A bill spurred by a local woman’s anger that her deceased son’s heart was retained by the San Mateo County Coroner’s Office without her knowledge is being opposed by the state Coroners’ Association.
Opposition by the group is likely to make passage of the bill, which would require the notification of next-of-kin if an organ or tissue samples of a deceased family member are retained, more difficult, according to Assemblyman Gene Mullin, D-South San Francisco, who authored the bill and said he remains optimistic.
“As introduced, AB 1054 is problematic and we must oppose the measure unless it is amended,” said Cathy Valceschini, president of the California State Coroners’ Association in a draft letter to Mullin.
Mullin authored the bill at the urging of local officials after Daly City resident Selina Picon shocked supervisors by telling them she had unknowingly buried her 23-year-old son, Nicolas, without his heart because the San Mateo County Coroner’s Office retained it.
The state Coroners’ Association says the bill would be unnecessarily restrictive, open the door to lawsuits and cost coroners money they don’t have to implement.
Picon’s revelations came to light last month, along with those of family friend Debra Maher, who learned tissue samples of her recently deceased son were retained without her knowledge. Supervisors called for notification if an organ is retained and are weighing whether more strict restrictions, such as compelling the coroner to obtain next-of-kin consent before retaining an organ, should be part of a new county policy being formulated.
While opposing Mullin’s bill as drafted, the association supports legislation that would accomplish timely notification of next-of-kin without unnecessary restrictions, liabilities and costs, Valceschini said.
“I think they’re more inclined to take a status quo approach because it makes less work for them,” Supervisor Jerry Hill said, referring to the association’s opposition.
The state Coroners’ Association opposition won’t affect the county as it moves ahead with its own policy update, Hill said. “Families have a right to know what happens to their loved ones and that includes all of their body parts.”
Picon is considering filing a claim against the coroner, the first step to a lawsuit, her attorney, Ayanna Jenkins-Toney, said on Monday.
State law gives coroners the authority to retain organs and tissue samples in order to investigate a deceased victim’s cause of death, according to Coroner Robert Foucrault. Because Nicolas died of a heart condition, his heart was retained so that it could be sent for examination by a specialist, Foucrault said.
Conflicting law, however, makes it unclear whether coroners must notify families if an organ is retained, according to Jenkins-Toney. Furthermore, Nicolas’ death wasn’t a mystery and so his heart shouldn’t have been retained, Picon said. “There was nothing to investigate. They knew the day he died what he died of and we were told the next day,” Picon said.
“The fact that the Coroners’ Association isn’t supportive of tightening upthe law shows they aren’t in favor of families and the deceased,” Jenkins-Toney said.