Her tireless Knight: Husband of slain DCFS worker is on a mission for change

January 12, 2019

DIXON – She stands larger than life, her determined stance belying her sweet Mona Lisa smile.

“Don’t ever forget Pam Knight, the DCFS worker that gave her life saving the children of Illinois” reads the billboard erected by her loving and equally determined husband, Don Knight of Dixon.

A painful first anniversary nears: Pamela Sue Knight, 59, died on Feb. 8, 4 months after prosecutors say she was beaten into a coma by the father of a child she was taking into protective custody.

In the 16 months since the attack, Knight says, not enough has been done by the state agency, or by the union that represents Department of Children and Family Services workers, to keep them safe in the field.

Fixing that is now the 70-year-old electrician’s life’s mission.

“Every day I wake up and try to find a way to make DCFS and the union understand that these workers need to be protected,” Knight said. “These workers are put in a worse situation than a police officer when they go a house and all they have to protect themselves is a pencil and paper.”

Pam, who was based in the Sterling office, had a police escort with her on Sept. 29, 2017, when she went to the boy’s father’s home in Whiteside County.

He and the child were not there, and when she crossed jurisdictions into Carroll County to go to the Milledgeville home of the boy’s paternal grandparents, she was alone.

Seconds after she arrived, as she was getting out of her car, Andrew Sucher rushed out of the house and began punching and kicking her in the head, investigators say.

That would not have happened had the officer been required to stay with her, Knight says.

He wants the DCFS to change its policies, and, under some circumstances, make police escorts mandatory, rather than discretionary, when it comes to home visits.

He’s suggested a risk-assessment system whereby, as soon as a call comes into the hotline, as soon as a case is filed with the agency, immediate family members and other key people in the child’s life are evaluated and rated on their potential for violence, based on things such as criminal history and gun ownership.

He’s tried persuading the recent DCFS administration to at least give his method a try, but to no avail, and with no explanation why, Knight said.

In this week’s transition to new state leadership, outgoing DCFS Director BJ Walker did not return calls seeking comment on Knight’s proposal.

DCFS spokesman Neil Skene, Walker’s special assistant whose last day on the job was Thursday, emailed this statement Wednesday:

“Our workers have to be prepared for the unpredictable as well as the known risks. Director Walker and all of us at DCFS are grateful that Mr. Knight has turned his personal grief into a concern for the well-being of our front-line staff.

“The tragic attack on Pam Knight helped us strengthen our relationship with local law enforcement agencies throughout the state by demonstrating the importance of their help when we call on them. That greater spirit of cooperation will make the real difference in worker safety.”

Skene noted in the same email some things DCFS has done since the attack:

• DCFS managers contacted their local law enforcement agencies in an effort to “establish and maintain good working relationships and to emphasize the necessity of their assistance at times when DCFS staff enter potentially unsafe areas or find themselves in an unsafe situation.” These will be ongoing communications with law enforcement, Skene wrote.

• DCFS also has given its field staff contact information for all law enforcement agencies statewide, and is researching panic alert technology options for field staff to utilize. “We are making this part of the child welfare mobile app, which is available to front-line workers on their cellphones,” Skene said, adding that training to identify and de-escalate threats, beyond what is usual for front-line workers, also is in the works.

• DCFS workers were offered the same self-defense training the Department of Corrections employs.  

• Armed security guards were hired at each DCFS work site.

• A statewide notice was sent to all DCFS employees in February clarifying the DCFS’s policy encouraging staff members to have a co-worker or law enforcement officer accompany them in potentially dangerous situations. (That reminder was reissued Monday)

None of these changes, Knight will note, requires an armed police escort for case workers in potentially life-threatening situations.

Pam once was a police officer, she had self-defense training, but even that didn’t help, and armed security guards at an office won’t protect workers in the field, he said.

DCFS workers are not allowed to carry mace or other weapons on home visits.

His plans now call for him to try to persuade the incoming director, and perhaps newly elected Gov. J.B. Pritzker himself, to consider his risk-assessment system.

He also will meet with representatives of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees – Pam’s union – to discuss what it is or isn’t doing.

For now, AFSCME Council 31 spokesman Anders Lindall, who had not heard Knight’s proposal, is declining to comment, noting the upcoming meeting.

The union did support legislation introduced last year to increase the amount of prison time a person would receive for assaulting a DCFS worker, but the measure didn’t pass, Skene said.

In the end, Knight’s effort to protect other DCFS workers is his way of trying to match Pam’s unwavering devotion to her job – and he is determined not to fail.

“She worked 24-7” not for the DCFS, but for the children, Knight said. “She was a great person.

“I made her a promise [the day she died] that I would try to make a difference for her co-workers and not let this terrible tragedy happen to them,” Knight said.

“The word ‘no’ is not in my vocabulary.”

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