• Justin Heath
    FEB 02, 2022


    Senators, AFSCME weigh new laws to bolster DCFS worker safety after murder

    Department of Children and Family Services director Marc Smith (left) and Senate Health Committee chair Sen. Julie Morrison (D-Deerfield) during a meeting on Tuesday 

    Members of the Illinois Senate Committee on Health on Tuesday weighed whether new  laws could help protect workers in the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) from on-the-job violence or other hazards.

    The debate comes less than a month after the fatal stabbing of DCFS investigator Deidre Silas in Thayer, about 20 miles south of Springfield, while she was working on a case.  

    Silas was killed on a visit to a home of six kids, ages 1 to 7. According to a statement from the Sangamon County State’s Attorney’s Office, Benjamin Reed was taken into custody and charged with first-degree murder.   

    During the Tuesday hearing Senators, including Chair Julie Morrison (D-Highwood), grilled DCFS Director Marc Smith for nearly two hours with questions about DCFS employee safety policies and improvements that could be made.  

    Smith spent the hearing recounting the safety improvements the department has made during his tenure, while also pledging to work with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the union that represents most department employees, and the department’s own safety committee.  

    A statement posted to the AFSCME website said Silas’ murder was “a stark reminder that frontline DCFS employees like Deidre do demanding, dangerous and essential jobs every day, often despite inadequate resources and tremendous stress.”  

    Jeanne Cameron, Director of Political Engagement for AFSCME, told the committee that DCFS employee safety must be the department’s top priority and “expanded training, tools in the field, improved threat assessment, partnership with laws enforcement” would help prevent tragedies similar to the death of Silas.  

    Nora Collins-Mandeville, Director of Systems Reform Policy at the ACLU of Illinois, warned the committee about reacting too quickly by legislating tougher punishments for violence against workers.  

     “Criminal penalties are not a solution — they are a distraction,” Collins-Mandeville said “Do not pass laws that provide a false sense of security.’  

    While Senators appeared to heed this warning, Smith replied that a legislative solution would help protect his workers.  

    “DCFS workers should be considered first responders under the eyes of the law,” Smith said. “If there are laws through the state that cover first responders, DCFS workers have earned those protections.”  

    Rather than discussing additional legislation, Morrison asked Smith to return to the committee before the end of the Senate session in April.  

    Morrison did not respond to The Daily Line’s request for comment.  

    Tuesday’s hearing was the second time in four days that Smith underwent a grilling from lawmakers. He answered questions for more than three hours before a House committee on Friday about employee safety and child placement protocols.  

    Related: DCFS director defends department’s work amid issues placing kids and keeping employees safe  

    Behavioral and Mental Health Committee  

    The Senate Committee on Behavioral and Mental Health also met Tuesday and agreed to pass two bills without discussion.  

    Sponsored by Senator Laura Fine (D-Glenview), SB3156 changes the language in the Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Administrative Act from "direct support person" to "direct support professional".  

    Also passing without discussion was SB3438. Sponsored by Senator Sara Feigenholtz (D-Chicago), the bill creates the Mental Health Assessment Reform Act. The Act orders the Department of Healthcare and Family Services to establish a process for patients seeking Medicaid community mental health services. In a statement sent to The Daily Line, the senator emphasized the future potential of her bill.  

    “Mental health services are essential for many people in today’s society,” Feigenholtz said. “Creating an easier way for Medicaid patients to get these services will streamline the process and help patients get the services they need in a timely manner.”  

    Both the Health and Behavioral and Mental Health Committees plan to meet again before the end of session with dates and times to be announced.

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