Suffolk County has 15 fewer child protective investigators than last year -- an 8 percent drop -- and social service advocates and union leaders are raising concerns about the potential for hampered child abuse probes.
The Department of Social Services has 169 child protective investigators compared with 184 last year, according to county figures. The reduced staff has forced the department to eliminate one Child Protective Services investigation team, creating a "very serious gap" in the investigatory system, according to legislative testimony by the department's former chief. The teams investigate child abuse claims reported to the state's child abuse hotline, which by state law must be responded to within 24 hours of the complaint being filed.
Former Department of Social Services Commissioner Gregory J. Blass in January disclosed the loss of 18 child and adult protective investigators who follow up on abuse and neglect complaints. The jobs, which Blass said would have been filled automatically in prior years, were among more than 600 positions that were eliminated last year to help close a multimillion-dollar county budget deficit.
"You have a smaller number of teams covering a greater geographic area," Blass said in an interview before retiring in February after running the department for 3 1/2 years and serving as deputy commissioner for 2 1/2 years. "There's too much at stake with Child Protective Services caseloads to lose any caseworker positions, especially if they were already in the budget."
Child advocates say such staffing reductions can hamper caseworkers' ability to conduct investigations.
"Most of child protective services agencies are already overburdened, which can overwhelm the quality of investigations," said Caren Caty, a senior fellow at the Children's Innovation Institute at the American Humane Association, a nonprofit located in Washington, D.C., that has worked with New York State to examine its handling of CPS cases.
"The consequence of that can be tragic," Caty said.
Acting Department of Social Services Commissioner John O'Neill said he was "confident the department can meet all of its obligations," in part because the number of abuse calls declined last year. In 2012, the department received 9,692 child abuse complaints from the state hotline, down by 242 compared with 2011, state figures show.
O'Neill said caseworkers have an average load of 12.9 cases a month, in line with the state's recommendation of 12 cases.
Spokesman John Nieves said the department also has moved staff "in order to meet the most pressing caseload needs."
The reduced staffing levels come as authorities continue investigations into the deaths of 17-month-old Justin Kowalczik, who was found buried in his family's backyard in Farmingdale, and 4-year-old Adonis Reed of Amityville, who according to police was punched to death by his legal guardian's boyfriend. The county has refused to release information on the cases, citing state confidentiality laws.
Legis. DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville), chairman of the county legislature's Human Services and Budget and Finance committees, said he plans to seek restoration of some of the 18 child and adult protective positions as lawmakers deal with the county's projected deficit of $250 million through 2014. But he said social services officials must make the case for the positions they want to keep.
"We want to make sure vulnerable children are being protected," Gregory said. "That's the line of communication the department should have with us, letting us know if we're at a critical level, if it's putting children in jeopardy . . . "
Dan Farrell, president of the Association of Municipal Employees, which represents county social service workers, said caseworkers report they're feeling "overloaded . . . A lot of them are burning out because of the caseload."
Suzanne Barnard, associate director of the the Child Welfare Strategy Group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a Baltimore-based nonprofit children's advocacy group, said government officials should factor in all of the demands on caseworkers when considering cuts.
"They're expected to travel, attend staff meetings, on top of all the professional obligations they have in their day-to-day casework," Barnard said. "Workers can easily burn out. It's a difficult job, with a tremendous amount of responsibility."
O'Neill said the department plans to hire seven additional caseworkers over the next year, as part of a state mandate to form "Family Assessment Response" teams. The initiative seeks to provide parents with counseling and resources to prevent the reoccurrence of abuse.