After Thomas Valva's death, Nassau CPS caseloads trending in wrong direction, records show
As Suffolk County reduces the number of cases each Child Protective Services caseworker handles — three years after 8-year-old Thomas Valva was murdered by his father and his father's fiancee — Nassau County has stagnated and, by some measures, slid backward, county and state data shows.
Thomas died of hypothermia in January 2020 after being forced to sleep in the family garage in Center Moriches while outdoor temperatures dropped below freezing. Shortly afterward, Nassau officials held a special legislative meeting on CPS and vowed to hire more caseworkers.
But the average number of cases per Nassau CPS employee has gone up in the past few years, according to state data. Nassau caseworkers still are more likely to have heavy caseloads than their counterparts in most other New York counties, with the union representing them saying most have at least 20 cases per month.
Thomas died even though Suffolk CPS had received dozens of allegations of severe abuse, from his mother, his teachers and others over several years. Separate juries convicted Thomas' father, Michael Valva, and Valva's then-fiancee, Angela Pollina, of second-degree murder. Pollina was sentenced Tuesday to 25 years to life in prison. Valva is serving an identical sentence.
WHAT TO KNOW
- A state-commissioned report recommends a goal of 12 active cases per month for each caseworker.
- Last year, Nassau CPS caseworkers averaged 12.9 cases, the highest annual average in at least six years.
- Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman approved a 17% increase in starting salary for caseworkers.
In 2021, Nassau caseworkers had an average of 11.4 cases per caseworker per month, state data shows. Last year, that number jumped to 12.9 cases, the highest annual average in at least six years.
In addition, for every month in 2022, the county was above the statewide median in the percentage of caseworkers with more than 15 cases, usually by a significant quantity. Nassau has been above the state median for 43 of the past 60 months, or 72% of the time.
Jason Perkowsky, president of the Civil Service Employees Association Local 830 unit that represents CPS employees in Nassau, said official county numbers are "misleading" because the county’s caseload average includes caseworkers and supervisors who have few cases, which brings down the average significantly. Most caseworkers have at least 20 cases, and one has 40, he said.
“If you have that many cases, you’re cutting corners,” Perkowsky said.
Zynovia Hetherington, a professor of social work at the University of Washington and director of the school’s Child Welfare Training and Advancement Program, said that if a caseworker is juggling a large number of cases, "You can miss things."
“The results,” she said, “are more danger for children.”
The results are more danger for children.
— Zynovia Hetherington, professor of social work at the University of Washington
Credit: University of Washington
County data shows that the number of CPS caseworkers increased from 44 at the end of 2021 to 69 as of Monday.
Perkowsky disputed that data. According to his count, more people left CPS than were hired during that time period.
“I don’t know where the union got their numbers from," said Nancy Nunziata, Nassau’s Department of Social Services commissioner. "I can only tell you the numbers we keep here.”
Perkowsky said that after widespread attention to Thomas’ death, “I think people felt like conditions were going to get better, the working environment was going to get better, it was going to be a lot more supportive. And nothing happened. It only got worse, actually."
Morale among caseworkers is low, he said.
“It’s shocking to me that Nassau did not take a more proactive approach” through legislation and other reforms, he said.
It’s shocking to me that Nassau did not take a more proactive approach.
— Jason Perkowsky, president of union that represents Nassau CPS employees
Credit: Raychel Brightman
Nunziata disagreed, saying the department has taken steps, including salary increases for caseworkers, to improve CPS.
County Executive Bruce Blakeman recently approved a 17% increase in the starting salary, from $44,000 to $51,000 a year, to lure more caseworker candidates.
“It’s hard to recruit people if the salary structure isn’t there,” said Blakeman, who worries about a lack of enough caseworkers “because we don’t want any kids to fall through the cracks.”
The county budget has the money for more caseworkers. There were 90 budgeted positions, but only 69 were filled as of Monday, records show. Perkowsky said union records indicate there are only 48 caseworkers with active cases.
And Blakeman said that since the salary increase, he increased the number of budgeted caseworkers by 22, to 112.
County spokesman Christopher Boyle said the additional positions don't require legislative approval; money to pay them is in the budget.
The new salary went into effect in early February, Nunziata said.
“Fifty-one thousand [dollars a year] makes us more competitive with local counties and cities,” she said.
Boyle said the pay hike has helped attract more job candidates.
Blakeman said the county also is looking into hiring part-time employees who have a background in investigations — such as retired detectives — to do some casework “to fill the gap on a short-term basis.”
“Right now, our caseloads are higher than we would want,” Nunziata said. Resignations and retirements, including from employees wary of working during the pandemic, are a factor, she said.
“Once we bring these new people on board, I think we’ll see a sharp decrease,” she said.
Caseworkers must have a bachelor's degree, as well as knowledge of basic principles of social and behavioral science, according to a county job description.
Perkowsky, who is a CPS supervisor, said supervisors sometimes take over caseworkers' cases, and that leaves less time for them to provide oversight.
Nunziata argued that supervisors with cases can still manage their employees.
"It’s not going to detract from their ability to supervise people," she said.
Boyle said in an email that supervisors only are given cases of their own when a caseworker resigns or otherwise leaves and a supervisor temporarily takes over their cases.
Each supervisor oversees an average of three to four caseworkers, he said.
But Perkowsky said he and other supervisors sometimes assume the cases of caseworkers who are still working for CPS, usually when the caseworkers are overwhelmed. Supervisors also at times work together with caseworkers on cases, he said.
Experts said caseworkers should be specially trained to work with kids with special needs. Thomas Valva was on the autism spectrum.
Suffolk CPS established a special-needs unit after Thomas died, but Nassau did not, Nunziata said.
“We discussed it and right now we’ve got to get the [overall] staffing up, and then we’ll continue to look at that,” she said.