Sisters are at peace after Christie signs next of kin notification law

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on February 10, 2017

Lawanna Burks (left) and her sister Cherelle Tolor stand outside the Washington Manor Apartments in Orange where their mother lived and died. When Sheila Tolor passed away in April '14, no one from the facility notified any family members.

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Cherelle Tolor hadn't heard the news.

Neither had her sister, Lawanna Burks.

"My mouth is about to hit the floor,'' Tolor said on Tuesday.

Gov. Chris Christie signed a law on Monday that requires administrators of senior housing facilities to notify next of kin, or an emergency contact, if one of their residents dies.

Failure to do so within 24 hours will result in a $500 fine.

"It's a blessing that we've been waiting for so long,'' said Burks, of Piscataway.

The law is a result of a column I wrote in April 2014 about Sheila Tolor, who died in her apartment at a senior citizen building in Orange, and no one notified her daughters - Burks and Tolor.

The Orange Police Department, the Orange Housing Authority and the Essex County Medical Examiner's Office cast the blame on each other instead of taking responsibility themselves. Each agency had its own set of protocols, but none involved calling the family.

Housing authority officials said they always give personal contact information to the police department or the medical technicians who show up. The police department, however, said it only notifies next of kin if the death is a homicide or suspicious. State attorney general guidelines sided with the police department, but its spokesman suggested that the police department should notify next of kin if an officer is at a scene where someone has died.

The sisters still fault the Orange Housing Authority. Why not? Management had the Tolor family's contact information. Housing officials have apologized, and have said they don't think they did anything wrong because they followed protocol.

"They made no efforts whatsoever and they just passed the buck, and no family should go through that,'' said Tolor, an Irvington resident. "I avoid driving by that building because I get so angry.''

In the aftermath of this tragedy, Tolor and Burks met with former Assemblywoman L. Grace Spencer, who discovered that there weren't any state laws requiring notification of next of kin following a death, even though senior buildings have emergency contact information on file.

Now, no one has an excuse.

The law applies to a rooming house, boarding house, residential health care facility, assisted living facility, nursing home, continuing care retirement community and public housing designated for seniors.

It's just sad that Sheila Tolor, an independent and busy woman, had to die in order for such a common sense action to be enforced.

Burks learned of her mother's death in the worse way. She went to check on her at Washington Manor, a senior housing complex on Thomas Boulevard.  When her mother didn't answer the door, Burks came across another resident, who delivered the unbelievable news.

"They didn't tell you?'' she recalls the man asking her. "She died last week.''

Burks' mother had been lying dead six days in the morgue at the medical examiner's office.

The sisters wanted to do something to make sure this doesn't happen to anybody else. Tolor, an attorney, and Burks, a Plainfield police officer, followed their mother's example for solving problems.

She taught them how to deal with government. Write a letter. Or pick up the phone and call your representative, even if it is to get a tree cut down or to get a pothole paved.

"I'm glad she instilled it in us to have the perseverance to push through with something that we believe in,'' Burks said.

They talked with Spencer, now a Superior Court judge, who read my story about the sisters' pain. And she sponsored the notification legislation, working on it with Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker (D-Essex) and other legislators.

"You already think there is a process, but to find out it wasn't being followed properly," Tucker said.  "We wanted to make it a law to make sure the rules are followed. We wanted to make sure it never happens again because we don't know how many times it happened in the past.''

Now that the law is a reality, Tolor and Burks can exhale.

Burks said she visited the cemetery this week to tell her mom the good news.

"It felt like a calm coming over me,'' she said. "I feel more at peace now than ever.''

Tolor says that wherever she is at the time she always talks to her mom.

Both sisters have cried over this, but now it's over. They did it. 

This accomplishment is substantial, an achievement that will last beyond them.

"Nothing can touch this,'' Burks said.

"I feel like our mom is at peace,'' Tolor said. "She was the catalyst.''

But you and your sister were the synergy.

Mom would be proud.

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