Nearly a year later, a mother waits for closure in son’s death as NC medical examiner’s office faces challenges

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — A mother’s been waiting almost a year for closure and answers. Kelley Blas is waiting for the official cause of her son’s death.

On June 21, 2023, Blas lost her son John Steen to an accidental overdose.

“We don’t know what exactly it was that took John, because we don’t have a toxicology report, we don’t have an autopsy, we don’t have a death certificate,” Blas said.

Blas said she never thought she’d be waiting upwards of 11 months to receive the documents. 

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services said there are staffing troubles at the Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME.)

“NCDHHS has ongoing concerns about staff vacancies and high turnover at OCME, which have a negative impact on the system’s ability to maintain high-quality services for North Carolinians,” said NCDHHS.

Read more: Nearly a year later, a mother waits for closure in son’s death as NC medical examiner’s office faces challenges

Blas knows how much closure those reports could bring. She lost her older son David to an intentional overdose in 2017 after struggles with mental health.  Four months after David’s death, Blas said she received the papers she once again is waiting for.

“I only could open it up just to read the cause of death, which I knew what it was, but I needed, I needed to see it,” Blas said. “And once I saw it, I closed it and locked it up in a box and I haven’t really looked at it since then. But it just gave me a sense of just, okay, this part is done, I don’t have to think of my child being in a morgue.”

DHHS said each case is different, so there is no typical time frame for completing reports. 

Blas said the state medical examiner’s office told her John’s case is complete, but pending pathology review.

OCME has 15 permanent state positions that are vacant, equal to a 20% vacancy rate, according to NCDHHS. NCDHHS said that includes four vacant pathologist positions (out of 13.)

At the same time, the caseload is growing, with a 26% case increase from 2019 to 2023, according to NCDHHS. The department said it is undoubtedly influenced by a 69% rise in suspected overdose deaths.

“A backlog in OCME creates challenges for law enforcement, attorneys, our public health partners and for the families and communities left behind,” said NCDHHS.

Blas emphasizes she’s not the only one waiting for closure, hearing stories of similar or longer waits from other families who lost also lost children to overdoses.

“When you lose someone, that already causes suffering, and then when you have to compound that by extending these waits longer and longer, I just, I’m not sure that others really understand what that’s like,” Blas said.

NCDHHS pointed to several recommendations in Governor Roy Cooper’s proposed budget, including:

  • Support expanded capacity by adding 35 permanent, state-funded positions to the OCME workforce;    
  • Strengthen and support local medical examiners by increasing their payments from $200 to $400 per case and would more adequately cover the cost of their time and mileage to/from a scene;   
  • Ensure local medical examiners are adequately supplied with scene kits, cameras and other necessary equipment to do their job;   
  • Improve communication for families, law enforcement, attorneys and others about the status of a medical examiner case by developing a 24-hour call center and self-service portal to more timely deliver case status information;    
  • Allow OCME to fully staff second and weekend shifts by providing compensation for OCME staff who are assigned non-traditional work hours; and   
  • Increase OCME’s ability to handle more cases though the much-needed expansion/renovation of the OCME location in Raleigh.    

Read the article and watch the video on the CBS17 website.

‘North Carolina has a problem’: Task force discusses rise in child fentanyl deaths

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – More children in North Carolina are dying from fentanyl in recent years. The North Carolina Child Fatality Task Force took a closer look at those deaths and what could be done to prevent them during its meeting Thursday.

The N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner Chief Toxicologist Sandra C. Bishop-Freeman shared the harrowing data with the task force.

“It has become clear that fentanyl is the first and foremost opioid that is currently causing illicit deaths in the pediatric population,” said Bishop-Freeman.

Bishop-Freeman said 108 North Carolina children died from fentanyl in the past decade, most of them are teenagers or are babies and toddlers.

“We have older individuals that are using the drug recreationally, either knowingly or unknowingly, and toddlers and infants that are finding the drug through exploration,” Bishop-Freeman said.

She said there’s been a huge increase in the past few years, with 35 fentanyl deaths in 2022 for teenagers and children below 5.

Marty McCaffrey sits on the state committee that reviews child deaths.

“It’s always been the worst meeting and the most horrific meeting I go to every month, but over the last couple of years I will say, if it’s possible, it’s gotten even more horrible,” McCaffrey said.

McCaffrey and others in the meeting said when it comes to solutions, safe storage is critical.

He suggests giving mothers who have known substance abuse issues secure boxes. He also suggests that after a mother gives birth hospitals should send her home with Narcan if doctors know the children in that home may be at risk for coming in contact with drugs.

“I mean, we’re going to have to accept, and really change our culture, about how we deal with some of these moms, all of these moms, with substance use, and recognize there’s good harm reduction strategies we have to start employing,” McCaffrey said.

Read the article and watch the video on the CBS17 website.

NC OCME Reports Updated

Fentvic has recieved updated reports from the North Carolina Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME). Latest reports can be found here on the Fentvic website.

There were 266 fentanyl-positive deaths in July 2023 compared to 251 in July 2022. Year to date, there is a 6% increase (2,045) compared to this time last year, January to July 2022 (1,926).

Data Source: NC OCME Toxicology data; NC OCME Toxicology is nationally accredited by the American Board of Forensic Toxicology, Inc. NC OCME Toxicology provides forensic analytical testing of specimens for all 100 counties of the statewide medical examiner system. Toxicology results are based on blood, vitreous fluid, or other specimens used for testing at the discretion of the pathologist and/or toxicologist. For additional information regarding these reports, please contact

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