Lawmakers talk next steps for DCFS battery penalty enhancements

Some bills were considered in this year's Illinois General Assembly to help protect caseworkers...
Some bills were considered in this year's Illinois General Assembly to help protect caseworkers while out on calls. Some of those measures didn't pass.(WIFR)
Published: Apr. 22, 2022 at 1:46 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD (WGEM) - In an attempt to address DCFS worker safety, lawmakers moved ahead on a bill that would give assaulting a caseworker a harsher penalty, but it never made it through the final step to head to the governor’s desk.

In the final hours of the late-night session, the bill didn’t appear on the house floor, where amendments in the Senate needed to be approved to fully pass the bill.

The measure, dubbed the Silas-Knight Legacy Act in honor of caseworkers Deidre Silas and Pam Knight who were killed while investigating homes, would make aggravated battery against a caseworker a Class 1 or Class 2 felony, depending on whether a firearm was involved.

A Class 1 felony can result in four to 15 years of jail time. A Class 2 can range anywhere from three to seven years of imprisonment.

“I just don’t understand what the political hold up is with this bill,” Rep. Tony McCombie (R - Savanna) said. “We just couldn’t get it done again this year, and I don’t know why. I don’t know if the governor put a hold on it, I don’t know if the majority party put a hold on it.”

Knight was killed in 2017, sparking initial forms of the bill. It has been introduced in a few previous General Assemblies but also didn’t pass. After Silas was killed in Thayer, Illinois, in January of this year, there was renewed interest, including bipartisan support.

The bill also had conceptual support from Gov. JB Pritzker following Silas’ death. Why it didn’t get brought onto the floor for final consideration isn’t clear. Future action on this bill may come up when legislators return for a veto session later this year.

“It’s not dead, so hopefully we’ll be able to resurrect it during veto session,” Sen. Doris Turner (D - Springfield) said. “I’ve been talking with my colleagues in the House, and there is a lot of support for it... and I will continue to have those conversations over the summer.”

However, the bill is admittedly a reactionary measure. Its effects can only be implemented after someone has been hurt, it doesn’t prevent someone from being harmed while on a case with DCFS.

The National Association of Social Workers Illinois Chapter expressed opposition to similar bills that focused on increasing penalties in their April legislative update to chapter members.

“The NASW-Illinois Chapter has opposed [bills] ranging from reinstating the death penalty for assaulting a social worker to allowing child welfare social workers to carry guns into homes,” the chapter’s statement reads. “Most of these bills seemed stalled... NASW-IL continues to oppose these misguided bills.”

However, McCombie asserts the point of the bill was not preventative, but to offer some justice afterward. Turner also said the bill is not a reactionary measure, calling it a “long time coming.”

“There are some opponents due to the penalty increase, they say ‘well it’s not going to, keep DCFS workers safer,’ that’s not the point of the bill,” McCombie said.

There have been other measures meant to improve caseworker safety, including a bill to allow caseworkers to carry pepper spray while out on calls. That bill passed both chambers and is awaiting Gov. JB Pritzker’s signature.

This bill is a part of larger reform for the agency that many representatives are hoping for. Turner said she wants to take a legislative and administrative approach to reform the agency. Partially, this means adding more laws protecting and supporting the agency, she said, but it also includes reforming the way the agency operates.

“Some of the other things that we’re talking about are the pepper spray bill... there’s a lot of conversations around partnering with local law enforcement, there’s conversations around sending caseworkers and investigators out in pairs,” Turner said.

“Perhaps doing a deep dive into cases before you actually leave the office so that you have a better understanding, of what potentially could be happening. And then you could better prepare for that and it’s not so much of a surprise when you walk up to the door,” she continued.

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