Data shows Suffolk County CPS workers’ caseload numbers did not meet guidelines under a county law enacted after Thomas Valva’s death. Officials said COVID-19 played a role. Newsday TV’s Cecilia Dowd reports. Credit: Anthony Florio; File Footage; Zoom; Photo Credit: Morgan Campbell, Justyna Zubko-Valva

Almost 60% of Suffolk County Child Protective Services workers last year carried high caseloads that failed to meet standards under a law enacted in 2020 after the death of 8-year-old Thomas Valva, a Newsday analysis of social services data shows.

Some individual caseworkers handled up to 26 cases a month in 2021, according to records, although county law says caseloads should not average more than 12 per month.

The Newsday review found 58.6% of CPS caseworkers had an average of more than 12 cases a month in 2021, while 28% had more than 15 a month that year.

The increase in caseloads resulted largely from the COVID-19 pandemic, as many caseworkers took on extra work to cover for colleagues who were out sick with COVID-19 or quarantining, according to county social services officials.

But CPS caseloads in Suffolk have remained high in 2022, records show.

Between 32% and 45% of caseworkers carried more than 15 cases per month between Jan. 1 and March 15, weekly samples of CPS caseloads showed.

Officials said the pandemic has continued to cause absences among workers this year.

Concerns about high caseloads figured prominently in the reactions of child abuse experts and the public to Thomas' death in January 2020.

According to criminal complaints against Thomas' father, Michael Valva, an ex-NYPD officer, and his ex-fiancee, Angela Pollina, Thomas died after allegedly being forced to sleep overnight, along with his 10-year-old brother, Anthony, in their unheated garage in Center Moriches in freezing temperatures. Anthony survived.

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

Michael Valva and Pollina have pleaded not guilty.

Serena Martin-Liguori, head of New Hour for Women and Children-LI, a Brentwood nonprofit that aids formerly incarcerated women and their families, remarked at the time of Thomas' death that her agency frequently found Suffolk CPS to be "overwhelmed and inundated" with cases.

In January 2020, 75% of Suffolk CPS caseworkers had more than 12 open cases, and 30.7% had more than 15, according to a Newsday analysis of CPS data.

You have to wonder, has anything changed since the death of that poor young boy?

-Serena Martin-Liguori, head of New Hour for Women and Children

Asked recently about continued high caseloads, Martin-Liguori told Newsday: “It's really frustrating to see, and you have to wonder, has anything changed since the death of that poor young boy?”

Suffolk Social Services Commissioner Frances Pierre said CPS caseloads are at manageable levels. The department has reduced its number from historic levels and is “meeting the needs of” county families, Pierre told Newsday.

Suffolk Social Services Commissioner Frances Pierre outside of the department's...

Suffolk Social Services Commissioner Frances Pierre outside of the department's Deer Park building. Credit: Morgan Campbell

"Despite significant disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the impact it has had on the County workforce, the Suffolk County Department of Social Services has been able to successfully assess the safety and well-being of the vulnerable children that they do come into contact with on a daily basis," Pierre said in a statement on April 28.

Nassau County officials did not provide information about the percentage of caseworkers with high caseloads in 2021.

Nassau officials said the average monthly caseload was 11.3 in 2021. In Suffolk, the average last year was 12.7, Pierre said.

Unlike Suffolk, Nassau has no law setting CPS caseload levels.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin May 25 in the trial of Michael Valva and Pollina, who face charges of second-degree murder and child endangerment. 

Thomas and Anthony's mother, Justyna Zubko-Valva, of Valley Stream, repeatedly sought help from police, social service agencies and courts in Nassau and Suffolk, records show. 

Teachers at East Moriches Elementary School, the boys' school, had reported concerns about Thomas and Anthony since 2017, including that the boys were hungry, losing weight and coming to school in urine-soaked clothing. One caller to the state hotline for abuse and neglect reported Thomas had a black eye.

Long Island residents rally in front of Nassau criminal courthouse...

Long Island residents rally in front of Nassau criminal courthouse for Nassau County Judge Hope Schwartz Zimmerman and all the judges involved in Michael Valva’s case to be held accountable for Valva's alleged murder of his 8-year-old son, on Jan. 29, 2020. Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

Suffolk CPS closed several complaints about the boys' treatment at home, and Thomas and Anthony remained in their father's custody, records show.

In reaction to the Valva case, a task force of Suffolk officials proposed the CPS Transformation Act, which set caseload standards and required other reforms.

In announcing the legislation, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said it would help address "major failings" of the CPS system, although he did not specify what he believed went wrong in the Valva case. 

The law set caseload standards based on recommendations in a 2006 state Office of Children and Family Services report.

The report cited evidence that CPS caseworkers in New York were spending only 35 to 90 minutes in face-to-face meetings with clients a month, which the report said was insufficient.

Under the law, if Suffolk CPS exceeds caseload standards for four consecutive months or longer, the county social services commissioner must submit a corrective action plan to the county executive and county legislature that includes the number of additional caseworkers the county should hire to meet the need.

Beyond that, no other county action is required.

After Thomas' death, the Suffolk Social Services Department also launched initiatives to improve caseworker training and assessments of the safety of children during abuse investigations.

The department reduced the number of caseworkers that supervisors oversee, required supervisors to review cases with more than three reports of abuse or neglect and created a specialized unit for cases involving children with autism or other disabilities. Thomas Valva was on the autism spectrum.

In addition, the county began hiring and training new caseworkers before expected retirements and resignations of other CPS employees to ensure new workers would be fully trained when positions opened up.

It takes nine months for new hires to become able to handle a full caseload, officials said.

The reforms "really helped us to meet our mission and provide adequate and better professional services to our staff, [so] that they could better work with the clients," Pierre told Newsday. 

Nonetheless, caseloads jumped in 2021 as COVID-19 spread among CPS caseworkers, particularly during pandemic surges.

In September, when Long Island's COVID-19 positivity rate was less than 5%, only 1% of caseworkers had more than 15 cases, according to county data.

During the omicron surge in the first two weeks of December, about 60% had that many.

Pierre said the pandemic also helped drive a nearly 13% increase in the number of abuse and neglect reports to Child Protective Services — 8,948 such reports in 2021, compared with 7,817 in 2020. 

Pierre said more families sought help from CPS when other service providers closed during the pandemic.

Also, abuse and neglect reports rose after students returned to in-person classes, where they were in regular contact with school officials mandated by law to report their suspicions.

"My hope is as community partners and preventative services open up, we'll be able to see less of a caseload," Pierre said. 

Suffolk officials say they continue to work to reduce caseloads.

The Social Services Department brought on 109 staff members, including caseworkers and supervisors, in 2021 and also hired 21 caseworker trainees in March, Pierre said.

Also, the county budget has boosted funding for child welfare staff, from 358 positions in 2020 to 389 in 2022, legislative Presiding Officer Kevin McCaffrey told Newsday.

We have concerns, and that's why we're trying to hire as many as we can. 

-Suffolk County Legis. Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst)

“We have concerns, and that's why we're trying to hire as many as we can,” McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) said. "We all know that the lesser [the] caseload, the more effective those caseworkers can be and the better services they can provide.”

Daniel Levler, president of the Suffolk Association of Municipal Employees, which represents CPS caseworkers, said the union has been working with the Bellone administration to keep caseloads at an average of 12 per caseworker.

"Caseloads have been high, the work has been difficult, [and] the folks that work in this department specifically are unsung heroes," Levler told Newsday.

Amanda Acevedo, a social worker for the nonprofit New Hour, said she has witnessed what can happen to clients when their CPS caseworkers don't devote enough time to them and their families.

Amanda Acevedo, director of Services and Reentry for New Hour...

Amanda Acevedo, director of Services and Reentry for New Hour for Women and Children, at New Hour's offices in Brentwood. Credit: Reece T. Williams

Acevedo said she's seen racial disparities in the treatment of mothers and other clients, and worries caseworkers might be more prone to snap judgments about clients if they are burned out and don't have enough time to spend with families. 

“Certain moms who've done the same thing or have similar cases have had very different consequences in the end,” Acevedo said.

However, Acevedo said she's noticed improvements in Suffolk CPS performance, including better responsiveness from caseworkers who return calls and keep her updated on clients' cases.

Wendy Linsalata, director of L.I. Against Domestic Violence, a nonprofit that provides emotional support and offers shelter to people experiencing domestic violence, agreed.

“They’ve definitely tightened up some things,” Linsalata told Newsday.

“We get the results of an investigation pretty quickly, where it used to take a very long time,” she added. "There's definitely been a shift."

With Cecilia Dowd

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