Politics

Illinois social workers’ field safety remains concern after killing | Govt-and-politics

John O’Connor is a political writer

SPRINGFIELD — Officials in Illinois are seeking answers after a state child care worker was murdered last week during a home visit — the second tragedy in less than five years.

Deidre Silas, a detective with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, was stabbed to death last Tuesday when she responded to a plea for possible child endangerment at a home in the central Illinois town of Thayer.



Silas


A man related to one or more of the six children who were in the home at the time, 32-year-old Benjamin Reed, is being held at Sangamun County Jail without bail in first-degree murder and other charges. An attempt by the Associated Press to reach out to Reed’s lawyer on Friday was unsuccessful.

Silas’ death was the second time in four and a half years that state officials and the social work community had asked what they should have done, but were not, to stop it. DCFS detective Pamela Knight, 59, died after being brutally beaten while trying to remove an at-risk child from his father in September 2017.

Like Silas, Knight was alone when she was attacked. Officials at DCFS, which has 23,000 children in its care, have not released details about the circumstances behind Silas’ visit to the home in Thayer, 23 miles south of Springfield, but DCFS Administrator Mark Smith said last week that agency protocol had been followed.



Benjamin H.  Red

cane


Agency spokesman Bill McCaffrey said the attack on Silas also marked the 21st time since 2017 that caseworkers had been subjected to “threats or acts of violence” during 2.5 million home visits in Illinois.

Her death raised questions about why case workers are only sent to volatile environments, and whether understaffing — an issue that has plagued DCFS for decades despite a federal approval decree regulating it — is affecting the response of caseworkers in the field.

“DCFS, if you’re sending one person into a situation like this, just send two people at a time,” Roy Graham, Silas’ father, said last week. “Whether it be male and female, or two males or two women, either way, but send two on each visit, not just one.”

Police agencies throughout history have been willing and able to help. This collaboration was further strengthened after Knight’s death. A law signed in 2018 allows law enforcement officers to relocate to another jurisdiction to support a home visit. Knight, who was based in Stirling, initially had police support.

But the boy that Knight was looking for was not at his father’s house, forcing Knight to inspect his grandfather’s house in the next county. She decides that waiting for a new police agency to escort her puts the boy’s safety at risk. The boy’s father met her at the second station and hit and kicked her so badly that she suffered brain damage and died five months later.

Anytime a caseworker or supervisor thinks there should be two workers on a home visit, it’s approved, said Arnold Black, a child protection specialist and supervisor in the DCFS Urbana office. Do not hesitate to request police support as described in the Agency’s Administrative Procedures on Field Safety.

“Sometimes hiring the police can irritate a client. You have to know the family…You have some families who are going to yell at you and scream for the first five minutes, but then they will let you in,” Black said. “But if it’s a new case, or if it’s in a rural area, I have no problem getting another worker to go.”

But the problem is that duplication of workers increases the workforce, sometimes yanking employees from other offices, Black said. Urbana’s office has a worker shortage of over 6%, and Team Black agents have a case count of 30 to 50 families per worker, in many cases exceeding the cap of the 1988 Federal Approval Ordinance limiting the number of new cases allocated per month to 12 per worker .

Knight’s tragedy also resulted – with a push from the DCFS Staff Union, the US Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees 31 – in office security guards and improved access to law enforcement records for people to be visited.

Black, a member of the AFSCME panel that discusses issues quarterly with DCFS management, said the workforce continues to push for other changes it supports.

These changes include ongoing self-defense and de-escalation training from the Illinois State Police, public service announcements to inform the public of caseworkers and their duties and a law enforcement database such as Cook County that records not only arrests and convictions but any police interaction with a given address.

DCFS spokesman Bill McCaffrey said newly hired investigators, who earn about $55,000 annually, must successfully complete a six-week course that includes safety precautions. Once in the field, they continue under the tutelage of their supervisor and must complete a training session on Workplace and Field Safety within 90 days of starting.

Senator Sarah Feigenholtz, a Democrat from Chicago and a leader on child welfare issues, said DCFS needs to build infrastructure, in conjunction with the private sector, to hire and retain staff. And expect more immediate safety legislation when the facts of Silas’ death are public.

“If there are any other resources we can offer to frontline workers, you’ll be sure we’ll be looking to see how we avoid this kind of situation,” Wijgenholtz said.

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