The idea of changing Colorado law to make autopsy reports on minors unavailable to the public is rooted in human decency.
Who among us doesn't sympathize with the parents of children who die? A bill moving quickly through the Legislature aims to end the practice of making all autopsy reports public in the name of protecting the privacy of families that have suffered the loss of a child.
It's a bad idea for two reasons: The first is simple accountability. Taxpayers fund the Mesa County Coroner's Office to the tune of $465,000 a year. Every report the coroner's office issues is essentially an expensive public record. How can we be assured coroners are doing their jobs correctly and within the parameters of the law if we can't see their work product?
Decency lies at the heart of the other reason. Autopsies on children are often the only way to know if they've been abused or if abuse caused their deaths. Colorado media outlets have relied on autopsies to expose instances when children have fallen through the cracks of the child welfare system.
Closing the door on public access to these reports in the name of decency makes it more difficult to get justice for abuse victims. There's nothing decent about that.
Proponents of Senate Bill 223, sponsored by Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, will argue that law enforcement officials will still have access to autopsy reports so that they can decide when criminal charges should apply in a minor's death.
Our own District Attorney Dan Rubinstein is among those who support the bill. With childhood fatalities, there's a compelling public interest to know that the death wasn't the result of negligence or abuse. Without access to autopsy reports, the public relinquishes first-hand information about the cause of death and instead relies on public officials to decide what we can know about these cases.
It allows public officials to make decisions in a vaccuum, knowing the public won't be able to question the validity of those decisions. Lawmakers should be wary of potential abuses of the public's trust. Any bill that reduces transparency in government had better fix a problem that outweighs the public's right to know. We don't think this bill meets that standard.
Mesa County Coroner Dean Havlik is at odds with the stance of the Colorado Coroners Association, which is pushing for the bill. Havlik raises the issue of fairness — are parents due more privacy considerations than anyone else?
"In some ways, I understand why those involved want to do this, but in other ways I'm not sure why they would pick out this particular group to have the reports be confidential," Havlik wrote in an email to the Sentinel's Gabrielle Porter. "I would think you either just have everyone's autopsy report confidential or none of them confidential."
The bill is scheduled to come before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday. Let's hope House members are more mindful of the implications than the Senate, which gave the bill near-unanimous approval last week.