The tragic death of 8-year-old Thomas Valva, whose father allegedly left the boy overnight in a freezing garage at their Center Moriches home last month, has sparked another round of tough questions for Suffolk County authorities.
Suffolk Child Protective Services (CPS) is the subject of an internal probe to review its handling of the case, county officials are conducting an outside inquiry into agency protocols — especially into how it handles cases of children with disabilities, as the victim was autistic — and the New York State Office of Children and Family Services is also investigating the incident. That’s on top of the police investigation that resulting in charges of second-degree murder and endangering the welfare of a child against the father, suspended New York City Police Department Officer Michael Valva, and his fiancee, Angela Pollina, both of whom pleaded not guilty and were ordered held without bail. The victim’s body was just 76 degrees when he was taken to the hospital the next morning after police said the father reported the boy fell on his way to school.
“Daddy says to me that I can’t listen to you and I can’t hug you and I can’t say, ‘I love you, Mommy’ and ‘I miss you, Mommy,’” Thomas’s 6-year-old brother, Andrew, who also has autism, said in in one of many videos documenting alleged child abuse that their mother, Justyna Zubko-Valva, posted on Twitter before Thomas died. When asked why, Andrew replied: “Daddy’s going to put me outside.”
It’s not the first time CPS has come under fire. In 2017, a Suffolk grand jury issued an investigative report suggesting that the understaffed agency dropped the ball in properly alerting foster care agencies to avoid placing children with a man who was accused, and later acquitted, of sexually abusing foster children in his care. And in 2007, a Press investigation found multiple instances of school officials in Suffolk abusing CPS’ anonymous reporting system by retaliating against parents of children with special needs who were at odds with administrators over students’ learning plans.
This is the county that recently had its former district attorney and his chief public corruption investigator convicted in federal court of covering an ex-police chief’s beating of a handcuffed suspect. The attorney and the investigator are appealing.
In the Valva case, the boy’s teachers made about 20 calls to the state child abuse hotline after the boys showed up at school with signs of abuse such as a black eye, being unfed, and missing days at a time, the Daily News reported. The boy’s mother also reported allegations of child abuse in 2016 to police in Nassau County, where the couple lived before their divorce, but again, no action was taken. Nassau legislators held a Feb. 5 public hearing on the Valva case.
“This hearing will help us identify any potential areas of improvement within our departments so that they may be corrected to prevent something like this from ever happening again,” said Nassau Legislator James Kennedy (R-Massapequa).
In addition to the probes of CPS in Suffolk and Nassau’s review, advocates are also calling out Family Court judges who handled the case for their role in failing to prevent the boy’s death. A rally was held outside Nassau court in Mineola on the week of the boy’s funeral calling for the judges involved to step down. Judge Joseph Lorintz denied the victim’s mother’s pleas to grant her custody of the boys and she insisted that their lives were at risk in their father’s care, the News reported.
“I can’t remember everything you’re saying because you’re saying so much,” the judge told her, according to the News.
The case is shaping up to be a wake-up call that business as usual will not stand for CPS and the Family Court system.
“As a parent, I am horrified by what happened to this beautiful boy,” said Suffolk County Executive Bellone. “As county executive, I want to know if there’s anything else that could have been done under existing law to prevent this from happening. Beyond that, I want to know if anything in this case suggests that changes should be made to existing policy or law.”