(TRENTON) - By a vote of 59-3-7, the full Assembly on Thursday approved legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Troy Singleton, Jamel Holley, Gabriela Mosquera, Daniel R. Benson, Cleopatra Tucker and Benjie Wimberly to help safeguard child protection workers from the kind of attacks over the past year that left one seriously injured and sent two others to the hospital.
The sponsors said that more recently, a child welfare case worker was attacked inside her Newark office and suffered multiple injuries.
The bill (A-2322), known as "Leah's Law," is named in honor of the Division of Child Protection and Permanency caseworker who was nearly stabbed to death while performing her duties for the division in Camden in November 2014.
"It's clear that the need still exists for us to do a better job protecting these caseworkers. They are going out into the field unprotected to handle emotional and often tenuous situations," said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen). "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 and even more perplexing that the governor vetoed this legislation last time around. After hearing Leah's testimony at our hearing it's unfathomable that we would continue to send these workers out unprotected."
"This is an issue of critical concern because it affects both the caseworkers and the children they're sent to protect. When we neglect their security, we're paying the price twofold," said Singleton (D-Burlington). "Despite my questioning earlier this year, I still don't understand the decision that led to the security lapse or why we chose to privatize our security needs, instead of utilizing the human services police we have who are trained to handle these types of situations."
"These employees will continue to be at risk if we allow these types of security lapses to remain in place," said Holley (D-Union). "We need to recruit and retain qualified, committed caseworkers. How can we do that if they don't feel safe? This bill will help remedy that."
"The severity of the attacks we've witnessed over the last year warrant an overhaul of our policies and tactical procedures," said Mosquera (D-Camden/Gloucester).
"This legislation will help ensure the safety of these workers while they're out there trying to protect the welfare of some of our most vulnerable children," said Benson (D-Mercer/Middlesex).
"We need to do more to protect the safety these employees who are risking their lives to help remove children from grave situations," said Tucker (D-Essex).
"This bill will help close the gaps that exist today and better position child protection workers to do the important job they are tasked with," said Wimberly (D-Passaic/Bergen).
The bill would require the Division of Child Protection and Permanency to implement policies and procedures to ensure the safety of every caseworker employed by the division and require Human Services police officers to accompany them into the field when needed.
The policies and procedures would address issues of safety when a caseworker receives a threat of violence from a client, or is presented with a potentially dangerous situation while working in a local office, investigating a report of child abuse or neglect in the field, or making an emergency removal of a child pursuant to current law.
Under the provisions of the bill, in order to ensure the safety of a caseworker in a local office, the division shall require that:
- A Human Services police officer be assigned to every building where a local office is located to provide security and assistance to the caseworkers assigned to the office;
- Each local office be equipped with a metal detector or metal detector wands operated by law enforcement officers;
- A panic button be installed in every meeting room in which a caseworker meets with a client; and
- At least one meeting or conference room in each local office be equipped with a two-way mirror to allow for the observation of the room by the Human Services police officer.
In order to ensure the safety of a caseworker when investigating a report of child abuse or neglect in the field or when making an emergency removal of a child, the division would require:
- A caseworker assigned to a home visit to be accompanied by another caseworker if certain conditions delineated in the bill are met;
- At the request of a caseworker or the caseworker's supervisor, the Human Services police officer assigned to the caseworker's local office would accompany and assist the caseworker when making an emergency removal; and
- The Human Services police officer assigned to a local office would be available to a caseworker within 30 minutes of a request to accompany and assist the caseworker, except that in an emergency situation, the officer would be immediately available.
The provisions of the bill stipulate that when a caseworker, investigating a report of child abuse or neglect in the field or making an emergency removal of a child, is assigned to a home visit and is accompanied by another caseworker, nothing would prohibit the division, at the request of the caseworker or the caseworker's supervisor, from requiring that a Human Services police officer assigned to the caseworker's local office accompany or assist the caseworker while on the home visit, if appropriate.
The bill also requires the Division of Child Protection and Permanency to implement a caseworker safety intervention plan. The plan shall, at a minimum:
- Establish specific procedures to follow when a caseworker is facing or responding to a situation that poses a threat to the safety and well-being of the caseworker, whether in the local office, in the field, or when making an emergency removal of a child;
- Specify when to request the assistance of the Human Services police officer assigned to the caseworker's local office and how to initiate such requests; and
- Be posted in a conspicuous place in the local office and a copy of the plan shall be provided to every staff member assigned to that office.
The bill now awaits further consideration by the Senate.