TRENTON - Four months after being stabbed nearly two dozen times by a client in Camden, child protection worker Leah Coleman thanked the colleagues credited with saving her life as hundreds of union workers cheered her on.
Coleman, a worker in the state Department of Children and Families, also joined her union's calls for a better, safer work environment.
Two of her caseworker colleagues were recognized at Wednesday's union gathering for grabbing and subduing the attacker until help arrived. Three nurses were commended for the treatment they provided while waiting for an ambulance.
"But there were about 50 other people who just watched, and it's because there's a culture of fear in the office," Coleman said. That culture needs to change, she said.
Thunderous applause drowned out her words. Hundreds of union administrators from across the state - shop stewards of the Communications Workers of America - rose to their feet.
Coleman had been meeting Nov. 17 with client Taisha Edwards in the Camden office of the Division of Child Protection and Permanency on the 100 block of Haddon Avenue. Shortly after 1 p.m. outside Coleman's office, Edwards attacked the caseworker with a nine-inch steak knife.
Edwards pleaded guilty Monday to attempted murder. Under a plea deal, the Camden County Prosecutor's Office agreed to recommend a 13-year prison sentence, with Edwards required to serve 85 percent. She will be sentenced April 10.
Edwards had previously been imprisoned, once for assault and another time on weapons charges.
"As we fight forward, I think we have the worst criminal justice system in the world," said Coleman's mother, Carolyn. The family will fight, she said, "to help the criminal justice system see that what you're doing is not working."
Union leaders presented awards to William Smith and Darrell Braswell, the caseworkers who grabbed Edwards and prevented further assault. The three nurses from the office who rushed to treat her were Jodi Klein, Darlene Keegan, and Cassandra Tichian.
"I thank God for the young people that were there, that had enough strength and enough fight in them to fight and to help her. For the nurses that were there . . . until the ambulance got there," Carolyn Coleman said.
"And then for all the love and support that helps a person heal. Love is a healing agent in itself," she said.
The union continued Wednesday to call for improved security in what leaders call inherently dangerous work environments. Armed guards had just been withdrawn from the Camden building; the attack occurred on the first day without their presence.
They returned the next day, and armed guards soon appeared in the other local child protection offices across the state.
"We need legislation to protect workers, because the administration and DCF as a whole are not doing a good enough job of taking care of workers," said Shawn Ludwig, president of CWA Local 1038, which represents Coleman. "The concern is, these are dangerous jobs."
Hetty Rosenstein, the union's state director, announced to the crowd - and Coleman - that State Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez (D., Camden) and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D., Bergen) planned to introduce legislation to ensure protection of Department of Children and Families workers.
Among the ideas being discussed for "Leah's Law," she said: mandatory law enforcement presence in all DCF offices, availability of panic buttons, and increased penalties for attacking a DCF worker.
Huttle's office confirmed that she would sponsor DCF safety legislation, which is still being drafted.
"The legislation is amazing," Coleman said after the event. "Best part of my day."