CHICAGO (CBS) – Protecting a child cost a state social worker her life. Pam Knight suffered a brutal beating at the home of a suspected child abuser. CBS 2’s Dave Savini investigates the lack of police and other protections for these front-line workers.
Jennifer Hollenback’s mother, Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) Investigator Pam Knight was brutally attacked as she attempted to rescue a two year old.
“I think kids were her first love,” said Hollenback.
Don Knight explains how the day began for his wife, “She had been handed instructions to go get that baby because it was going to be abused.”
Pam Knight was alone when she arrived at the home. Without a police escort, the man she was investigating for alleged child abuse ran up to her and beat her violently until she was unconscious.
Then came a 911 call for help, “There is a lady on the ground. You need to get an ambulance here now.”
The 911 dispatcher said, “Is she hurt anywhere?”
The caller said, “Her face.”
Andrew Sucher, the two year old’s father attacked Knight. Sucher’s mother is the one who called 911.
“Where’s your son at right now,” asked the 911 dispatcher.
“I don’t know he took off walking,” said Sucher’s mother.
“He had used a shoe to kick her in the head three times,” said Don Knight.
His wife’s head trauma landed her in a coma, left her permanently disabled and in pain. Knight says he now has a new life’s mission.
“It’s my goal now to help her coworkers,” said Knight. “I don’t want her co workers to end up this way.”
He says DCFS workers need immediate police backup who can cross jurisdictions. Pam Knight had police backup in Whiteside County, but when she had to cross into Carroll County, she could not get one.
Knight’s daughter says she thinks her mother would be alive had she had a police escort.
“They were pushing the cases so hard at her,” said Knight.
He says his wife’s caseload made it hard to take time to ensure her safety.
Anne Irving, public policy director of AFSCME Local 31, the union that represents DCFS workers, says the agency needs to hire more investigators.
“Pam worked out of an office that was very understaffed and remains understaffed,” said Irving.
She says the agency uses a slow criminal background check system, when it should be immediate and pressures workers to go to potentially dangerous homes without critical information.
“What the criminal history might be. Whether there might be guns in the house,” said Irving.
Sucher was accused of abusing a 6 year old, so Knight went to the home to protect the 2 year old, despite not having police protection.
In February, six months after the attack, Pam Knight passed away.
“Lots of pain, sadness,” said Knight. “I wish she’d walk through that door, but she won’t.”
Sucher is now charged with murder.
A DCFS spokesman says following the attack, direct phone numbers to call for police backup were given to field staff. And the agency is working on getting them immediate background checks too.
When Don Knight met with the DCFS director, he emphasized that he wants his family tragedy to be a force for change, and we share that desire. The brutal beating Pam Knight suffered had an effect on all of us. We are very grateful for Mr. Knight’s efforts on behalf of all the first responders at DCFS, including his support for the Senate bill increasing penalties on those who attack our workers.
Our first step was engaging with law enforcement agencies throughout the state so that DCFS front-line staff is treated as fellow first responders when we call on them for backup and support.
We have reinforced the importance of calling on law enforcement or co-workers when investigators are going to unsafe locations. We’ve given field staff new direct contact numbers for law enforcement agencies statewide.
One of our highest administrative priorities has been to fill vacancies on the front line, a longstanding problem, but we have cut the vacancies in half over the past few months. That gives every worker more time and more support.
We are working with our security contractor to have armed guards at field offices.
We have agreed to provide self-defense training for staff members who want it with reimbursement from us.
We are revising our training on threat identification and de-escalating threats and anger and are investigating effective panic alert technology options.
We are also supporting Senate Bill 3105 to increase penalties for attacking a DCFS employee and adding DCFS workers to the category of first responders.
We are also providing “Official State Business” placards to all our staff so they can park closer to their destinations just as law enforcement can do.