Social Services Commissioner Frances Pierre at the Suffolk County Legislature in...

Social Services Commissioner Frances Pierre at the Suffolk County Legislature in 2022. Credit: James Carbone

Suffolk County has raised its starting pay for Child Protective Service workers and reduced the number of cases they handle in an effort to improve the department, but there is still progress to be made, the county's head of social services said Tuesday.

About 15% of staffers are carrying loads above what is recommended under a county law implemented following the 2020 death of eight-year-old Thomas Valva, according to Suffolk Department of Social Services Commissioner Frances Pierre, who spoke at the county legislature's monthly Seniors and Human Services Committee meeting.

Under the law, staffers should average 12 or fewer cases and not be assigned more than 15 without permission from a supervisor. The average number of cases per caseworker is now 11.6, Pierre said.

About 15% of Suffolk’s caseworkers are currently carrying loads of about 15 cases or more, compared to 44.6% in 2022. Over 70% of caseworkers were handling that workload in 2019, officials said.

“We are not where we want to be yet, but it shows good progress,” DSS deputy commissioner Sandra Davidson told legislators. “I know this is not as fast as we want it to go down. But we are getting there.”

DSS officials are required to present caseload statistics to the legislative committee once per year under the Suffolk County CPS Transformation Act adopted in 2020.

Concerns about high caseloads followed Thomas' death that year.

His father, Michael Valva, an ex-NYPD officer, and his ex-fiancee, Angela Pollina, were both found guilty of second-degree murder after forcing Thomas to sleep in their unheated garage in Center Moriches in freezing temperatures. In December 2022, Valva was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Pollina is scheduled to be sentenced April 11.

Suffolk CPS had investigated several complaints against the Valva family and monitored them for more than a year before his death, according to county records and officials.

Pierre on Tuesday described efforts to recruit new caseworkers, and said starting annual pay has been raised by about $8,000 to $51,913. Ninety candidates were interviewed at a job fair earlier this month, Pierre said.

There hasn't been a dramatic increase of caseworkers, partly because the number of people hired has been roughly the same as those who have left, Pierre said.

Serena Martin-Liguori, head of New Hour for Women and Children-LI, a Brentwood nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated women and their families, said two staffers from her organization regularly speak to Suffolk CPS workers and both have reported better relationships in the past six to eight months.

“It is really a marked improvement in their demeanor, in their willingness and enthusiasm to work with them,” Martin-Liguori said. “We’ve also seen more responsiveness.”

But committee chair Legis. Trish Bergin (R-East Islip) said there should be more transparency on how the department handles individual cases. She called for a way to review internal complaints that would function like police department internal affairs bureaus.

CPS agencies often cite confidentiality laws as the reason they can't answer questions.

Pierre said people who have complaints about the way a case is being handled can contact the state Office of Children and Family Services.

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