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Iowa explains backlog of autopsies

Published: Oct. 6, 2020 at 8:39 PM CDT
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COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa (WOWT) - The Iowa Department of Human Services said it’s a lack of resources causing the long delays — a problem Iowa funeral homes said they’re no stranger to.

“It was pre-pandemic. It’s been an issue going on for quite a while with the state medical examiners office,” Iles Funeral Home director John Wild said.

Ninety-six of Iowa’s 99 counties send bodies to the state medical examiner in Ankeny for autopsies. Only nine people in Iowa are trained to perform them, four of which work at the state office. This lack of trained professionals means families can wait for weeks to bury a loved one.

“It’s just brutal for them to have to wait that period of time until they can experience support from family and friends when a death occurs,” Wild said.

A heartbreaking wait a Council Bluffs family experienced recently when their 2-year-old died.

“I felt like that was unacceptable. It’s unacceptable for anybody. We’re already dealing with a pretty hefty tragedy and to think about mom’s little girl sitting up there just waiting,” The aunt of 22-year-old Ellie, Jamie Behrend said.

Autopsies are performed when sudden, unnatural, suspicious, or violent deaths happen. Five years ago the state performed around 700 a year, but that number swelled to over 1,000 in 2019.

Ellie’s family was able to sign paperwork forgoing an autopsy, but they want to see changes so other Iowans aren’t stuck in their shoes.

“Having her back here doesn’t make everything better but at least we know where she is, mom knows where she is. Mom can be at peace we can put her to rest,” Behrend said.

The state is trying to hire more people to help with the caseload but it can take up to a year to hire someone because the workforce is so limited. The state is working with lawmakers to get more resources to address the problem and help families get closure.

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