Suffolk County lawmakers approved a legislative package that will reform the county’s Child Protective Services as a response to the death of Thomas Valva, an eight-year old boy who died of hypothermia after he was forced to spend the night in a Center Moriches garage. Despite abuse allegations, his father and stepmother, were only charged after his death.
The Child Protective Services Transformation Act, a package of six bills, institutes new measures to strengthen the CPS system, improve oversight functions, and institute new safeguards to protect children. The legislature passed it in its entirety Tuesday.
“These reforms will ensure that CPS will never operate the same way again, and that’s appropriate because what happened to Thomas Valva can never happen again,” County Executive Steve Bellone said in a virtual briefing Thursday.
The passage comes just a week after Justyna Zubko-Valva filed a $200 million lawsuit against the county alleging CPS caseworkers ignored warnings of her son’s abuse and were ultimately complicit in his death. Michael Valva and his fiancee, Angela Pollina, are awaiting trial on charges of second-degree murder and endangering the welfare of a child.
“At the very least it is our obligation to make sure that we are doing everything that we can to prevent such a terrible tragedy from ever happening again. We can’t stop someone from being evil, we know that. But we can make sure the systems in place to protect children are operating as efficiently and effectively as possible. These legislative reforms that were approved this week are going to help us do exactly that.”
The CPS Transformation Act was first proposed in early March. Bellone thanked the legislature for picking back up the proposal after it was interrupted by COVID-19.
Following Valva’s death, Bellone announced that the county would undertake an interval review of the Department of Social Services’ procedures. Bellone and Rob Calarco, the legislature’s presiding officer, established an external task force to review the policies, especially how they relate to children with autism and other developmental disabilities. Valva was believed to be on the Autism spectrum.
The task force found that the system was not set up to effectively protect more vulnerable children. Studies have shown that children on the spectrum are more likely to face maltreatment and abuse, Bellone’s office said.
The CPS Transformation Act creates a new specialized team, known as the CPS Special Needs Unit, to handle cases involving children with developmental disabilities, and sets up a process for the automatic escalated review of recurring reports. It also mandates higher level review for cases with four or more reports of unique incidents or six or more reports of the same incident.
The legislation creates a new designation for CPS: “unfounded due to insufficient evidence.” Nearly 77 percent of all CPS cases are reported as unfounded statewide and the number is 81 percent in Suffolk County. There was no way to distinguish between a case that was unfounded because the caseworker has concluded that the report is false or a case where they believe they do not have sufficient evidence to bring it to court. “With this new standard of unfounded due to insufficient evidence, the new law will require that any new report that comes in after such a designation will trigger a higher level review,” Bellone’s office said in March.
The reform package also establishes new training requirements for all CPS caseworkers, including bi-annual investigative training, and establishes an automatic escalated review of recurring reports from certain school officials.
One of the bills passed also establishes criminal penalties for knowingly recording CPS interviews with children without the consent of the investigator. People who grant CPS caseworkers entry to their house or business would be required to attest to whether electronic surveillance will be used during the investigation. Fines will be up to $1,000.
Also, CPS caseworkers maintain an average caseload of no more than 12 cases, and that no caseworker will be permitted to have more than 15 cases at a time. “Suffolk County is currently at historically high staffing levels, but these new mandates will put Suffolk County in a leadership position statewide when it comes to maintaining low case levels,” according to Bellone’s proposal.
Lastly, the legislation provides for greater transparency for the public and a more modernized database within CPS that will allow the county to recognize trends in cases. Working through the County’s Open Data law, the County will publish caseloads and staffing levels on the county website.
“We’re not done,” Bellone said Thursday. The work will continue to strengthen the system.