Chapter one: 'Our hands are tied'
Closure is essential in the healing process after losing a loved one, but now, some families are having to wait for that because of delays within the Medical Examiner's Office of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Last August, Tawana Hogan lost her husband of 10 years, William.
She says one Sunday morning, he was having stomach pain so he stayed home from church.
When she got back, Hogan said his condition had gotten much worse.
"Paramedics had to come to the house. We were on the way to the ER, but we didn't make it. Even the doctor was dumbfounded about the fact how he was 43, seemingly healthy. He didn't understand it," Hogan said.
Hogan says she asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation for an autopsy.
She wanted to know if hereditary factors or underlying health problems could have killed her husband, but she also wanted closure -- for herself, their 9-year-old daughter and the rest of his family.
"I was told it would probably take some time. I was thinking maybe three months, maybe four months," Hogan said.
Bibb County Coroner Leon Jones says it typically takes around three months for the GBI to give a cause of death, but now, Hogan has been waiting for nearly 6 months.
"Every day, I'm going to the mailbox because I want to see if the results are in the mail," Hogan said.
So we asked, "Why is it taking longer for families to learn the cause of death?"
In a statement, Nelly Miles with the GBI says that's partly due to the overall increase in deaths in Georgia.
The statement also says some autopsies have been delayed because of the bureau's problem with hiring medical examiners.
Jones says dozens of families just like Hogan's are still waiting for answers.
"Our hands are tied. The family will call and want to know, 'Have any results on my baby? You have any results on my husband? You have any results on my daughter?' We have to tell them, 'No, we don't have results yet because of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation has not gave us the cause of death,' and that's all we can do," Jones said.
Jones says the backlog can also cause legal delays for grieving families, including filing a life insurance claim or settling the deceased's estate.
"The death certificate is a legal document. It cannot be signed until we get the cause of death. Families cannot take care of their business because they don't have a death certificate," Jones said.
For now, Hogan is still waiting and checking her mailbox.
"There's not a day that doesn't go by that I'm not trying to come up with my own conclusion," Hogan said. "I go back over the scenario of the process of how it happened and how he got progressively worse," but she also says she doesn't just want an answer -- she wants the truth.
"I want the report to be very thorough. I don't want a rushed job. I don't want any stones unturned, so if that means I have to wait, then I just have to wait," Hogan said.
Family speaks about delay in getting cause of death from GBI
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation also added in their statement that they are having discussions with the Governor's Office and Georgia legislators about the GBI's budget to carry out the agency's "critical function" for the state.
State Senator David Lucas and Representative Robert Dickey both say they have pushed for more money in the budget for the GBI Medical Examiner's Office to hire more Medical Examiners.
Rep. Dickey says they were able to add $427,400 in the amended 2021 budget for recruitment and retention of medical examiners for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
He says the country is seeing a shortage of medical examiners and the GBI is struggling to hire them.
Dickey says he, as a legislator, has gotten involved in a case where a constituent had not heard back about a cause of death for their loved one. Dickey estimated that constituents had been waiting for about 4 months to hear back from the GBI.
“Just not good at all. We got to do better than that,” said Rep. Dickey.
The GBI Medical Examiner's Office in Macon closed in October, but partially opened for some autopsies three days a week in mid-January.
Coroner Leon Jones says, still, all autopsies for possible homicide victims must be done in DeKalb County.