Safety of social workers remains concern after murder of DCFS employee in central Illinois – NBC Chicago


Illinois officials are seeking answers after the murder last week of a state social worker during a home visit – the second such tragedy in less than five years.

Deidre Silas, an investigator with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, was stabbed to death last Tuesday when she responded to a call indicating a possible endangerment of children in a home in the town of Thayer in central Illinois.

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

Silas’ death marks the second time in four and a half years that state officials and the social worker community have asked what should have been done, but not been, to prevent it. DCFS investigator Pamela Knight, 59, died of a brutal beating while trying to remove an endangered child from her father in September 2017.

Like Silas, Knight was alone when she was attacked. Officials at DCFS, which has 23,000 dependent children, did not disclose the circumstances of Silas’ visit to Thayer’s home, 23 miles south of Springfield, but DCFS director Marc Smith said said last week that this agency protocol has been followed.

The attack on Silas also marked the 21st time since 2017 that social workers have been subjected to “threats or acts of violence” during 2.5 million home visits in Illinois, said the agency spokesperson Bill McCaffrey.

His death has raised questions about why case workers are sent alone to potentially unstable environments and whether understaffing – an issue that has plagued DCFS for decades despite a federal consent decree regulating it – affects the response. social workers in the field.

“DCFS, if you send someone in a situation like this, send two at once,” Silas’ father Roy Graham said last week. “Whether it’s a man and a woman or two men or two women anyway, but send two per visit, not just one.”

The police have always been willing and able to help. This cooperation was strengthened after Knight’s death. A law signed in 2018 allows law enforcement officers to go to another jurisdiction to save a home visit. Knight, who was based in Sterling, initially had police reinforcements.

But the boy Knight was looking for wasn’t at his father’s house, forcing Knight to check out his grandparents’ house in the neighboring county. She decided that waiting for a new police department to accompany her endangered the boy’s safety. The boy’s father met her at the second stop and beat and kicked her so badly that she suffered brain damage and died five months later.

Arnold Black, a child protection specialist and supervisor at the DCFS Urbana office, said that whenever a social worker or supervisor thinks there should be two workers on a home visit, it is approved. And there is no hesitation in seeking police assistance, as outlined in the agency’s field security administrative procedures.

“Sometimes taking the police can upset the customer. You have to know the family… You have families who are going to scream and yell at you for the first five minutes, but then they’re going to let you in, ”Black said. “But if this is a more recent case, or if it is a rural area, I have no problem bringing in another worker. “

The problem, however, is that worker matching stretches the workforce, which sometimes results in hiring employees from other offices, Black said. The Urbana office has a worker shortage of more than 6%, and agents on Black’s team have workloads of 30-50 families per worker, in many cases exceeding the limit of an executive order. Federal Consent of 1988 which limits the number of new cases assigned per month to 12. to each worker.

The Knight tragedy also resulted, at the instigation of the DCFS Employees Union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, in the creation of office security guards and better access to files. of the police of the people to be visited.

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

These changes include ongoing Illinois State Police Self Defense and De-escalation training, public service announcements to familiarize the public with social workers and their duties, and a database of social workers. law enforcement like in Cook County which records not only arrests and convictions, but any interaction with police. have with a particular address.

Newly hired investigators, who earn about $ 55,000 a year, must pass a six-week training session on “foundations” that includes safety precautions, said DCFS spokesperson Bill McCaffrey. Once in the field, they continue under the tutelage of a supervisor and must follow a training session “safety at work and in the field” within 90 days of their start.

Senator Sara Feigenholtz, Democrat of Chicago and leader on child protection issues, said DCFS must build an infrastructure, with the cooperation of the private sector, to recruit and retain employees. She anticipates more immediate security legislation when the facts of Silas’ death become public.

“If there are other resources that we can give to our frontline workers, you will be sure that we are going to look to see how to avoid this kind of situation,” said Feigenholtz.

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