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Local

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

Don Knight stands near a billboard he had erected in memory of his wife, Pam, who died Feb. 8, 4 months after being beaten by the father of a child the Department of Children and Family Services case worker was taking into protective custody. The sign was put up a little less than  2 weeks ago on state Route 2 on the west edge of Dixon, near Northside Baptist Church.
Don Knight stands near a billboard he had erected in memory of his wife, Pam, who died Feb. 8, 4 months after being beaten by the father of a child the Department of Children and Family Services case worker was taking into protective custody. The sign was put up a little less than 2 weeks ago on state Route 2 on the west edge of Dixon, near Northside Baptist Church.

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.”

ON THE LEGISLATIVE FRONT

Legislation introduced a week after Pam died, designed to better protect DCFS workers by requiring law enforcement agencies "to make all reasonable efforts to assist" them when requested, was passed in July.

It also allows officers to cross jurisdictions to provide that protection.

The new law does not require law enforcement to drop everything to help when the DCFS calls, only that officers make "all reasonable efforts" at a "mutually available time," which might mean DCFS might have to reschedule the visit.

Mandating that law enforcement comply with every request could cause problems when departments have staffing issues or other pressing matters to attend to, and could open them up to civil liability, the bill's sponsor, former state Sen. Tim Bivins, also a former Lee County sheriff, has said.

State Rep. Tony McCombie, R-Savanna, said this week that she will reintroduce legislation that failed to pass in the last session that makes attacking a DCFS employee aggravated battery, a felony punishable by 4 to 15 years in prison.

Knight's accused attacker, Andrew Sucher, is facing 20 to 60 years or up to life in prison if convicted of murder, but only 2 to 5 years if convicted of either aggravated battery causing great bodily harm and aggravated battery of a state employee.

DCFS POLICY ON SAFETY IN THE FIELD

The text of the notice sent to all Department of Children and Family Services employees in February, and again on Monday, clarifying the agency's policy encouraging staff members to have a co-worker or law enforcement officer accompany them in potentially dangerous situations:

The safety of our front-line staff in the field is important to us. When those of you on the front-line staff are going out to the field, or are in the field, and have a concern about a potentially dangerous situation, you should immediately contact law enforcement to accompany you to the site. If your request is for a co-worker to accompany you, you need supervisory approval. If denied by the supervisor, you can immediately take the request to the next management level.

You are not expected to make the visit in a potentially dangerous situation until accompaniment is available.

Make your request as soon as possible after you learn information that you feel heightens the risk. If waiting a reasonable time for law enforcement or staff accompaniment causes you to miss a compliance deadline, we will consider that a good-faith attempt to meet the deadline.

Administrative Procedure #16 describes our policy in more detail. Please read that again. It is there for your safety.

Remember that law enforcement agencies have significant responsibilities as well, and it is important that we ask for their accompaniment for potentially dangerous situations only and not for routine field contacts.

We also need to know about threats or harm you encounter. Please be sure you provide a Significant Event Report if you are a victim of threats or harm. Besides alerting us to the event, the reports help us accurately assess the need for policy and practice changes.

Safety is important, and all of us appreciate the work of those on the front line in protecting children and serving families.

Source: The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services

MAN ACCUSED IN KNIGHT’S DEATH REMAINS IN JAIL

MOUNT CARROLL – Andrew "A.J." Sucher, 26, of Rock Falls, is charged with five counts of first-degree murder, as well as aggravated battery causing great bodily harm and aggravated battery of a state employee, in the Feb. 8 death of DCFS worker Pamela Knight.

He faces at least 20 to 60 years, up to life in prison, if convicted of her murder, and 2 to 5 years each on the other charges.

Sucher is accused of kicking Knight in the head, fracturing her skull and causing severe brain damage on Sept. 29, 2017, as she arrived at his parents' home in Milledgeville to take custody of a toddler. She was comatose for weeks after the beating.

He is being held on $1 million bond and has a pretrial conference hearing Feb. 1 in Carroll County Court.

Sucher also is charged with aggravated battery of a peace officer, which carries 3 to 7 years.

Officials say he was being moved to another cell in the Carroll County Jail on Dec. 19, 2017, when he became "verbally combative" and punched Chief Deputy Craig Dimmick in the face.

He subsequently was transferred to Stephenson County, where he remains. Bond in that case is $75,000. ​

Sucher also has pleaded not guilty in Whiteside County Court to aggravated battery of a child, which carries 2 to 5 years, and battery, domestic battery, and interfering with the reporting of a domestic battery, all misdemeanors.

He is accused of dragging a 6-year-old by the foot and striking him in the face with a squirt gun, and of throwing a woman against a wall and taking her phone in a July 29 incident.

He was out on bond in that case when Knight was attacked. It's on hold while the Carroll County cases proceed.

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