Two state lawmakers concerned about the latest assault on child welfare employees accused the state of failing to protect workers who are "risking their lives to help remove children from grave situations."
The criticism comes after a client attacked two caseworkers while they were checking on the safety of children at a home in Pennsville Township, Salem County Tuesday afternoon.
State Assemblywoman Valeri Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) and Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) sponsored legislation last month that would mandate a police chaperone when workers raise a concern about their safety confronting a family.
Huttle and Singleton introduced the legislation in late June. But the attack – the second on child welfare employees since November – lends more urgency to the need to better protect employees who often confront angry parents and take custody of their children, Huttle said Wednesday.
"We need to recruit and retain qualified, committed caseworkers. How can we do that if they do not feel safe? The severity of the attacks we've witnessed over the last year warrant comprehensive policies and tactical procedures to ensure the safety of these workers while they're out there trying to protect the welfare of some of our most vulnerable children," Huttle said.
Pennsville Township Police arrested Alexis Plater, 41, of Woodstown for punching a female caseworker, and for striking a male worker in the head with a flashlight, according to a department press release.
"The (Department of Children and Families) employees were visiting a family and checking on the well-being of the small children" when the attack took place outside Penn Terrace Apartments at 1:20 p.m.
The employees, who have not been identified, received medical treatment at a local hospital and were released, according to an email from department Commissioner Allison Blake Tuesday night.
Plater, who is related to the children, was charged with two counts of aggravated assault on DCF employees, possession of a weapon for unlawful purposes, and resisting arrest. He is held at the Salem County Correctional Facility on $25,000 cash bail, according to police.
Leah Coleman, a caseworker in Camden was stabbed more than 20 times inside the DCF office building eight months ago, also by a client.
Days before the attack, members of the Human Services Police Department who accompanied child welfare employees to potentially dangerous neighborhoods were re-assigned to work from one of three state psychiatric hospitals, where they would be dispatched in the event caseworkers needed back-up.
Blake assigned armed security guards to the local offices but the police officers have not returned.
"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 Huttle, chairwoman of the Assembly 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."
The longtime court-imposed monitor for New Jersey's child welfare system, Judith Meltzer said she was notified of the assaults on Tuesday. In her next progress report on the child welfare system's 12-year-old overhaul, Meltzer said she will ask workers how they feel about their safety.
"I am of course concerned about these assaults and will want to know if any additional steps could have better protected these workers," Meltzer said.
Assemblyman Troy Singelton (D-Burlington), who is also sponsor of the police security bill (A4638), said the latest assault raises anew questions about the Christie administration's decision to disband a unit within the Human Services Police Department assigned to child protection staff.
The legislation would require an officer to be assigned to each of the local child welfare offices, and upon request accompany caseworkers on a call "when conducting an investigation in a high crime area or making an emergency removal," according to the bill.
"This is an issue of critical concern because it affects both the caseworkers and the children they're sent to protect," Singleton said. "They are risking their lives to help remove children from grave situations."
Pennsville Police Chief Allen Cummings said no one from the child welfare agency asked his officers to accompany the caseworkers.
DCF spokesman Ernest Landante declined to discuss details of the assault while the investigation is ongoing.
"We've significantly improved security," Landante said. "There are armed guards in every DCF building lobby, law enforcement is available for accompaniment in the field upon request, and we provide courses on field safety protocols and practices."
"We will fully cooperate with law enforcement to gather the facts and will conduct our own review of the incident and our procedures," he added.