LAW & PUBLIC SAFETY

Leah’s Law Aims to Up Security for Child Services Caseworkers

By Brenda Flanagan
Correspondent

“We tussled. I yelled for help. Nobody came. A lot of people just stood there and watched.”

DYFS caseworker Leah Coleman speaks softly, remembering the day last November when a client walked off the elevator at state offices in Camden, pulled out a knife and stabbed her 21 times.

“She turned around and said, ‘Oh, hi. It’s you.’ And she stabbed me,” Coleman said. “No argument, no warning — nothing.”

Coleman says it happened after the Department of Children and Families reassigned police who often had worked out of Child Protection and Permanency Services formerly called DYFS at offices on Haddon Avenue.

“I don’t know if she was aware the police officers left that Friday, and Monday was the first day they weren’t there, but it would’ve been a quick response.” said Coleman.

“It was a mother who was clearly unstable and she was able to walk into a building with a knife — no security, no metal detectors and no police,” said Shawn Ludwig.

Union Chief Ludwig says after police arrested Coleman’s assailant — 31-year-old Taisha Edwards, who this week pleaded guilty to attempted murder — the state posted two security officers with metal-detecting wands in the Camden office. They keep finding weapons.

“Knives, pocket knives, box cutters and stuff like that.We’re concerned for the safety of our members. This isn’t a one-time incident. This can happen all the time,” Ludwig said.

“I mean, it’s really a scary job. I don’t have a bullet proof vest. I have nothing but an ID saying I’m here to do a job and ensure that the children are safe,” said Daveen Mann, Supervisor of the Department of Children and Families in Plainfield.

Many DYFS staffers who deal with volatile clients claim they need better protection — that the state cut back on special police units to save money. They support proposed new legislation called Leah’s Law.

“There must be law enforcement in DYFS offices, there must be police available when workers are threatened, that there must be panic buttons available,” said New Jersey Director of the Communications Workers of America Hetty Rosenstein.

Today hundreds of union members rallied in Trenton where five of Coleman’s co-workers received awards for helping to save her life.

“Check yourself how you’re treating your workers because it matters, it really matters. Thank you everybody for your support, everything. I really appreciate it,” she said.

The Department of Human Services had no comment. Coleman hasn’t spoken to Gov. Chris Christie.

“I feel he’s heartless. He hasn’t even said, ‘Get well,'” she said.

Every day, Leah Coleman battles back, trying to regain her independence. Leah’s Law is scheduled to be introduced tomorrow.

In tonight’s story, we noted the state had not responded to our questions. Below is a statement NJTV News received in an email from Ernest Landante with the Department of Children and Families, after our story aired:

“Our employees and their safety are important to us and we continue to improve security by providing armed guards with metal detection wands at every local office. Department of Human Services police officers continue to accompany our staff in the field or in the office when meeting with individuals who may pose a risk. Officers are now available to staff in the field beyond standard business hours, including weekends, holidays and after hours.”