After a child welfare caseworker was attacked by a knife-wielding client at her office in Camden, Gov. Chris Christie's administration hired armed security guards and assigned them to each of the 46 offices scattered around the state to help calm workers' fears about their safety.
On Wednesday, members of the state Assembly Budget Committee hearing questioned why the Department of Children and Families chose to spend $2 million on a private security contract when it could have tapped the Human Services Police Department, which up until days before the Nov. 17 attack had a team of about 25 officers working from some of the busier local offices to accompany case workers on dangerous visits.
During an hour-long discussion on the department's $1.6 billion proposed budget, Assemblyman Troy Singleton(D-Burlington) questioned the Christie administration's decision to disband the special unit as a way to cut back on the police force's overtime of about $800,000 a year, but then chose to spend more than twice that much to hire armed guards.
According to the analysis of the department's budget by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services, the police unit assigned to the child welfare system accrued $795,414 in overtime expenses in fiscal year 2013 and was projected to accrue $716,117 in fiscal year 2014.
"The financial implications are clear. We are now paying more to have private security than we were paying in overtime costs to have the Human Services Police, who were always in the building," Singleton said after the hearing in Trenton. "From a fiscal standpoint, that left me scratching my head."
Just as concerning, he added, was the decision to disband the unit and to have no armed security in place until after the attack on the caseworker Leah Coleman, who survived after she was stabbed more than 20 times. "The idea of not having security present should give us pause," Singleton told Commissioner Allison Blake.
The Human Services police officers never provided building security, and there were never enough of them to staff every office, Blake replied. "They had an office in the interior of our workplace. When caseworkers went into the field and there was a (safety) concern, (the officers) would accompany them," she said.
Human Services police officers are still available to accompany workers from the Division of Child Protection and Permanency, she explained. Blake said unlike the weekday hours maintained by the specialized unit, the officers are now on around-the-clock shifts to minimize overtime expenses, and dispatched from the three state-run psychiatric hospitals located in north, central and south Jersey.
In an email following the hearing, Blake's spokesman Ernest Landante explained the added benefits of the reorganization. In addition to officers continuing to assist caseworkers in the field, "Our department now has private armed security guards with metal detecting wands stationed at every local office — a level of security that was never previously provided," he said.
"The services provided by Human Services police officers and private security guards are entirely separate and distinct from each other. Attempting to connect the costs for each is a faulty comparison," according to Landante's email.
Union representatives from the Communications Workers of America have said the wait can be hours long for a police officer to accompany a caseworker under the new dispatch system. They demanded and got metal detectors at each building but their request to reinstate the unit assigned to their division has been denied.
Singleton said he left the meeting "hoping for better answers and better insight into why these decisions were made, but I can't say I got much of either."
"While I can appreciate the enhanced security measures taken since the incident, I don't understand the decision that led to the security lapse or why we chose to privatize our security needs, instead of utilizing the human services police we had," he said.