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Suffolk task force proposing four child-protection bills following Thomas' death

Sara Dipper, with the group "Punished 4 Protecting,"

Sara Dipper, with the group "Punished 4 Protecting," holds a sign as the Nassau County Legislature Health Committee holds a hearing Feb. 5 in Mineola in response to Thomas Valva's death. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone will unveil legislation Wednesday to reform the county's handling of child protection cases following the death of Thomas Valva, the boy who died after allegedly being forced to stay overnight in a freezing garage.

Suffolk's Child Protection Services has come under criticism since the third-grader's death Jan. 17, with Long Island child protection advocates pointing to the county's caseloads, inadequate attention to school reports, and lack of transparency.

The four pieces of legislation will mark the first set of proposals to emerge from meetings of two county committees reviewing the Valva case. Officials said they expect more proposals down the line. The New York State Office of Children and Family Services also is reviewing the case.

While some of the proposals point to issues in Thomas' case, the plans are designed to address broader, systemwide concerns, said Jennifer Marino Rojas, executive director of the Child Care Council of Suffolk.

"This is bigger than one caseworker making a bad decision," said Marino Rojas, who also served on a committee. "This will strengthen casework across the board."

The boy's father, Michael Valva, 40, and his fiancee, Angela Pollina, 42, have been charged with second-degree murder and child endangerment after Thomas allegedly was left overnight in the unheated garage. They have pleaded not guilty.

Long Island child protection advocates have said the agency should have taken more seriously the reports from the boy's school that he was hungry, losing weight and coming to school in urine-soaked clothing.

The proposals include a measure that would escalate the scrutiny on cases that have received three or more reports from a school nurse, psychologist or social worker. The case would be immediately reviewed by a supervisor.

"Obviously something went wrong — a child is dead," Marino Rojas said. "They [workers] obviously should have made different decisions. And they should get more information in the future."

Frances Pierre, Suffolk's commissioner of social services, said the agency learned lessons from the case, such as the need to take school reports more seriously. "These are people with expertise," Pierre said. "They're spending a lot of time with the kids."

County officials have learned that Michael Valva had an extensive array of recording equipment operating in the home. So when a caseworker was interviewing Thomas in private, hoping to gain truthful answers away from the parent, the interview was actually being recorded by the father, officials said.

"If a child is being watched, and knows they are being watched … the child could freeze up or tell the story they've been told," said Deputy Presiding Officer Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), who co-chaired on a committee.

When a caseworker hears a child repeat false statements, it can create confusion during an investigation into child abuse, Hahn said.

Under the proposed bill, the owner or tenant at a home must complete a form attesting to whether electronic audio or video equipment will be used during the CPS visit. If they refuse, the caseworker would speak to the child somewhere outside the home.

Suffolk County CPS had a history with the Valva family dating to 2017. Caseworkers had to sort through numerous crisscrossing accusations of child abuse between the children's mother and father, who were estranged. The agency determined to leave Thomas and his brothers Anthony and Andrew with their father.

Law enforcement authorities said Thomas and Anthony had been starved, beaten and were forced to sleep in the garage. This occurred while the family was often under the watch of CPS, and while the children's mother and school officials repeatedly were reporting signs of abuse to the agency.

A proposed bill addresses the workloads handled by caseworkers, creating a process to address high caseloads. The legislation mandates that the average caseload per caseworker shall not be more than 12 per month, and it defines a high caseload to be 15 or more cases. No caseworker would handle more than 15 cases unless it is approved by a senior supervisor and the agency commissioner is notified.

When the caseload limit is exceeded, the social services commissioner must submit a corrective action plan detailing the number of additional caseworkers needed to bring down the caseloads and an estimated time for accomplishing that.

CPS caseworkers had an average caseload of 12.4 last month, officials said. There are workers with greater than 15, but none with more than 25 cases, they said.

“This legislation, based on the recommendations of the task force, will help transform the operations of CPS by instituting new caseload standards and additional accountability and transparency measures," Bellone said in a statement. "These critical reforms will overhaul and strengthen the systems in place that protect children and make sure they are operating as efficiently and effectively as possible.”

The legislative package also aims to make the child protection agency more transparent. Officials would post information on the Suffolk County Open Data Port on CPS staffing levels and caseloads.

In addition, the social services commissioner would work with the county information technology department to develop a statistical database tracking key information from CPSW reports, including a child's age, gender, school, and whether the child has any developmental disability, the legislation said.

"It's critical to keep caseloads low," Marino Rojas said. "I think the more data, the more transparent, the better."

PROPOSED BILLS FOR CHILD PROTECTIVE SERVICES

  1. When Child Protective Services receives three or more reports related to one case from a school nurse, psychologist or social worker, the case immediately must be reviewed by a casework supervisor.
  2. When a caseworker enters a home for an investigation, the owner or tenant must complete a form attesting that no video or audio surveillance will be used during the caseworker’s visit.
  3. The average caseload per caseworker shall not exceed 12 cases. No caseworker shall be assigned more than 15 cases, unless approved by a senior supervisor and unless the agency commissioner is notified.
  4. CPS caseloads and staffing levels shall be posted on the Suffolk County Open Data Portal.

SOURCE: Suffolk County government

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