A new law going into effect in 2021 will, in part, provide more funding for training in the state's system of death investigation. The change is the first small step toward improving education for chief death investigators statewide, especially elected coroners — who serve about a third of Washington’s population and have a wide array of experience.
The state Legislature passed the Vital Records Modernization Act in 2019. It goes into effect Jan. 1. It makes many changes to how the public accesses vital records from the state Department of Health. But it also increases the fee for obtaining copies of those records by $5 — the first increase of its kind since 2003, according to a release from the state health department. The fee increase supports the state’s vital records offices and the death investigation system.
“These changes will help protect privacy and prevent identity theft, while ensuring the public’s access to these important documents is maintained,” Secretary of Health John Wiesman said in the release. “The laws, rules, and regulations governing vital records in Washington had gone untouched for decades, and these updates are much needed to modernize this critical area of our work.”
The changes include adding a non-binary “X” sex designation option to vital records, requiring data sharing agreements for vital records data — including death data — and limiting the release of certified copies of birth, death and fetal death records, among other changes.
The fee increase, from $20 to $25, applies to five types of vital records: birth and death certificates, fetal death records, and divorce and marriage certificates.
Tim Davidson, president of the Washington Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners, says a couple dollars from each fee levied will fund training for death investigators.
“That was approved by legislators because they know we need the training increased,” Davidson said in an interview earlier this year, as part of our in-depth reporting on the state’s system of death investigation.
Right now, the money will fund an existing 40-hour lecture course that is optional, not necessarily required, for death investigators across Washington’s 39 counties. Davidson says the hope is the funds will eventually funnel into a more robust academy that his group has been working for about a decade to create. That plan would increase those instructional hours sixfold: 240 hours of hands-on education that would range from assisting with autopsies to processing death scenes.
“We’re going to have role players. We’re going to have chaplains in there to help train our people on how to knock on that door at 2 o’clock in the morning to tell them that their child died in a car wreck on the way home last night," Davidson said. He says the training also would teach coroners how to properly go over findings with families and answer their questions.
But it’s unclear how soon that academy will happen, as the Legislature heads into a session with a looming economic crisis resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the interview earlier this year, Davidson said the plan is to lobby to get the new academy established as soon as possible. He says curriculum already is in development, and it would make Washington state a leader in the industry. He believes the instructional changes will solve a lot of the problems that currently exist in the state’s death investigation system.
To learn more about how the new law will affect public access to vital records, visit the state Department of Health’s FAQ page.
Read KNKX's three-part series on Washington state's patchwork system of death investigation.