BY MICHAEL AMON firstname.lastname@example.org
February 12, 2009
A record number of child abuse and neglect cases were reported on Long Island and across New York state last year, child welfare officials said yesterday.
Child Protective Services conducted 9 percent more probes last year in Nassau, up to 7,193 from 6,621 in 2007, and 8 percent more in Suffolk, up to 9,538 from 8,847 in 2007. Statewide, abuse and neglect reports rose 7 percent, officials said.
Child welfare officials disagreed on what drove the spike. Nassau blamed the recession, Suffolk cited a statute that broadened who is required by law to report abuse, and the state said the flood of calls came mostly from a series of high-profile child deaths - including, in Nassau, a mother, Leatrice Brewer, who killed her three children.
Most officials cautioned the numbers did not necessarily mean more or worse child abuse took place last year but the additional cases means much more work for 150 caseworkers in Nassau and Suffolk.
"It's put a lot of stress on the child welfare system," said Laura Velez, deputy commissioner for child welfare and community services of the New York State Office of Children and Family Services.
The percentage of allegations where investigators found credible evidence of child abuse or neglect in both counties remained roughly the same from 2007 to 2008 - 27 percent in Nassau and 31 percent in Suffolk.
Nassau and Suffolk police said there were not more criminal cases of abuse last year.
Child-welfare experts said caseworkers with high workloads can miss signs of abuse and neglect. Without mentioning workloads, a state report released this week on the Brewer case said the woman's parenting problems were repeatedly given too low a priority by caseworkers.
"Now, the system is far more overloaded, so the chances of the same thing happening again are greater than ever," said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform in Alexandria, Va., referring to the Brewer case.
Theo Liebmann, director of the Child Advocacy Center at Hofstra University Law School, said heavy workloads have taken a toll on workers dealing with children he represents. "What you mostly see are caseworkers who are so overwhelmed that they can't follow up on referrals they give to families," Liebmann said.
Long Island agencies say they've hired new caseworkers - about 30 in Nassau and three in Suffolk - and shifted around staff to cope with the spike.
"If way down the road we still see massive increases in our numbers, we may have to re-evaluate our staffing patterns. Right now we're managing," said John Imhof, commissioner of the Nassau Department of Social Services.
Suffolk and Nassau officials said caseloads were between 15 and 18 per caseworker per month. The state recommends an average of 12 to 15 a month. Union officials say county numbers don't reflect the workload of the busiest workers who have more than 30 cases a month.
Neglect and abuse tips can be called into a state hotline by anyone but most come from professionals such as social workers and police who are mandated by state law to report abuse and neglect. Imhof said his caseworkers were seeing more children abused by parents out of work, a "warning sign" of the recession's effects.
"The worsening economy is placing great stress on the county's families," Imhof said.
To Suffolk officials, the deluge of reports was actually prompted by an Oct. 1, 2007, state law change requiring teachers, nurses and doctors to personally report suspected abuse or neglect. Previously, they had to tell their institution's social worker.
Dennis Nowak, a Suffolk Department of Social Services spokesman, said reports from school and medical personnel accounted for the county's increase, shooting up 30.7 percent and 18 percent, respectively. Those reports also tend to be more reliable than calls from neighbors and family because they are trained to look for signs of abuse, Nowak said.
Velez said the spike in calls statewide last year was due to counties with high-profile child deaths. "The public tends to have a heightened awareness when people see these issues talked about in the media."
INCREASE IN REPORTS
Social services officials said three factors are driving a big increase in reports of abuse and neglect to the state's child abuse hotline:
THE RECESSION. Tough times are causing more stress in families across Long Island.
PUBLICITY. Increased public awareness of abuse and neglect after the Leatrice Brewer murder case.
LEGISLATION. A state law that went into effect last year increasing the number of people who are required by statute to report abuse or neglect.
To report child abuse, call the state Office of Children and Family Services hotline, 800-342-3720.
Number of reports of abuse or neglect investigated by Child Protective Services in 2008, compared to 2007:
Up 9%, to 7,193
Up 8%, to 8,847