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Cook County Morgue Overcrowding: Preckwinkle 'Disturbed' Over Conditions, Introduces Overhaul

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Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle announced on Thursday the overhaul of the county medical examiner's office, which has come under fire over recent reports of disturbing conditions.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle announced on Thursday the overhaul of the county medical examiner's office, which has come under fire over recent reports of disturbing conditions.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle on Thursday announced an imminent "overhaul" of the county morgue, which has come under renewed scrutiny over recent reports of bodies being piled up unceremoniously and other "horrendous" conditions.

"I've been as disturbed and ... discouraged and disappointed by information that has come to my attention about the medical examiner’s office, Preckwinkle said at a Thursday news conference, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. "I expect people to lose their jobs."

That information entails reports and photographs, leaked anonymously last week by morgue employees and picked up by various local media outlets, showing bodies -- numbering in the hundreds -- stacked in the office, some left to rot for more than a year while as many as 400 bodies were being kept in a cooler intended to hold less than 300.

Cook County Medical Examiner Dr. Nancy Jones contested that report in an interview with the Tribune, but admitted that the morgue was dealing with a backlog of bodies for which she said slashed state funding was to blame. The funding for the state's indigent burial program was cut last year, essentially dismantling the program and leaving the morgue to pick up the slack.

Jones, hired under the leadership of former county board president Todd Stroger, was not present at the news conference, according to ABC Chicago, but will reportedly remain in her position. Nevertheless, she will clearly be impacted by what Preckwinkle described as "policy and procedural changes that will institute stricter controls, accountability and disciplinary measures throughout the department" coming down the pike.

(Click here to read details of Preckwinkle's overhaul in full and scroll down to watch a clip from her Thursday news conference.)

New policies include limitations in the amount of time bodies can be housed at the morgue, as well as "progressive disciplinary measures" for employees whose job performance is not measuring up.

In response to a report that one family was repeatedly told by medical examiner's office staff that they did not have their loved one's remains although the reverse was true, Preckwinkle said the staff will be educated on new procedures that "standardize office response and enhance customer service."

Commissioner John Fritchey this week also lashed out against the conditions at the morgue and stated that, CBS Chicago reports, "there's no reason why we should be having backlogs of burials going more than 10 months in time. We need to figure out how those systems need to be changed, change them, and get these changes put in place as soon as we can."

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