Suffolk County lawmakers have proposed reforms designed to correct systemic flaws uncovered when 8-year-old Thomas Valva’s father allegedly caused the boy to freeze to death after prior signs of abuse were disregarded.
County legislators pitched the CPS Transformation Act, a legislative package of a half dozen bills intended to overhaul the county’s Child Protective Services (CPS) agency. But some say the proposals don’t go far enough.
“These reforms will ensure that CPS will never operate in the same way again, and that is appropriate because what happened to Thomas Valva can never happen again,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone announced Wednesday. “It is our obligation to make sure that we are doing everything that we can to prevent such a terrible tragedy.”
The legislation would create a new specialized unit in the agency, the CPS Special Needs Unit, to handle cases involving children with developmental disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder, which Valva had. It would also adopt new CPS caseload standards, develop new training requirements for CPS caseworkers, and create reporting standards.
“This package of legislation will make this vitally important division of the Department of Social Services more transparent, more accountable, and most importantly, better equipped to protect our children,” said Suffolk County Legislator Karan Hahn (D-Setauket), who co-chairs the Suffolk Task Force to Protect Children.
The panel was created after New York City Police Officer Michael Valva and his fiancée, Angela Pollina, pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and child endangerment charges for allegedly forcing Thomas to sleep in a freezing garage, causing his death at their Center Moriches home.
The legislation stems from that external probe and an ongoing internal CPS review, both of which may lead to additional proposed reforms.
If passed, the reforms would set the process for the automatic escalated review of recurring reports once a certain volume threshold has been reached, and reports that follow reports determined to be unfounded due to insufficient evidence. It would mandate higher level reviews for specific types of cases for those involving four or more reports of unique incidents, or six or more reports of the same incident.
The bill would also create a new designation that will be unique in Suffolk County CPS: ‘unfounded due to insufficient evidence.’ Nearly 77 percent of all CPS cases are reported as unfounded statewide, but in Suffolk the rate is 81 percent. Currently, there is no way to distinguish whether a case was unfounded because the caseworker has concluded that the report is false or because they believe they do not have sufficient evidence to indicate the case and bring it to court. The new standard would require that any new report that comes in after such a designation will trigger a higher level review.
The legislation would also require all CPS caseworkers receive investigative training bi-annually so they are the more likely to identify the evidence necessary to bring a case to court.
In addition, the reforms would mandate increased scrutiny for cases reported by certain school officials. The bill would establish an automatic escalated review of recurring reports from certain school officials once a certain volume threshold has been reached. This would be at a lower level than the volume threshold for reports received from parties other than school officials.
The reforms would require Suffolk CPS caseworkers average of 12 cases and a total of no more than 15, based on the New York State recommended number of caseloads per caseworker. The law would also set the process for corrective action if the caseload limit is exceeded for four consecutive months.
The reforms would additionally create a modernized database within CPS capable of recording and tracking key data points on CPS cases to create a more robust institutional memory to enable monitoring trends and patterns in CPS cases.
And the reforms would establish criminal penalties for knowingly recording CPS interviews with children without the consent of the investigator, a violation up to $1,000. Individuals granting CPS caseworkers entry to their private residence or business for the purposes of a CPS investigation would be required to disclose whether electronic surveillance will be used while the investigation is taking place at the location.
In response to the case lawmakers in the county legislature’s Republican minority have renewed calls for the creation of an independent office of inspector general that would be tasked with ferreting out issues. Thomas’ mother, Justyna Zubko-Valva, issued a statement criticizing the proposed reforms.
“The corruption is not going to stop if this system is not going to be fixed immediately,” she said. “The CPS caseworkers, attorneys for the children, forensic evaluators have to wear body cameras during all their interactions with the children and parties involved. The court proceedings should be video recorded to avoid manipulation with the court transcripts and fight the corruption in the justice system. Those are the basic steps that will initiate the fight against this enormous corruption and will protect the children and all the innocent people involved.”