During his campaign to run for higher office, Gov. Chris Christie often liked to say how every life is precious.
It was galling to hear such chutzpah, especially since earlier this year Christie vetoed "Leah's Law" — a measure that would force the state to protect workers at the Division of Children and Families (DCF) by re-instating Human Services Police in the field and implementing safety measures. Christie's callous veto puts thousands of DCF workers at risk of injury or even death.
A dozen years ago, among the very first actions of the Annie E. Casey committee overseeing Child Welfare Reform, was to place police officers into child protective services offices. Even before instilling an all-new case practice program and hiring hundreds more workers, experts knew that first-and-foremost, workers needed to be safe.
But, on Nov. 17, 2014, Leah Coleman, a Camden Family Service Specialist, wasn't safe at all. That day, she was brutally stabbed over 20 times by a deranged woman whose children had been rightfully removed. This mentally ill mother was a known risk. In fact, she wasn't permitted in the Office of the Public Defender without security because she was deemed so dangerous. Nonetheless, she was able to ride an elevator to Leah's floor. There wasn't a single law enforcement member present where hundreds of workers engaged in often perilous work. That's because just a few days earlier, due to Christie's directive, the last cops were removed from where they shared office space.
In the year since that attack, there have been over a dozen threats of bombings and shootings directed at DCF workers. Over the years, they've been threatened, stalked and held hostage. Workers have been assaulted near their office, held captive in homes and forced into a car trunk. They've been sexually assaulted, hit over the head and smashed in the face with a chair. Just recently calls came in threatening to shoot up 10 offices throughout the state. It's a miracle a worker hasn't been killed in New Jersey. Last summer, however, a woman murdered a child welfare worker in Vermont after her daughter was placed in foster care.
Every day, workers go out — alone and unarmed — to places where police go two-at-a-time wearing bulletproof vests. They knock on doors and say, "I need to see your kids to make sure they're safe."
Obviously in a situation where child protective caseworkers are warranted, there's going to be heightened tensions. It's common sense there should be some type of police escort accompanying them, when they're engaged in a removal of a child.
Leah lost over 50 pints of blood. She nearly lost her life and now has a permanent disability. Yet, Christie never once called to check-in on her. This is someone who calls every legislator on their birthday. A month after Leah was stabbed, he mailed Christmas cards to every registered Republican voter in the fields of Iowa. But, still, Christie never even sent a note Leah, who devoted her life – and almost lost her life - protecting abused, neglected children.
The governor has refused to meet with the Communications Workers of America-New Jersey over this bill — just as he hasn't once responded to any request from CWA to meet over the last six years.
Leah's Law passed 58-13 in the Assembly and 33-0 in the Senate. Yet, with a stroke of his pen, Christie showed a shocking disregard for the safety of these heroes. As always, he plays fast with the facts.
Christie claims the bill would cost $250 million, but the non-partisan Office of Legislative Services says it would only cost $11 million. He claims we're calling for 850 officers, plus support staff and supervisors. However, it only takes 50 officers to get the job done.
Christie's veto not only minimizes the horror Leah Coleman went through. It also endangers the lives of some of the most courageous, caring workers our State employs and the very children they protect.
CWA will never stand down when it comes to the safety of our members. That's why we're doubling down on our efforts. On Feb. 8, the bill was re-introduced in the Assembly. We're going to work so it passes anew with the bipartisan support this common-sense reform deserves.