One year after a near-fatal attack on a case worker, a state Assembly committee approved a bill Monday that would require police officers to be stationed inside state child welfare offices.
Leah Coleman — stabbed more than 20 times on Nov. 17, 2014 by a "deranged" client who had lost custody of her children — told the Assembly Human Services Committee she took a job with the Division Child Protection and Permanency because she wanted to help families.
"We are not trained to stop a mentally ill person from killing someone," she said.
"Not only that, but it's important that DCF workers to not see clients as criminals, to not talk to desperate mothers and fathers without thinking, are they going to hurt me? We need to be looking out for children and wearing a social worker hat. The only way we can do that is if we are safe," Coleman said.
"She walked directly into the building," Coleman said of her attacker, Taisha Edwards, who is serving a 13-year sentence. "I was attacked without warning, without an argument, just a hello. Then she proceeded to stab me with a knife over 20 times. ... I was bleeding out."
The bill would require that members of the Human Services Police Department to be housed inside child welfare offices and accompany workers on potentially dangerous home visits. The bill (A4638) also would require select rooms in an office to be equipped with panic buttons.
Sponsored by Assembly Human Services Chairwoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), the bill addresses the loss of police officers who just days before Coleman's attack had shared office space child welfare employees. Instead, two officers each are dispatched from three state psychiatric hospitals in north, south and central Jersey to respond to child welfare calls. Offices are staffed by armed security guards with metal-detecting wands.
Caseworkers typically wait from 30 to 90 minutes for a police escort, said Human Services Police Officer John Fano, who works from Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Parsimony. And no officers are assigned to assist child welfare employees from 10 p.m. to 6 am., he added.
It's a far cry from the prior arrangement, when there was a police unit dedicated to working with child welfare workers, Fano said.
"We were readily available to every caseworker — on speed dial on most of their phones," he said.
The bill would require roughly 40 additional Human Services police officers to be assigned or added to the force, according to Hetty Rosenstein, the N.J. state director for Communications Workers of America, the union that represents child welfare workers.
"My caution on this is from a dollars and cents perspective — setting up panic buttons in every room," said Assemblyman Mary Pat Angelini (R-Monmouth). Angelini said she has heard recently the division had provided a limited number of employee lanyards equipped with panic buttons, and asked whether this was an adequate alternative.
Rosenstein replied that this was a very new and limited development, and she couldn't be sure that every caseworker would get one.
"We have a long experience with DCF and there is a reason why we need this in legislation," Rosenstein said. "It will be there today, but then it turns out it cost money...If these things are not codified, we lose them."
The committee approved the bill 5-0.