Our View: DCFS investigators should be allowed to carry pepper spray

Sen. Steve McClure, R-Springfield, speaks at a news conference Tuesday unveiling a bill that would allow DCFS workers to carry mace.

Illinois Department of Children and Family Services workers make thousands of home visits each year. Sometimes, given what’s at risk for all involved, the calls can get violent.

Last month, DCFS investigator Deidre Silas, 36, of Springfield was killed while checking the welfare of six children at a home in Thayer in Sangamon County. Benjamin Reed, 32, was charged with first-degree murder in connection with her death. In 2019, DCFS worker Pam Knight, 59, of Dixon was killed during a child protection call in Milledgeville in northwest Illinois.

Republican lawmakers have introduced legislation to allow DCFS workers to carry pepper spray for self-defense when investigating allegations of child abuse.

“It is legal for people to carry pepper spray for their own protection, as many do all over this state. Yet, DCFS workers who have to walk into abusive homes are not allowed that same protection,” said state Sen. Steve McClure, R-Springfield, the sponsor of Senate Bill 4165. “This is a commonsense step to help them stay safe while performing what is an incredibly important job.”

State Rep. Sandy Hamilton, R-Springfield, filed House Bill 5688 that would allow the DCFS employees to carry pepper spray on the job, also requiring them to complete a training program from the Illinois State Police on the proper use of pepper spray.

Retired DCFS worker Gayle Hopper told Capitol News Illinois last week the legislation is needed.

“This bill provides a safety tool not currently available to DCFS frontline staff, should they encounter dangerous and possibly life-threatening situations while doing their job,” Hopper said.

While their job is different, domestic incidents are some of the most dangerous calls to which police officers respond. Some 43 officers nationwide were killed between 2011 and 2020 when responding to a domestic incident after arriving at the scene, according to the FBI’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted database. These officers were armed.

Since 2017, DCFS has made more than 2.5 million visits to homes and there have been 20 documented incidents where a worker was threatened or assaulted, according to the agency.

DCFS investigators complete a six-week training that includes worker safety and within the first 90 days of employment must complete workplace and field safety training, CNI reported. And after Knight’s death in 2019, Illinois State Police conducted training for DCFS, covering topics such as de-escalation, active shooter response and situational awareness.

DCFS also requires that investigators call for law enforcement or take another DCFS worker with them on a call that involves a documented history of violence, including assault convictions or weapons violations; taking a child into protective custody, or a report that alleges that the person being investigated is dangerous or known for potential violence, CNI reported.

The training and DCFS policies on how to handle potentially dangerous home visits should continue. But, after training, DCFS investigators should be allowed to carry pepper spray for protection. Although no guarantee of safety, it can provide time for DCFS workers and those they are sworn responsible for protecting precious time to flee a dangerous situation.

The legislation makes sense and deserves bipartisan support.