Just over one year ago, a tragedy struck Suffolk County: 8-year-old Thomas Valva died of hypothermia after he and his brother were forced to sleep in an unheated garage in Center Moriches.
Since then, Suffolk County Child Protective Services has undergone major protocol changes formulated on county reform bills, heightened oversight by New York State and internal review.
In July 2020, the state Office of Children and Family Services concluded a review of Suffolk CPS following the death of Thomas.
It placed Suffolk CPS on heightened monitoring, Suffolk Social Services commissioner Frances Pierre said in an interview.
Sandra Davidson, chief deputy commissioner of social services, said OCFS requested that specific training be provided for all CPS investigators.
“It’s a refresher of addressing safety and risk while they’re conducting investigations, reinforcing the contacts that need to be made with collaterals, schools, neighbors, medical professionals,” Davidson said. “It refreshes opportunities for them to review how to critically analyze the information that they’re receiving.”
Pierre said that OCFS meets with Suffolk social services officials on a monthly basis related to monitoring.
Also, in July of last year, county executive Steve Bellone and the Suffolk County Legislature approved a series of laws to reform Suffolk CPS following the death.
Part of the Child Protective Services Transformation Act, proposed in March 2020, requested that caseworkers reduce their caseloads, Pierre said.
The bill also created a special needs unit, part of the investigative team. This group of CPS workers are trained in child protection and working with children with developmental disabilities. Four caseworkers, one senior caseworker and one supervisor are part of the team, Davidson said. A psychiatric social worker has also been involved with the group.
Suffolk CPS increased monitoring for high-risk cases as a result of the Transformation Act. Prior to the legislation, every case was reviewed by a supervisor. Now, cases that are deemed high-risk, or concerning four or more reports or special needs, are reviewed by an administrator. Admininstrators partner with caseworkers to address potential safety concerns, identify gaps in the practice and ensure support and safety for families.
Suffolk CPS also instituted an electronic surveillance form, Davidson said, which provides the opportunity for caseworkers to have conversations with families around any electronic devices in-home that could be recording.
Procedurally, some things have shifted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since many schools are in hybrid models of learning, there’s more virtual communication happening as opposed to faceto-face interaction between caseworkers and school districts, Davidson said.
“However, that does not alleviate the mandate for any CPS worker to make a contact with the school to discuss educational needs or any feedback that the school has on concerns they have about the child’s safety, the parents’ capacity to take care of the child, or just the overall needs of the family,” Davidson added.
CPS has also increased oversight on any cases reported by school NYS-licensed psychologists, those with a degree in master of social work, or school nurse. The administrative bureau director reviews that with the team to assess any practice gaps and assist in the critical thinking of that case. Suffolk CPS continues to support families during this time, including the delivery of electronic equipment, food, shelter, clothing and more.
Under current procedure, CPS has 60 days to complete an investigation from the date of intake. During that time, CPS will assess the safety of the children; identify individuals in a family that can offer help and support; investigate service needs; and partner with community-based organizations to provide those needs, Davidson said.
If additional support or services are needed, the investigation closes and those services are offered in another bureau.
“I don’t know if we can say this can never happen that way again,” Pierre said of the Valva case. “But our aim is to ensure that we protect children to the best of our ability by continuing to provide training and supervision to ensure that every case that comes our way has clear supervision and guidance for case managers and their supervisors.”