February 07, 2019

One year later: AFSCME member Pamela Knight killed in the line of duty

It was a Friday evening in late September when AFSCME Local 448 member Pamela Knight, a DCFS child protection specialist, was sent to take a two-year-old child into protective custody from an abusive father. As she got out of her car, Knight was attacked by the little boy’s father, Andrew Sucher.

Brutally beaten, Knight suffered blunt force trauma to her head and spent the next four months largely unresponsive as she underwent multiple surgeries and hospital transfers. After 11 years on the job, 59-year-old Pamela Knight paid the ultimate price for protecting children from abuse and neglect. She died as a result of her injuries on February 8.

"The one-year anniversary of Pam Knight’s death is a moment to honor her sacrifice, but also to recognize the risks faced each day by employees of the state Department of Children and Family Services and to renew our commitment to making them as safe as possible," said AFSCME Council 31 Executive Director Roberta Lynch in a Feb. 7, 2019, op-ed honoring Pam's sacrifice.

A life of service

Knight was a beloved wife, mother and grandmother. She had served the public at DCFS and Lutheran Social Services, as well as in law enforcement and as a foster mother.

“If you were Pam’s friend and you needed something, she would go out of her way to help,” her friend and co-worker Dawn Bliefnick said. “My son was taken to the ER one day and I couldn’t get ahold of my husband. She left work and sat with me until he came. When my mother died, she came to the funeral. She was the kind of person who showed up for her friends.”

Knight and Bliefnick began their training at DCFS at the same time and worked in the Sterling office together for more than a decade. Losing Knight has been very hard on everyone there.

“Our office is like a family,” Bliefnick said. “It’s special. This is so hard because it was traumatic and unexpected. It’s like we lost a family member.”

Dangerous job

DCFS employees are the front line of defense in protecting children in Illinois. In this important work, they often encounter families in crisis stemming from poverty, substance abuse, mental illness, domestic violence and other challenges. Because they must insert themselves into stressful, sometimes dangerous situations in order to keep kids safe, employees often face threats, harassment and violence on the job.

Workers feel the environment is becoming even more dangerous as rising income inequality and a lack of services exacerbate problems of untreated addiction and mental illness. Threats and violence are regular occurrences. One worker in Chicago was attacked at a school by a child’s mother. In Southern Illinois, a supervisor was knifed by a mother with extreme mental health issues.

“We accept it as part of our job that people are upset and don’t want to be involved with us, but it feels amped up in recent years,” said Kathy Lane, a child welfare administration case reviewer and president of AFSCME Local 448. “People are simply unable to provide the parenting their children need because they have unresolved issues and no services to help them. Huge waiting lists don’t work for people in crisis.”

After Knight’s murder, workers are more frightened and frustrated than ever.

“I get severe anxiety when I’m on call now,” said Bliefnick. “I get chest pains. We go out with a pad of paper and that’s the only defense we have. Sometimes, especially in small towns, there are no police officers on duty to help me.”

Taking action

AFSCME’s DCFS Standing Committee, made up of front-line employees from across the state, has been pushing agency management to institute policy changes to improve employee safety, making significant progress toward safety goals. DCFS agreed to post security guards at all DCFS offices, offer voluntary self-defense classes and training on threat identification and de-escalation, and improved access to available criminal background information from the Cook County Courts database. AFSCME is still pushing for additional safety initiatives, including better access to criminal background information outside of Cook County.

AFSCME also worked to pass legislation that for the first time requires DCFS and three other state agencies—Corrections, Human Services and Juvenile Justice—to fully document assaults and their consequences for employees. DCFS and the other agencies are now required to make quarterly reports to the Illinois General Assembly that provide a clear accounting of each assault that occurs in the line of duty, the nature of any injuries incurred, and any time lost from work as a result.

On Feb. 13, 2018, the General Assembly honored Pam Knight’s passing with a moment of silence. Sen. Melinda Bush called on DCFS to take steps to ensure the safety of its employees by following the union’s recommendations.

“Pam Knight died in the service of our state, her community and to protect a small child who could not protect himself,” Bush said. “We have a responsibility to do everything we can to ensure that a tragedy like this will never happen again.”

AFSCME members in DCFS will continue to honor Knight’s memory with action, determination and unity.

“That’s the biggest help,” Bliefnick said. “Everybody being there for each other.”

This article is reprinted, in part, from the March-April 2018 edition of On the Move.   

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