At DCYF, Member Action Turns Staff Assault into Stronger Safety Protocols

Dedicated WFSE members at the Washington Department of Children, Youth and Families show up for kids and families during some of the hardest times in their lives. They deserve to come to work not fearing for their safety. That’s why Heather Gregory, WFSE Local 53 member and DCYF social service support specialist, successfully fought for stronger safety protocols after being assaulted on the job.

WFSE Member Heather Gregory

Gregory has been a social service support specialist for nearly two years and provided supervised visits for three years before taking her current role.

With social workers facing impossibly heavy caseloads, her job is crucial.

“My position helps take off additional tasks for social workers,” Gregory said. “It can help with picking up parents that need to get to services, providing school transports for kiddos—those timely things that need to be done that some social workers don’t have the capability to fit in their schedule because they have so many families.”

Red Flags

Gregory’s job is not meant to include picking youth up from protective police custody, but one evening in May of 2023, facing understaffing, she was asked to do just that.

Gregory immediately saw red flags about the request. Most importantly, already in Gregory’s care that night was a youth receiving support after being commercially sexually exploited. Tragically, despite statewide efforts to crack down on youth trafficking, hundreds of children are exploited in Washington each year.

Best practices dictate that youth in care who have been trafficked be kept separate from each other as they recover from this horrific abuse—but the two additional youth Gregory was asked to pick up from protective custody had also been commercially sexually exploited.

“I had voiced concerns about it triggering the youth I was already supervising to want to go on the run with these other commercially sexually exploited youth,” Gregory said.

Told by her supervisor to proceed despite her doubts, Gregory collected the two additional youth.

In the fifteen minutes Gregory waited for a coworker to join her at the office with the three teens, the situation escalated.

“It led to the youth I was originally supervising getting in the leadership role of figuring out how to get their phones back and go on the run,” Gregory said.

The lapse and escalation led to Gregory being physically assaulted.

Member Advocacy and a Safer DCYF

Gregory knew this incident could have been prevented. She and her coworkers shouldn’t have to cope with lax safety policies that put them at risk. She decided to pursue filing a union grievance.

“I truly felt supported through the grievance process,” Gregory said. “Our union advocated on my behalf retelling the horrific details that I was not able to, as I was trying to heal from my trauma.”

A few months later, Gregory learned her grievance had made positive change for DCYF Region 5.

“Now there are always two workers supervising the child if they have assaulted someone recently on staff. Workers are able to work in safer conditions, knowing that the department has to provide more staff to make the environment safer,” said Gregory.

Supervisors must also provide a supervision plan that includes the youth’s history.

The grievance was one action in a string of recent efforts by WFSE members to make DCYF a safer place to work. Member advocacy has also resulted in the use of a new safety procedure packet and implementation of team rooms.           

“I feel like they’re being held accountable and are like, ok, these are the changes we’re making, we want everyone to know about it, being more transparent to safety protocol,” said Gregory.

Take Action

Engaged, united union members make real change at work and in their communities every day. Right now, DCYF members are gearing up to take on major policy changes during the 2024 Legislative Session. Learn more and get involved here.

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