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Forensic Anthropology

 

The Forensic Anthropology Division brings expertise in skeletal recovery and analysis to the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences. The Division is comprised of three doctoral level physical anthropologists and an identification specialist. The forensic anthropologists are responsible for the

The forensic anthropologists are responsible for the recovery of skeletal, buried and severely burned remains...
recovery of skeletal, buried and severely burned remains; developing a skeletal profile and analysis of bone traumas, pathologies, and taphonomic changes of skeletal cases; and consulting on bone traumas

 

and pathologies on non-skeletal cases. They are also directly involved in the identification of unidentified decedents through compiling decedent descriptions, disseminating the descriptions, and conducting skeletal radiograph comparisons to establish positive identification. Under the direction of the Anthropology Division are the Skeletal Recovery Team and the Identification Unit.

The mission of the HCIFS Forensic Anthropology Division is to provide anthropologic consultation at the direction of the medical examiner using methods and standards accepted by the field of forensic anthropology to ensure all avenues for identification are explored for each unidentified decedent, to collect and submit family reference DNA samples, to maintain records of all DNA identification cases, and to refer all unclaimed decedents for county burial.

 


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Identification Unit

 

The Identification Unit (ID Unit) is an innovative yet fundamental component of the Forensic Anthropology Division. Decedents are often discovered in circumstances where there is no information regarding the individual's identity. These decedents are temporarily listed as "Unknown" or entered into the records by a tentative name. The ID Unit works with law enforcement and other resources to identify the decedent. The Identification Unit is comprised of Forensic Anthropologists and an Identification Specialist who participates in and also tracks the identification process on each of these cases.

The ID Unit works with law enforcement and other resources to identify the decedent.
  

Scientific identification is required when a person cannot be viewed by family members or is a homicide victim. A scientific identification is established when a fingerprint, dental x-ray, or skeletal x-ray taken before death is positively compared to a fingerprint, dental x-ray, or skeletal x-ray taken after death. When an appropriate record is unavailable, the DNA of the decedent is compared to the DNA of a biological relative. If a strong kinship index is established between the family reference sample and the decedent sample, the decedent is classified as positively identified through DNA comparison. All tentatively identified decedents and homicide victims must be scientifically identified prior to release from the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences. An exception is the release of a decedent based on a presumptive identification. A presumptive identification is made when a decedent is viewable, the family does not intend to cremate the body and the attending pathologist and Chief or Deputy Chief Medical Examiner are comfortable with the circumstances. A decedent is not cremated until positively identified.

When an unidentified decedent is received, the ID Unit staff compiles a decedent description which includes all identifying markers: the demographics (age, race, sex, and stature); scars; marks; tattoos; and personal items. The descriptions are released to local missing persons units, National Crime Information Center, HCIFS website, and National Association of Medical Examiner's Unidentified Decedent website at udrs.orainc.com. All leads gained through the various agencies are compared to the decedent descriptions for possible matches.

Friends and family members searching for a missing loved one are directed to the ID Unit. The ID Unit staff will then compare the description of the missing individual to all unknown decedents currently within the facility. ID Unit members cannot initiate a search beyond those decedents received by the HCIFS. All individuals who need to report missing loved ones are strongly encouraged to report the missing individual to law enforcement. Only a law enforcement agency can initiate a regional and national search.

The ID Unit staff also attempt to locate family or friends to notify them of a loved one's demise. If the next of kin is not found through multi-faceted search, the Identification Specialist forwards the name of the decedent to the local newspapers for assistance in locating the next of kin through a published notice. If next of kin is not found or the decedent remains unidentified, he/she is referred to Harris County Social Services Bereavement Services (HCSS) for burial. The Identification Specialist also serves as the liaison with HCSS regarding release of decedents who are eligible for low-cost county burial services.

 

 

Skeletal Recovery Team

 

The Skeletal Recovery Team (SRT) is a specialized unit consisting of Forensic Anthropologists and Forensic Investigators. All members of the SRT have post-graduate training in human skeletal anatomy and skeletal recovery methods. The team responds to skeletal, buried, and severely burned scenes, using organized search strategies and archaeological methods to properly search, excavate and document the scenes. The SRT works to ensure skeletal and burned decedents are fully documented and carefully recovered for medical-legal examination and identification.

 

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Forensic Investigations

 

Forensic Investigations consists of forensic investigators with diverse areas of specialized expertise, which include:

  • Forensic Sciences
  • Criminal Justice
  • Forensic Anthropology
  • Forensic Entomology
  • Forensic Nursing
  • Physician Assistant

 

Forensic investigators are responsible for conducting medicolegal death investigations by developing death reports in accordance with Article 49.25 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.

Forensic Investigations consists of specialized programs and personnel to assist families and to aid in death investigations...

Forensic investigators respond to scenes of death and gather preliminary circumstantial and historical information from law enforcement, families and medical personnel. They document their findings with photographs, measurements and temperature readings. While at a scene, a forensic investigator will conduct a preliminary physical examination of a body including collecting and preserving physical and biological evidence for further forensic investigation and testing. Investigators develop a written summary of their findings for review by a forensic pathologist.

In accordance with the policies and procedures set forth by the Executive Director and Chief Medical Examiner and designees, the Forensic Investigations staff supervises the transport and receipt of deceased individuals to the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences in order to protect and secure the remains, personal property and the integrity of any evidence or specimens. Investigators are responsible for accurate identification of each deceased individual and for ensuring the next of kin has been notified of the death.

Forensic Investigations consists of specialized programs and personnel to assist families and to aid in death investigations, including:

  • Family Assistance Program
  • Forensic Entomology Program
  • Forensic Nurse and Physician Assistant Investigator Program

 

Forensic Investigations is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week throughout the year on day, evening and night shifts.

 

Family Assistance Program

 

Through its Family Assistance Program, the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences helps families through the initial crisis of death by providing extended services.

The role of the victim’s assistance specialist is to serve as the primary contact for families...

As the first program of its kind in the United States, Family Assistance employs a licensed masters-level social worker to serve as a victim’s assistance specialist. The role of the victim’s assistance specialist is to serve as the primary contact for families regarding cases that fall under the jurisdiction of the medical examiner and to provide families with guidance to victim’s service agencies and appropriate social support groups within the community. All suggested services are nonprofit and in close geographic proximity to families in need.

Click here to learn more about assistance available to families.

The victim’s assistance specialist is also available to respond to and assist forensic investigators at scenes of death. At a scene, the victim’s assistance specialist is able to help family members in person and to serve as a liaison between the families and the investigators in obtaining information critical to the investigation of a death.

The Institute, through the Family Assistance Program, also partners with area chaplaincy organizations to provide in-person death notifications. The chaplains, who are volunteers with local law enforcement agencies, are able to deliver in-person, face-to-face death notifications with sensitivity and respect for the deceased and their families.

 

Forensic Nurse/Physician Assistant Program

 

Forensic nurse or physician assistant investigators incorporate aspects of health care to the scientific investigation of trauma and death as well as knowledge of criminal justice and forensic sciences. The Institute’s forensic nurse and physician assistant investigators are registered practitioners who specialize in death investigation and apply their medical training to the full duration of the medicolegal death investigation process.

...incorporate aspects of health care to the scientific investigation...

The Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences was the first medical examiners’/coroners’ office in Texas to establish a full-time Forensic Nurse and Physician Assistant Investigator Program. The nurse or physician assistant collaborates with various interdisciplinary agencies identifying trends related to injury and death. Forensic nurse and physician assistant investigators also conduct and participate in research as another component of their role. Drawing on their knowledge of nursing, anatomy, physiology, pharmacology and family interaction, the forensic nurse and physician assistant investigator is able to analyze the medical aspects of death cases as approximately 38 percent of deaths reported annually to the Institute occur due to natural causes.

The forensic nurse and physician assistant investigators also apply their medical expertise and knowledge of forensic sciences to help grieving family members understand the cause and manner of their loved ones death.

Click here to learn more about forensic nurse death investigators..

 

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Morgue Services

 

The Morgue Administrative Staff initiates the computerized documentation of each case and notifies the correct agencies in regards to removal of the deceased. The autopsy assistants' main duties include assisting the pathologist during examination and also transporting deceased persons from their respective places of death to the HCIFS. Preference funeral homes, those selected by families, are allowed to transport natural deaths to the HCIFS for examination. Occasionally, an autopsy assistant will be responsible for preserving and collecting evidence, collecting and safe keeping of the deceased's personal effects, and assisting law enforcement personnel at crime scenes. The utilization of autopsy assistants at crime scenes is beneficial due to their knowledge and experience.

 

 

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Forensic Imaging

 

The mission of Forensic Imaging is to provide photographic documentation for each case processed through the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, and to promote a professional visual quality to all photographic, video, web and graphic presentation produced by the office.

 

Forensic Imaging performs a variety of functions within the Institute of Forensic Sciences including forensic photography, photo documentation of physical evidence for the crime laboratory, graphic design, web design and video production. A staff of forensic photographers are chiefly responsible for photographic documentation of each autopsy performed at the Institute. Under the medical examiner service, photographers are on call 24 hours a day to respond to any scene of death. On average, more than 300,000 photographs are taken each year at the Institute.

On average, more than 300,000 photographs are taken each year at the Institute

Forensic Imaging staff serves as photography instructors and consultants to other Institute of Forensic Sciences’ personnel as well as law enforcement, criminal justice and medical personnel in and around Harris County. Forensic Imaging’s Forensic Photography Internship provides an opportunity for photography students to get hands-on experience and training in forensic photography applications.

Forensic Imaging provides multimedia services for the Institute through the development of print materials and publications as well as the development of technical solutions for training and education through various platforms including web, video, print and computer applications.

 

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Forensic Emergency Management

 

  

The mission of the Forensic Emergency Management Division is to ensure that the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences is prepared to respond to any disaster or incident that does or has the potential to disrupt the agency’s capacity to perform its designated function. This includes incidents that may result in a surge in the number and complexity of fatalities.

The Forensic Emergency Management division carries out its mission by:

  • Developing and maintaining the Institute’s Emergency Preparedness, Continuity of Operations, and Mass Fatality standard operating procedures
  • Participating in the development of inter-agency mass fatality planning documents
  • Competing for and acquiring grant funds in support of these plans
  • Implementing trainings that exercise Institute’s preparedness and mass fatality response capabilities
  • Maintaining partnerships with county and regional emergency preparedness and response partner agencies
  • Performing scientific research to bolster the Institute and regional mass fatality preparedness
  • Providing guidance/subject matter expertise to county and regional agencies on local planning efforts
  • Maintaining a Mass Fatality Response Team staffed by morgue and laboratory personnel who are available for county-wide rapid response
  • Managing and exercising the Institute’s safety procedures

 

Acquired in spring 2013, the Disaster Portable Morgue Unit (DPMU) provides the equipment required for mobile morgue operations. This unit is available state-wide as well as in Harris County to provide full-scale morgue services should an incident occur that damages the Institute's facility, has the potential for contamination, or requires morgue operations to be closer to an incident site.

Click below to view a time-lapse video of the DPMU set up in the span of approximately six hours.

 

 

 

DPMU News Coverage:

Harris County unveils new portable morgue unit KHCW/Channel 39, June 17, 2014

(En Español) Preparan morgue móvil para atender desastres Univision/Channel 45, June 18, 2014

 

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Forensic Entomology

 

Forensic Entomology is the study of insects and insect lifecycles for death investigation purposes. The Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences is the only medical examiners’/coroners’ office in the United States with a full-time forensic entomologist on staff who responds to scenes of death with forensic investigators and has the ability to provide forensic pathologists and law enforcement agencies with analysis of forensic entomological evidence to assist in death investigations.

...provide forensic pathologists and law enforcement agencies with analysis of forensic entomological evidence to assist in death investigations.

The forensic entomologist brings a specialized skill set to death investigations that enables a more thorough evaluation of the circumstances surrounding a death. The entomologist collects and examines entomological evidence to estimate a time-since-death interval. A small, validated time-since-death interval often is critical in establishing a timeline surrounding criminal activity or in limiting numerous potential matches when working a case where the deceased individual is unidentified. Entomological evidence can also be used to document movement of a deceased individual from one environment, or place, to another. In some instances deaths can be directly related to insect stings, and in these instances, an entomologist’s input can be critical in determining cause of death and in determining public health implications.

 

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Histology

 

The HCIFS employs two full-time, trained histotechnologists...

At the time of autopsy, the effects of many disease processes, injuries and toxic effects are readily recognizable with the naked eye. However, some pathological changes will require microscopic examination for recognition or to provide adequate documentation. In order for organs to be examined under the microscope, a small sample ("biopsy") of each organ to be examined, must be chemically processed, mounted on a glass slide and appropriately stained. The HCIFS employs two full-time, trained histotechnologists to process these tissue samples for microscopic examination by the pathologists. The histotechnologists also play an active role in the archiving of glass slides, "wet tissue" samples, and other anatomical specimens as may be deemed necessary for civil or criminal litigation.

 

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