The tragic death of 8-year-old Thomas Valva in Center Moriches last month leaves the communities of Long Island in prolonged and profound grief. As some details of his cruel end unfold, tearful eyes quickly turn to Suffolk County’s Child Protective Services, an agency whose title defines its critical mission. But is CPS just be part — a small part at that — of what failed young Thomas?
CPS is a bureau within the Suffolk County Department of Social Services. Any credible report of the neglect or abuse of a child requires CPS to find and interview that child and others in that child’s life, and connect with the source of the report.
If the report that prompts the CPS investigation proves accurate, the report is “founded,” and CPS caseworkers take steps to end the harm the child suffers. Often CPS will petition Family Court for an emergency order to remove the child for placement with others. CPS in other instances might keep the child with the custodians and formulate a service plan for them without court involvement, later petitioning the court to intervene if the custodians fail to cooperate with that plan and remove the child after all.
In the case of young Thomas, it appears that CPS entered his and his family’s lives amid his parents’ court battle for divorce that started four years ago. CPS sought and obtained a court order to place Thomas with his biological father and the father’s girlfriend, who had three daughters of her own.
At this time, there is reliable information that CPS received frequent reports from Thomas’ school of a boy troubled and hungry, sometimes with physical bruises and cuts. School personnel are “mandated reporters” of such information.
Reportedly CPS helped convince the court to hand down an order of protection, requiring that the father refrain from abusing the boy, who had autism, along with an order for CPS to “supervise the household,” meaning regular and sometimes unannounced visits and otherwise to monitor the custodial home. This home supervision obligates CPS to petition the court to reopen the case if they discover that any risk to the child might recur.
Thus did Supreme Court in Nassau County, and Family Court in Suffolk County, put in motion a plan for the boy’s care and custody that all parties agreed upon, though the biological mother objected, as she says, without success.
Months after that, the boy tragically and outrageously died of hypothermia when allegedly forced by the father and his girlfriend to sleep overnight without heat or even blankets in a freezing garage. The father and his girlfriend have been indicted on murder charges in the boy’s death, and to date are held without bail.
The horror of this episode roused the county executive to issue his own order to the Department of Social Services to investigate how its own CPS performed, or failed to perform, in this tragedy. The State Office of Children’s and Family Services, itself a regulatory agency with authority over each county’s CPS, will also perform its own separate probe. The Suffolk DA’s office will investigate. And a deputy county executive and the county legislature’s deputy presiding will review CPS’s handling of cases of children with autism in Suffolk.
With all these investigations, there are some relevant and compelling questions that no one yet seems to be asking, but need to be asked.
Virtually all news coverage, and hearings just held by the county legislatures of both Nassau and Suffolk, have made their respective CPS agencies the target. A glaring question about CPS is the timing of their filing of petitions, alleging severe abuse of Thomas and his siblings and three other children. Why were these CPS petitions filed after the boy’s death and the father’s and girlfriend’s arrest?
And there are other directions these investigations should take?
First, every child in a Family Court proceeding, according to the NYS Family Court Act, is to be represented by an attorney.
What has been the role of the attorney for Thomas? Did he recommend to the Family Court judge that the father be awarded custody? On what did he base his recommendation? Did the attorney examine the home environment and the history of the father? Did he ever communicate with the boy’s mother prior to making any recommendation? Was this attorney convinced of the sufficiency of that order of protection, handed down in 2018, requiring that both parents “refrain from harmful behaviors” toward the boy? What were the child’s attorney’s interactions with CPS?
Next to consider is a resource available to any court: a home study, (aka a 1034 investigation), usually performed at the court’s direction prior to a custody decision, by the county Department of Probation, or by CPS. A home study is just that. It guides the court, as well as CPS and the attorney for the child, in deciding if the home situation and background of a potential custodian pose any risks to the child’s health and safety. It’s an assessment that also delves into the background of anyone else living at this home. What did the home study say in this case, if in fact there ever was one?
Also important to ask is what kind of reports, during their “supervision” of this home, did CPS receive from others about the boy’s state of mind, nutrition, appearance, performance at school, and any comments he might have made about home. School personnel receive training on signs of child abuse in their students.
At the same time, CPS is obligated to perform an immediate investigation of new reports of other child abuse and neglect – and receives 9,000 such reports each year. According to sources in Suffolk Department of Social Services, 150 of Suffolk’s total complement of 171 CPS caseworkers devote almost all their working hours tracking down such new reports, almost 75 percent of which are determined to be entirely “unfounded.”
This is where a CPS caseworker’s workload – or caseload – is so important. The state-recommended caseload for a CPS caseworker is approximately 14 to 16 active cases. The average for Suffolk’s CPS, again according to Suffolk Department of Social Services, is about 17 to 19, down from even higher averages at the time the courts were dealing with the parent’s divorce and custody issues. But these numbers are deceiving, as neglect and abuse cases greatly vary in intensity and time expended to monitor them.
This leads to a very salient question: Is Suffolk County making CPS a budget priority, allowing enough CPS caseworkers to be hired and trained? The county’s endless financial mess, owing to extravagant budgets chiefly for its top-heavy police department, causes perennial gaps in the CPS budget that deserve scrutiny.
And then there are the judges — two from Nassau and three from Suffolk. It is they who make the ultimate decisions. Does a divorce action, started in 2016, really have to take so long, given that New York is a no-fault divorce jurisdiction? And even if the adults carry on their court battle for years, what priority did the judges give to the welfare of the children in that kind of prolonged litigation?
The state agency for oversight of all judges, known as the Office of Court Administration, operates in an elusive, hidden world. If OCA ever chooses to investigate a judge, whether for personal misconduct, or as here, for what may well have been indefensibly careless decisions, the Office of Court Administration investigates a judge secretly. Even the judge may be unaware that such a review is underway. And OCA doesn’t even have to make its findings known. Does this inevitably contribute to a culture of blissful detachment among our judiciary?
Judges in New York, by and large, are dedicated and fair. But when such a shocking tragedy occurs as with young Thomas, and there are years of court involvement, how can an investigation of what happened be complete without the judges’ being held accountable? Will the bureaucrats in the Office of Court Administration choose to get involved in their characteristically strange and mysterious ways?
Another compelling question: Thomas’s biological mother is reported to have received custody of his two brothers, but only after he met his tragic end. Why is she a suitable custodian for their children now, but apparently not earlier, when she repeatedly sought custody of the three boys from the court, and was repeatedly denied?
A number of further questions beg for answers, and unfortunately they cannot all be listed. If, however, those engaged in these investigations choose to ask some of the questions that have been suggested here, it might well lead to saving a neglected or abused child in the future.
We need your help.
Now more than ever, the survival of quality local journalism depends on your support. Our community faces unprecedented economic disruption, and the future of many small businesses are under threat, including our own. It takes time and resources to provide this service. We are a small family-owned operation, and we will do everything in our power to keep it going. But today more than ever before, we will depend on your support to continue. Support RiverheadLOCAL today. You rely on us to stay informed and we depend on you to make our work possible.