By Brenda Flanagan
Outside this Pennsville apartment complex, two New Jersey child welfare caseworkers had just removed a child from its family — an emotional event — when suddenly they faced an assailant, their union rep says.
“They were putting the child in the vehicle when the father arrived and attacked both of the workers. One was hit on the back of the head by a mag flashlight and it could’ve killed the worker. The other one was then attacked afterwards by the same man,” said CWA Legislative and Political Director Seth Hahn .
Pennsville Police reported the attacker “…knocked the female DCF employee to the ground and proceeded to assault her with his fists.”
Officers arrested 41-year-old Alexis Plater and charged him with assault, then transported the caseworkers to a local hospital. The attack comes less than a year after caseworker Leah Coleman suffered 20 stab wounds when a client attacked her at state Department of Children and Families offices in Camden.
“And now, this is another incident just showing that there needs to be protection. And if we don’t keep our caseworkers safe, how are we supposed to have people taking care of our most vulnerable children in the state?” asked Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle.
Huttle introduced Leah’s Law in March to enhance security for caseworkers like Coleman out in the field and in their offices.
“We need to have police protection, we need to have metal detectors — some have, some don’t. We need to have panic buttons,” Vainieri Huttle said.
“We have workers who go out unarmed in neighborhoods where police go two at a time with bulletproof vests and they knock on the doors and say, ‘I need to see your kids and make sure they’re safe.’ And the idea they have no support in situations like this is very enraging to a lot of us,” said Hahn .
The union claims the Christie administration cut back on Human Service Police. In letters sent to union members, CWA demanded “…police trained in child protective services to accompany workers in removals and any dangerous situation…within 30 minutes of the request.”
“We believe it should be department policy that every time a child is removed — which understandably places parents in a very agitated state — there should be some type of police escort with them,” Hahn said.
But state DCF Spokesman Ernest Landante said some workers still feel a police escort can contribute to escalating emotions and cause an otherwise peaceful hand off to turn unpleasant.
“We rely on our workers experienced judgment to determine if an escort is necessary. If a police escort is desired, our workers always have access to not only Human Services Police, but to the State Police and local law enforcement as well,” he said.
The union says both caseworkers are at home, recovering. Leah’s Law is scheduled to be introduced in the Senate. Lawmakers hope to fast-track the measure.