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Why Gov. Hickenlooper Vetoed A Bill Restricting Access To Child Autopsy Records

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Colorado Governor's Office
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State of Colorado
Gov. John Hickenlooper with Colorado's Capitol in the background

Proponents made two main points for limiting access to child autopsy records. The first was that news reports of what’s in the records could trigger copycat suicides among teens. Second, parents deserve to mourn in privacy.

While state lawmakers in both parties largely agreed with those points, Gov. John Hickenlooper was not swayed.

He vetoed Senate Bill 223 on Friday. The bill sought to exempt child autopsy reports from Colorado law that mandates public access to myriad government records.

The state’s major press associations and the nonpartisan Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition opposed the bill. The groups said the autopsy records have been important for critical news work that has identified gaps in the child welfare system. In an interview with KUNC, Hickenlooper said that was a major factor in his decision.

“Oftentimes the community comes together and says, ‘Not again,’ you know, and they’ll change laws,” Hickenlooper said. “They’ll demand change in policies. They want government to enhance various protections and I think in a number of occasions, future harm was prevented by that dialog.”

The Colorado Coroners Association lobbied in favor of the legislation.

“The families are scarred and battered, and they end up having a lot of grief and flashbacks to everything every time it goes into the papers,” said El Paso County Coroner Bob Bux, who lobbied for the association.

Bux was also concerned about the suicide "contagion" effect. That’s when the details about a suicide become public, provoking copycat attempts.

"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.

Suicide is the leading cause of death in Colorado among youth and young adults (ages 10-24).

Hickenlooper said his office talked to experts on teen suicide before issuing a veto to see whether the release of child autopsy records can be linked to suicides.

“By and large what people said again and again is that it’s usually social media that stimulates a copycat suicide among children or it’s what they hear at school from their friends,” Hickenlooper said.

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