After DCFS caseworker killed on the job, her husband works for change at the troubled agency

STERLING, Ill. — Recent child deaths in Illinois have shined a light on the Department of Children and Family Services, the agency charged with protecting vulnerable children in a home, often their own.

One man in Sterling, Illinois told WGN News he thinks the system is broken. He spoke out to honor his wife and is on a quest to change things at DCFS for her.

At 59, Pam Knight had been a police officer for six years before turning her attention to protecting children. Unable to have kids of her own, she devoted her life and career to DCFS and was a caseworker for 32 years.

Don Knight, 71, and Pam Knight were married for over 30 years.

Don Knight said every night after work, he and his wife went out to dinner to talk about her day.

“After we got done eating, we’d come home and she would sit down at the table with her computer and do casework because she was behind,” he said. “She had to get this work done.”

He said his wife carried an average of 25 cases at any given time.

On Sept. 29, 2017, Pam Knight got a call to remove a 2-year-old from an at-risk home. The father had a violent history. Around 5 p.m., before heading over with a police escort, she called her husband and said she, “had to go to the house from hell and remove this baby because it was in danger.”

The officer with Pam Knight backed off when her journey to take custody of the boy took her into another jurisdiction.

At the house, Pam Knight was attacked by the father of the boy.

“When she pulled up, he ambushed her,” Don Knight said. “(He) knocked her out, kicked her in the head. Then fled the scene.”

In the months following at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab in Chicago, Pam Knight couldn’t walk, talk or raise her arms. She was on a feeding tube and never well enough to come home to her husband again.

She died four months later on Feb. 8, 2018.

Since then, Don Knight has been on a mission.

“My mission is to change the way DCFS operates the business,” he said. “I’m not mad, I’m not angry. I’m determined to make people understand they have problems and they need to be changed.”

Don Knight wants people on the front line, caseworkers like Pam Knight, to be heard.

He also wants consistency between DCFS offices so caseworkers have a clear protocol to follow across the state.

His idea is to create a numbered rating system that’s clean and easy for all to understand. Cases with a 1 or 2 would be considered less threatening.

“If it was a 3,4,5 before they moved on that case they would need a police officer,” he said.

He also wants all cases called into the hotline to begin with a high-risk status, requiring a police escort for several visits until the environment inside is determined to be safe enough for a DCFS investigator to go there alone.

As for the DCFS union agreement, Don Knight wants the safety clauses for workers enforced. He claims they’re currently ignored.

And while so many wait for change affecting the children in the system, Don Knight has been asking Springfield to protect DCFS workers sworn to serve the kids. Pam’s Law was before Illinois legislators this session and would protect DCFS workers the same way firefighters, police officers and teachers are protected if a crime is committed against them on the job.

“The law is in place, we just need to upgrade the laws and add in the DCFS workers,” he said.

The bill never got traction, so his quest for change continues.

Don Knight said he has asked for a meeting with Gov. J.B. Pritzker several times to discuss Pam's Law and problems at DCFS. So far, he hasn’t had one.

“I made a promise to her the very first night in the hospital,” he said. “She never heard the promise, but I know she knows it. I will make a difference with DCFS because they let her down.”

Just last week, the man charged with killing Pam Knight pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to 21 years in prison.

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