Proposals to protect DCFS caseworkers move forward in Springfield

The Illinois Department of Children & Family Services headquarters in Springfield.
The Illinois Department of Children & Family Services headquarters in Springfield.(WGEM)
Published: Mar. 31, 2022 at 7:17 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD (WGEM) - Illinois state lawmakers are one step closer to allowing DCFS caseworkers to carry pepper spray during potentially dangerous home visits.

The proposal was quickly introduced by lawmakers this session after two DCFS investigators were killed on the job in the past few years.

Deidre Silas was murdered in January while visiting a home of six children in Sangamon County. The legislation also recognizes Pam Knight, a caseworker beaten to death while investigating in 2017.

This plan passed out of the Senate with strong bipartisan support last month, but it hit a roadblock in the House until Thursday.

The latest amendment states the Department of Children and Family Services must work with Illinois State Police to identify approved pepper spray devices and develop training for frontline staff by January 1. Mace could only be used if a worker wants to incapacitate someone attempting to assault them or to escape from a dangerous situation when there is no other alternative.

Caseworkers would also be required to seek medical attention for any bystanders near the pepper spray. The language also calls for detailed reporting when mace is used.

However, advocates for youth in care are still opposed.

“There is no protection towards the people that are being sprayed to make sure that they warranted being sprayed whatsoever,” said James McIntyre, Founder of the Foster Care Alumni of America Illinois Chapter. “The way that this bill is written will cause somebody to be sprayed in an inappropriate manner and sue the state of Illinois.”

Sponsor Tony McCombie (R-Savanna) said there is already a penalty in place for anyone who misuses mace. She said anyone wrongfully using pepper spray would be charged with a battery.

“I have faith in our frontline workers that they are not going to be willy-nilly spraying,” McCombie said. “And I have faith that these folks that are our frontline staff have the children first and foremost to protect them.”

McIntyre said he wishes lawmakers could hear testimony from DCFS officials or the Illinois Attorney General’s office before moving forward with this plan. McIntyre also stressed that he will work with other lawmakers on a stronger bill to clean up any issues in this proposal.

Under McCombie’s amendment, DCFS would be required to annually report the number of caseworkers trained to use pepper spray and the situations when the mace was used in self-defense starting January 1, 2024. DCFS employees could also be required to report the age, gender, and race of the person they used pepper spray on and whether they were injured after using it.

DCFS would also be tasked with reporting the number of times mace is used against the department’s policy.

Senate Bill 1486 passed out of the House Human Services Committee with unanimous support. It now heads to the House floor for consideration.

Aggravated battery charges for attacking DCFS employees

A separate proposal honoring the legacy of Silas and Knight passed out of the Senate Thursday afternoon. House Bill 3850 states anyone over 21 causing great bodily harm or disfigurement to a DCFS worker would be charged with aggravated battery.

Sen. Doris Turner (D-Springfield) worked with stakeholders since January to try and come to an agreement on the best bill language. Republicans also strongly supported this plan to keep DCFS workers safe on the job.

“All of us represent DCFS workers who put themselves in harm’s way for the protection of children,” said Sen. Jil Tracy (R-Quincy). “They are short-staffed. They are overstressed and they’re overworked. We have more children that need their services. We have to give them the best protection that we can.”

Sen. Chapin Rose (R-Mahomet) said it is “about damn time that we have a penalty enhancement” for attacking DCFS caseworkers and investigators. He also stressed that DCFS workers need mace and self-defense training paid for by the state instead of employees paying out of their own pockets.

“These people walk into harm’s way. Shame on the DCFS administration for not training these people and telling them to go pay for it themselves and not equipping them with what they need to be as safe as possible,” Rose said. “We all know you can’t eliminate everything. You can’t stop everything. This bill has been around forever and it wasn’t until somebody died that it becomes a priority.”

Turner says she will continue to work on administrative protocols and procedures to keep DCFS workers safe. She emphasized this is an ongoing conversation and it will not be lost when the spring session ends. This is a personal issue for Turner as she has several relatives who work as social workers and caseworkers in the child welfare system.

“DCFS caseworkers and investigators want to go home at the end of their workday,” Turner said.

House Bill 3850 passed on a 47-0 vote. Democratic senators Robert Peters and Cristina Pacione-Zayas voted present. The proposal must return to the House on concurrence before it can move to the governor’s desk.

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