February 24, 1996 in Nation/World

Doctors Say Amend Snubbed Key Panel Team That Reviews Cause Of Child Deaths Left In Lurch By Coroner

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Spokane County Coroner Dexter Amend is keeping vital information from a team that reviews child deaths since he quit the committee in anger last fall, doctors say.

Amend invites even more lawsuits by snubbing the Spokane County Child Death Review Committee, which works to prevent child deaths and is required under state law, the physicians claim.

Dr. Phil Werschler, president of the Spokane County Medical Society, sent Amend a letter Friday urging him to participate in the child death reviews. He also suggested the coroner’s behavior is unprofessional and a misuse of public office.

In his letter, Werschler scolded Amend for withholding investigative reports “purely for punitive and self-serving reasons.”

“He opens himself to litigation, potentially from the families of children who die and their death investigation is not completed,” Werschler said.

Four claims and lawsuits already have been filed against Amend since he took office 14 months ago. An attorney representing a bereaved family plans to file a fifth next week.

Amend, through his secretary, refused comment.

Amend, a retired urologist, is a longtime member of the medical society Werschler represents.

Death review team members said Amend quit in September because Dr. John Beare, head of the county health district, expressed a lack of confidence in the way Amend reports deaths.

Amend recently changed the cause of death on one certificate after the dead man’s wife claimed it was inaccurate and sued him. A judge ordered Amend to change it or show up in court and explain why he wouldn’t.

When Amend quit the committee, he ordered his employees to boycott the meetings, too, Beare said.

Reviewing child deaths without a coroner’s help is tough, said Mary Ann Murphy, a child-abuse expert and committee member.

“It makes it almost impossible for us to do the work,” Murphy said. “And it’s very important work.”

Police, prosecutors, doctors, and social workers also participate. Together, they piece together details surrounding the deaths of children. They try to find ways to prevent similar deaths and make emergency and medical systems work smoothly.

The coroner’s office has routinely added critical information, members said, such as death certificates and medical records other members can’t get.

Without Amend, “we don’t have data to help us look at the situation surrounding a death,” Beare said.

The death review group’s criticism is the latest problem to surface for the beleaguered coroner.

Earlier this week, county Commissioner Steve Hasson said he wants to meet with Amend to discuss making the coroner pay his own legal bills.

Hasson said the taxpayers’ tab for defending Amend is nearing $45,000 and growing fast. Claims were filed primarily by bereaved families upset with what they see as Amend’s callous handling of their relatives’ deaths.

Dr. Paul Stepak, who heads the death review committee, said Amend’s quitting the team leaves more at stake than potential lawsuits.

“My concern is for the benefit of the community,” Stepak said.

“It’s important to know what keeps children safe and what puts them at risk.”

, DataTimes

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