SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — A year after the killing of a DCFS caseworker, legislators are looking to pass more protections to make sure tragedies for department workers won’t happen again.
On Jan. 4, 2022, DCFS worker Deidre Silas was stabbed to death while on a welfare visit in Thayer, a small town in Sangamon County. The Sangamon County Coroner ruled Silas died of “multiple sharp force injuries and blunt force trauma.”
Benjamin Reed was charged with first degree murder for allegedly stabbing Silas. He is currently on trial.
A friend of Silas said she dedicated her life to helping children, as she worked in juvenile corrections before being hired by DCFS.
“She loved her job,” Rev. T. Ray McJunkins, Silas’s pastor at Union Baptist Church, said. “She’s always enjoyed being an advocate for children for young people.”
In the past year, the Illinois General Assembly has pushed for more protections for DCFS workers. They passed a law allowing caseworkers to carry pepper spray while on duty and offered continuing insurance coverage for the families of seven case workers who died while on the job. But many Illinois lawmakers don’t think those steps are enough.
“The fact that the caseworkers can now carry mace or pepper spray is not meant to be an end all be all,” Sen. Doris Turner (D-Springfield) said. “But it is a step forward. And one of the tools that they can have in their tool chest.”
House Minority Leader Tony McCombie (R-Savanna) is pushing for laws that would increase the penalties for people who are convicted for hurting caseworkers. (Despite being on different sides of the aisle, Turner sponsored the bill in the Illinois Senate, where it passed. It stalled in the House of Representatives.) McCombie had a different caseworker in her district, Pamela Knight, also die while on duty back in 2017.
“The bottom line is, is that criminals who murder our frontline workers are not given under DCFS, or the Department of Aging, they’re not criminalized in the same way had they killed a police officer, a fireman, a schoolteacher, or a janitor in a school,” McCombie said. “So, we still have some work to do.”
ASFMCE, the government union that represents DCFS workers, thinks the state can do a lot more to protect the caseworkers, who they say are understaffed. They’ve suggested to the department to partner with law enforcement for back-up for cases known to be unsafe.
“[It’s] so folks aren’t alone in a dangerous situation, especially if they know the background of the person, and know that there’s reason to be concerned going into the situation,” Adrienne Alexander, director of Intergovernmental Affairs for ASFMCE Council 31 said. “DCFS investigators go into dangerous situations all the time, and we want to make sure that they are best prepared to approach it.”
ASFMCE also wants more training for caseworkers as well as more protective gear.
People close to Silas said they support stronger legislation.
“Social workers should be free to do their job as it relates to protect children and families, more so children, but also protect themselves as well,” McJunkins said. “So I’m all for rigid, strong laws that will help case workers do their job.”