Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021
The news that Jessica Aldama, 33, was found dead along with her baby in early October drew community concern in a way that few deaths of unhoused persons — of which there are dozens each year — rarely do. But annual reports from Boulder County’s coroner shows that Aldama’s baby was not the first among the unhoused to die.
Two other fetal deaths have occurred in Boulder County, according to coroner reports: One in 2014 and one just last year.
The cause of death was not recorded in either case. Boulder Beat has requested additional information and is awaiting autopsy reports for the 2020 incident.
Fetal deaths are defined in Colorado statute as a death prior to the complete birth or removal of a fetus from its mother, “irrespective of the duration of the pregnancy.” A stillbirth or stillborn death is defined separately as a death after the twentieth week of pregnancy.
It’s unclear if the two past fetals deaths fall under those definitions. The coroner’s report used the language “fetal demise,” and police and news reports used the term newborn to describe Aldama’s baby, who friends and family say she planned to also name Jessica.
The cause of death for Aldama and her baby are still unknown. A coroner’s report is expected to take several weeks.
Few details are known about Aldama’s last days. Initial reports said police officers from the Homeless Outreach Team took her to the People’s Clinic for treatment and that she was referred to Boulder Community Hospital. It’s unclear if Aldama ever went to the hospital; BCH declined comment, citing the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which bars release of patient information for 50 years after their death.
Despite having disclosed some information about Aldama’s treatment, interactions and where she was transported by the HOT, city officials declined to share more details until the coroner’s report is final.
State law prevents the disclosure of any details for people who receive social services or public benefits — covering anyone interacting with the entire system of services for the unhoused.
There’s “great stigma” around receiving government benefits, said Deputy Boulder County Attorney Jeanne Banghart on Tuesday. “There’s a really good reason for these strict confidentiality rules. If details were available to the public, those disclosures create a disincentive” to getting help or reporting people who many need help.
As elected officials noted at Tuesday’s city council meeting, this secrecy can also make it hard to identify if deaths are due to barriers that keep people from seeking services, or a need for services that simply don’t exist.
“We’re trying to find what’s actionable, to find what the gaps are and how to fill in the gaps,” said Mayor Sam Weaver. “How do we find the systemic problems without betraying confidentiality?”
“There’s no good answer to your question,” City Attorney Sandra Llanes said. “We have to abide by the confidentiality laws that are in place.”
There is a local group charged with investigating child fatalities, Banghart said. They have access to privileged information about individual cases, which they use “to find out if there are any means by which any child fatalities can be prevented.”
Reports are issued, Banghart said, but it’s unclear to whom, or which government agency or group is responsible for acting on their recommendations. Boulder Beat was unable to locate any publicly available information on the local child fatality review team or past fetal deaths among the unhoused.
It does not appear that there is a similar group tasked with reviewing the deaths of unhoused individuals. City council did have a discussion in early 2020, following an annual ceremony — held each December — for members of the unhoused community who died the previous year.
But the number of unhoused persons dying from hypothermia has also increased. More than a third (38%) of deaths in 2020 were due solely to hypothermia, according to coroner reports, compared to 14% over the past decade (2011-2020).
Five individuals died from hypothermia last year in Boulder County; 10 since 2011. Hypothermia was also a factor in five other deaths over the past decade, though none last year.
“It’s a small number of people,” councilwoman Rachel Friend said, “but it’s alarming.”
Friend requested a discussion of deaths among the unhoused, scheduled for Tuesday. Council was provided with this data in a previous meeting packet — the night of the CU South annexation vote. Notes began on Page 281, under the title “Update on the Impact of Recent Changes to Shelter Utilization Policies and Winter Shelter Usage.” Last year’s fetal demise was mentioned in one line of a graphic on page 288.
No public discussion of unhoused deaths has been held since early 2020, despite the public deaths of two men in the city: John Aldridge, in a freak September snowstorm, and Jesus Duran on a cold November night. (Boulder Beat has requested autopsy reports for both men; their causes of death are unconfirmed at this time, though Aldridge’s is suspected to be exposure-related.)
Discussions on deaths among the unhoused typically occur when council members explicitly ask that one be scheduled, councilman Aaron Brockett said. He was unaware of any discussion aside from the early 2020 update, which he, Friend and then Human Relations Commission member Nikhil Mankekar requested.
Kurt Firnhaber, director of housing and human services, wrote in response to emailed questions that yearly written updates could become standard.
“After this [early 2020] presentation we indicated to council that we would provide an annual update that was aligned with when the annual coroners info came out,” Firnhaber wrote. “With all of the COVID activities and loss of staff at that time of 2020 (July/August), this [September 2021 report] was the first of what will hopefully be an annual” information packet.
Friend said more than just notes to council are needed. “The goal is always going to be to look for systemic gaps and failures and fix them.
“If we’re not talking about it,” she said, “we’re obviously not going to be addressing it.”
— Shay Castle, @shayshinecastle
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