Social workers' field safety remains concern after killing
The death of Deidre Silas has raised questions of why case workers are sent into potentially volatile environments alone
By John O'Connor
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Illinois officials are seeking answers after the killing last week of a state child welfare worker during a home visit — the second such tragedy to occur in less than five years.
Deidre Silas, an investigator with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, was stabbed to death last Tuesday when she responded to a call of possible endangerment of children in a home in the central Illinois town of Thayer.
A man related to one or more of the six children who were at home at the time, 32-year-old Benjamin Reed, is being held in the Sangamon County Jail without bond on first-degree murder and other charges. An attempt by The Associated Press to reach Reed's attorney on Friday was unsuccessful.
Silas' death is the second time in four-and-a-half years that state officials and the social work community are asking what should have been done, but wasn't, to prevent it. DCFS investigator Pamela Knight, 59, died following a brutal beating while attempting to remove an endangered child from his father in September 2017.
Like Silas, Knight was alone when she was attacked. Officials at DCFS, which has 23,000 children under its care, have not released details about the circumstances behind Silas’ visit to the home in Thayer, located 23 miles (37 kilometers) south of Springfield, but DCFS Director Marc Smith said last week that agency protocol was followed.
The attack on Silas also marked the 21st time since 2017 that caseworkers were subject to “threats or acts of violence” during 2.5 million home visits in Illinois, agency spokesman Bill McCaffrey said.
Her death has raised questions of why case workers are sent into potentially volatile environments alone, and whether understaffing — a problem that has plagued DCFS for decades despite a federal consent decree regulating it — affects the response of caseworkers in the field.
“DCFS, if you’re sending someone into a situation like this, just send two at a time,” Silas’ father, Roy Graham, said last week. “Whether it’s a male and female or two males or two females, either way, but send two per visit, not just one.”
Police agencies historically have been willing and able to help. That cooperation was strengthened after Knight's death. A law signed in 2018 allows law enforcement officers to cross into another jurisdiction to back up a home visit. Knight, who was based in Sterling, did have police backup initially.
But the boy Knight was seeking was not at his father's home, forcing Knight to check his grandparents' home in the next county. She decided that waiting for a new police agency to accompany her jeopardized the boy's safety. The boy's father met her at the second stop, and beat and kicked her so severely that she suffered brain damage and died five months later.
Arnold Black, a child protection specialist and supervisor in the DCFS Urbana office, said that any time a case worker or a supervisor believes there should be two workers on a home visit, it's approved. And there is no hesitancy to seek police backup, as outlined in the agency's administrative procedures on field safety.
“Sometimes, taking the police can agitate the client. You've got to know the family ... You have some families that are going to yell and scream at you for the first five minutes, but then they’re going to let you in," Black said. “But if it’s a newer case, or if it’s in a rural area, I have no problem pulling another worker to go.”
The problem, though, is that pairing workers stretches the workforce, sometimes resulting in plucking employees from other offices, Black said. The Urbana office has a worker shortage of more than 6% and agents on Black's team have caseloads of 30 to 50 families per worker, in many cases exceeding the limit of a 1988 federal consent decree that limits to 12 the number of new cases assigned monthly to each worker.
The Knight tragedy also resulted, with a push from the DCFS employees' union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, in office-based security guards and improved access to law enforcement records of people to be visited.
Black, a member of the AFSCME committee which quarterly discusses issues with DCFS management, said the workforce continues to push for other changes it supports.
Those changes include ongoing self-defense and de-escalation training from the Illinois State Police, public service announcements to familiarize the public with caseworkers and their duties and a law enforcement database like in Cook County that records not only arrests and convictions but any interaction police have with a particular address.
Newly hired investigators, who make about $55,000 a year, must successfully complete a six-week “foundations” training session that includes safety precautions, DCFS spokesman Bill McCaffrey said. Once in the field, they continue under a supervisor's tutelage and must complete a “workplace and field safety” training session within 90 days of starting.
Sen. Sara Feigenholtz, a Chicago Democrat and leader on child-welfare issues, said DCFS needs to build an infrastructure, with private sector cooperation, to recruit and retain employees. She anticipates more immediate safety legislation when the facts of Silas' death are public.
“If there are any other resources we can give our frontline workers, you’ll be sure that we’re going to be looking to see how we avoid this kind of situation,” Feigenholtz said.