Thanks to the enduring popularity of TV crime dramas, most people are aware that a coroner’s office handles autopsies and determines the cause of death in instances of suspected foul play.
Less well known is that those cases make up just a small percentage of total death investigations, and that a coroner’s office also handles all rape and sexual assault testing and the evaluation and, if necessary, involuntary commitment of people with mental health problems.
Each year in Jefferson Parish, that all amounts to 3,500 death investigations, close to 15,000 calls for mental health commitments, and almost 400 rape and sexual assault investigations.
The Jefferson Coroner’s Office does it all on an annual budget of about $6 million, close to two-thirds of which is funded by a 1-mill property tax that will go before voters for renewal next month. The current tax expires after this year.
The election will be May 4, with early voting beginning Saturday.
The tax costs the owner of a $200,000 house with a homestead exemption $12.50 a year.
Jefferson Parish Coroner Gerry Cvitanovich said the renewal is crucial to the work of his office, which has about 30 employees at the Jefferson Parish Forensic Center in Harvey. At least two employees are on duty around the clock to handle calls across all segments of the forensic center’s duties.
The 1-mill tax accounts for about $3.7 million per year, with the rest of the budget funded by a 0.5-mill constitutionally mandated millage, grants and fees for work the Jefferson office performs for about 10 other neighboring jurisdictions.
About half of the office’s operating budget funds death investigations, only about 40 of which a year are for homicides; they also include drug overdoses and other accidental deaths. About 40% of the budget funds the office’s mental health work, and about 10% is for its sexual assault and rape investigations.
Jefferson Parish has seen opioid deaths and drug overdoses in general rise by about a third in the last five years. The Coroner’s Office also handles community outreach and educational programs to try to combat the drug abuse problem.
“We continue to have more and more opiate overdoses,” Cvitanovich said, noting a rise in fentanyl-related deaths in particular. Fentanyl is 100 times stronger than morphine and has been responsible for a growing number of overdose deaths due to its potency.
Cvitanovich said that while fentanyl has typically been available as a liquid injection or skin patch, within the last year, it has increasingly shown up locally in pill form, making it easier for people who think they are taking another drug to overdose.
Someone will think they are taking a Vicodin, Xanax or Percocet, “and what they’re really buying is mostly fentanyl,” he said.
Cvitanovich said the surge in opiate addiction fuels the workload at the Coroner’s Office on more than one front.
“The opioid crisis gets us on several levels,” he said. “It gets us on the death side, but additionally, there is a large overlap between substance abuse and mental health. We’re getting more calls in mental health for people with drug issues. And those (cases), unfortunately, are difficult to commit.”
Cvitanovich said death investigations have been stable in recent years, while there has been a modest uptick in rape and sexual assault tests in last two years. The big jump has been in mental health commitments, which have doubled in the last 10 years, in keeping with national trends.
The Coroner’s Office handles mental health evaluations and commits people found to be mentally ill to treatment facilities. It also handles the process that allows hospitals to keep patients beyond 72 hours for evaluation.
Another recent change is the opening of a new Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner suite at Tulane Lakeside Hospital. Traditionally, rape and sexual assault tests were administered in the emergency room at Lakeside, but the new facility, which has been in operation for a few weeks, is a more private environment with an interview room, an examination room with an attached bathroom, dressing room and shower.
Having a separate interview room minimizes the time the victim spends in the examination room, and separate private facilities to clean up and get dressed improve the process as well.
“The best way to handle victims of sexual assault is to put them in a private area away from everyone else so they can be cared for properly,” Cvitanovich said.
Correction: This story was changed on April 15, 2019 to note that the coroner's office gets about 15,000 calls for mental health commitments.