In Wake of Attacks that Left Several Seriously Injured, Bill Would Require Human Services Police Officers to Accompany Workers into the Field When Needed
(TRENTON) — By a vote of 52-17-9 on Thursday, the full Assembly approved legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Troy Singleton, Jamel Holley, Gabriela Mosquera, Cleopatra Tucker and Daniel Benson to help safeguard child protection workers from the kind of attacks that left one seriously injured last November and sent two others to the hospital in July.
“It’s clear that we need to be doing a better job to protect these caseworkers. They are going out into the field unprotected to handle emotional and often tenuous situations,” said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), Chair of the Human Services Committee. “The possibility for confrontation always looms, which makes it all the more confusing as to why the administration diverted Human Services police officers in the first place.”
“This is an issue of critical concern because it affects both the caseworkers and the children they’re sent to protect. When we neglect their security, we’re paying the price twofold,” said Singleton (D-Burlington). “Despite my questioning earlier this year, I still don’t understand the decision that led to the security lapse or why we chose to privatize our security needs, instead of utilizing the human services police we have who are trained to handle these types of situations.”
The bill (A-4638), known as “Leah’s Law,” is named in honor of the Division of Child Protection and Permanency caseworker who was nearly stabbed to death while performing her duties for the division in Camden last November.
Following passage by the Assembly, Vainieri Huttle issued a multimedia package on the legislation, which includes testimony given by Leah Coleman before the Assembly Appropriations Committee earlier this month.
The audio file is available upon request.
A transcript of comments from Ms. Coleman and Assemblywoman Vainieri Huttle is appended at the end of the release.
The bill would require the Division of Child Protection and Permanency to implement policies and procedures to ensure the safety of every caseworker employed by the division and require Human Services police officers to accompany them into the field when needed.
The policies and procedures would address issues of safety when a caseworker receives a threat of violence from a client, or is presented with a potentially dangerous situation while working in a local office, investigating a report of child abuse or neglect in the field, or making an emergency removal of a child pursuant to current law.
“These employees will continue to be at risk if we allow these types of security lapses to remain in place,” said Holley (D-Union). “We need to recruit and retain qualified, committed caseworkers. How can we do that if they don’t feel safe? This bill will help remedy that.”
“The severity of the attacks we’ve witnessed over the last year warrant an overhaul of our policies and tactical procedures,” said Mosquera (D-Camden/Gloucester). “This legislation will help ensure the safety of these workers while they’re out there trying to protect the welfare of some of our most vulnerable children.”
“We need to do more to protect the safety of these employees who are risking their lives to help remove children from grave situations,” said Tucker (D-Essex). This bill will help close the gaps that exist today and better position child protection workers to do the important job they are tasked with.”
“The situations these caseworkers must insert themselves into are often tenuous at best and at times completely volatile,” said Benson (D-Mercer/Middlesex). “We’ve seen how that’s manifested itself in the past year and the consequences have been tragic. These changes will do a far better job to help ensure their safety and security.”
Under the provisions of the bill, in order to ensure the safety of a caseworker in a local office, the division shall require that:
- A Human Services police officer be assigned to every building where a local office is located to provide security and assistance to the caseworkers assigned to the office;
- Each local office be equipped with a metal detector or metal detector wands operated by law enforcement officers;
- A panic button be installed in every meeting room in which a caseworker meets with a client; and
- At least one meeting or conference room in each local office be equipped with a two-way mirror to allow for the observation of the room by the Human Services police officer.
In order to ensure the safety of a caseworker when investigating a report of child abuse or neglect in the field or when making an emergency removal of a child, the division would require:
- A caseworker assigned to a home visit to be accompanied by another caseworker if certain conditions delineated in the bill are met;
- At the request of a caseworker or the caseworker’s supervisor, the Human Services police officer assigned to the caseworker’s local office would accompany and assist the caseworker when making an emergency removal; and
- The Human Services police officer assigned to a local office would be available to a caseworker within 30 minutes of a request to accompany and assist the caseworker, except that in an emergency situation, the officer would be immediately available.
The provisions of the bill stipulate that when a caseworker, investigating a report of child abuse or neglect in the field or making an emergency removal of a child, is assigned to a home visit and is accompanied by another caseworker, nothing would prohibit the division, at the request of the caseworker or the caseworker’s supervisor, from requiring that a Human Services police officer assigned to the caseworker’s local office accompany or assist the caseworker while on the home visit, if appropriate.
The bill also requires the Division of Child Protection and Permanency to implement a caseworker safety intervention plan. The plan shall, at a minimum:
- Establish specific procedures to follow when a caseworker is facing or responding to a situation that poses a threat to the safety and well-being of the caseworker, whether in the local office, in the field, or when making an emergency removal of a child;
- Specify when to request the assistance of the Human Services police officer assigned to the caseworker’s local office and how to initiate such requests; and
- Be posted in a conspicuous place in the local office and a copy of the plan shall be provided to every staff member assigned to that office.
The full Senate also approved the bill today, which now makes its way to the governor’s desk for consideration.
Leah Coleman, Child Protective Services Caseworker and Stabbing Victim Survivor:
“Last year — November 17th — I was stabbed 23 times by a client, um, in my workplace. Getting on the elevator, it was a hello, no argument and she proceeded to stab me.
“And it’s a disservice to not only the workers, but to also the families we serve, because what I don’t hear a lot of people talking about in the narrative about what happened to me are the children who witnessed what happened to me. They were there visiting with their parents and they were children who had already been traumatized by being separated from their families and now they’re re-traumatized in a place where they’re supposed to be safe. So, where are you safe? And how do you make somebody else feel safe when you’re not sure that you’re safe yourself?”
Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), Assembly Human Services Committee Chair:
“When we look at the attacks that have taken place over the last year, this is more critical than ever to ensure safety for our caseworkers who protect our most vulnerable children in the State of New Jersey.
“Leah’s Law ensures safety and protects child protective services caseworkers.
“This bill provides safety measure, such as including in the offices of child protection: metal detectors; panic buttons; two-way mirrors in conference rooms. And when a caseworker does go out into the field, into a very tenuous situation, they would be assisted at the very least by a buddy and at the very most, a human services police officer.
“This is a critical issue because it not only ensures the caseworker but our most vulnerable children in the State of New Jersey. If the caseworkers don’t feel safe, how could they possibly protect our children?”