organization, the Colorado Press Association, Colorado Springs Press Association and Colorado Broadcasters Association are asking the governor to veto the bill.

Hickenlooper has not indicated where he stands on the bill. In a press availability last week, Hickenlooper said he's "generally supportive of open records."

Autopsies are typically done when a death is suspicious or concerning; state law says that an autopsy should be conducted when the death of a child "is unexpected or unexplained."

In 2012, autopsy records helped journalists at 9News and The Denver Post investigate the deaths of 72 kids on the state's child protective system's radar.

"There are little clues inside these autopsy reports that led us to find out about previous abuse of these children and these are children that don't have anyone to speak for them," said Nicole Vap, 9News' director of investigations. "They've been abused, they may be house to house."

Police, prosecutors and others in government are charged with looking out for the welfare of kids. Vap said the press also has a role as in assuring their welfare -- as a watchdog of government on behalf of the general public.

The work by 9News and the Post resulted in reform to the system and a state hotline.

As investigative reporter for KUNC, I take tips from our audience and, well, investigate them. I strive to go beyond the obvious, to reveal new facts, to go in-depth and to bring new perspectives and personalities to light.
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