GREENFIELD — He got to work right away.
Once the dust had settled, and the votes were counted, David Stillinger said he stepped into his new role as the county’s elected coroner as quickly as he could. He made appointments to the office’s leadership, set meetings with key local officials and started asking questions about how the coroners office could improve.
In the first few weeks of his first term, Stillinger has quickly gotten to work making adjustments he promised during his campaign.
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He’s worked to create resource guides for those who have lost a loved one, started the process of digitizing important coroner records and moved autopsies to a local facility – all with the goal of better serving Hancock County families.
Setting the standard
Stillinger’s campaign for the coroners office was rooted in his experience helping grieving families deal with the loss of a loved one — an important task he says he faces every day working as owner and funeral director of Stillinger Family Funeral Home-Pasco Chapel in Greenfield.Though coroners are often required to investigate deaths that are considered suspicious, they are also called to scenes where a person has died alone, either naturally, by accident or suicide.
Those are some of the most difficult moments local families have to face, Stillinger said, and he wants the coroners called to the scene to be as helpful and understanding as possible.
In his first few days in office, Stillinger created a packet of information for coroners to give to families who have suffered a loss. It contains an alphabetized list of all the funeral homes in Hancock County and pamphlets about other resources offered locally. The coroner will offer to make initial contact with a funeral home for a family, so that their loved one’s body can be transported quickly and with ease, and burial can be planned.
Coroners won’t try to impact a family’s choice in funeral facility, Stillinger said; they’ll simply serve as a resource to a family in need.
“We’ll try to give everyone the same care and concern and treat them fairly,” he said.
Going forward, Stillinger wants to see deputies submit their reports digitally and do away with most, if not all, paper documents. He plans to seek funding from county leaders to purchase computers and a special software program created specifically for coroners and medical examiners to organize their records.Doing so would create an online database, making records more easily accessible for the public, he said.
Historically, deputy coroners kept their own case files, filled with paper documents from various investigations, rather than storing them at the central coroner’s office in the basement of the Hancock County Jail.
If a member of the community called the office with a question, the coroner had to call around to various deputies to track down an answer.
Centralizing digital records is the first in a series of standard operating procedures Stillinger and his chief deputy, Dan Devoy, plan to put in place in the coming months.
They plan to craft guidelines governing each step of coroners’ death investigations, instructing them how to properly collect and store evidence and which agencies to contact in various emergency situations, Devoy said.
Having such rules in place ensures ever coroner who investigates a death does so in the same, professional way, Devoy said.
Close to home
Historically, the county has relied on pathologists from Marion County to perform some autopsies, especially for homicides and other criminal cases, Stillinger said — a decision that has been debated at various times during the last two administrations.The practice takes law enforcement — including police, coroners and prosecutors — out of the county for hours at a time while the procedure is completed, straining departments that have long complained of staff shortages.
It can also carry a costly price tag, officials said: Autopsies in Marion County cost about $1,400 in addition to the transportation and overtime costs detectives can rack up for a lengthy investigation. Having autopsies performed at Hancock Regional Hospital are a few hundred dollars cheaper than in Marion County.
Any savings is important, Stillinger said; twice in recent years, county officials have been forced to transfer upwards of $20,000 extra into the coroner’s $57,000 operating budget budget to cover unpaid autopsy bills. In 2016, 24 autopsies were preformed on people who died in Hancock County, officials said; more than half were sent to Marion County to be examined.
In the next year, Stillinger promises a coroner’s office that works hard to protect taxpayer dollars while meeting families’ needs when they need support most.
“You’re meeting these people at the worst time in their lives,” he said. “We can take care of them to the best of our abilities.”