Christie vetoes child welfare worker safety bill prompted by stabbing

Gov. Chris Christie on Monday vetoed a bill sparked by the near-fatal stabbing of a state child welfare worker that would have assigned police officers to work from child welfare offices and accompany employees on potentially dangerous home visits in New Jersey.

"Leah's Law," named for Leah Coleman, a caseworker who was stabbed more than 20 times inside her office in Camden by a client in November 2014,  (A4638) also would have required select rooms in offices to be equipped with panic buttons.

Christie said the goal of the legislation was "commendable," but it is too costly and does not take into account the "reinvigorated" security plans instituted in 2015. 

"While the security of (Division of Child Protection and Permanency) employees and clients must be our highest priority, the requirements of this bill are not necessary to achieve its goals and would be tremendously costly to the taxpayers of our State," according to Christie's veto message.

"The requirement in the bill (the division) rely solely upon Department of Human Services Police Officers for security will require the Department of Human Services to hire hundreds of additional police officers in order to provide on-site security at all well as to escort caseworkers when they are outside the office," according to the governor's statement. 

Christie's support for the bill was always a long shot. Allison Blake, commissioner for the Department of Children and Families, has resisted multiple requests by union leaders to assign Human Services Police Officers to child welfare offices. 

Just days before Coleman's attack, the Department of Human Services had dismantled a unit dedicated to working closely with child welfare employees, and in many places, sharing office space. In an effort to cut back on overtime costs, two officers each are dispatched from three state psychiatric hospitals in north, south and central Jersey to respond to child welfare calls. 

Leah's Law," was named for Leah Coleman, a caseworker who was stabbed more than 20 times inside her office in Camden eight months ago by a client.

Officers could take more than an hour to respond to a request for an escort, however, according to the Communications Workers of America, the union that represents employees from the Division of Child Protection and Permanency.

Concerns about worker safety were renewed in July after two caseworkers were attacked and injured by a parent during an emergency removal of a child in Pennsville, Salem County. And in October, eight state child welfare offices received calls this week "threatening to shoot up the site or kill everyone in the building."

"The Governor has shown a shocking disregard for the safety of these New Jersey heroes, who every day, risk their lives rescuing abused and neglected children and saving families from violence," said Hetty Rosenstein, CWA state director Hetty Rosenstein. "This legislation had overwhelming bipartisan support. We are figuring out the next steps within the next several days, but CWA will never stand down when it comes to  the safety of our members."  

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