Jeffrey Reynolds, cheif officer of Family and Childrens Association, speaks...

Jeffrey Reynolds, cheif officer of Family and Childrens Association, speaks at his office on Wednesday. Credit: Howard Schnapp

"I have never seen this level of documentation," Jeffrey Reynolds, executive officer of the Family and Children's Association, was saying on Friday.

"In all my years of doing this," he continued, "I have never seen such a comprehensive picture, so many documents in one place and so many direct quotes."

He was talking about Thomas Valva, the boy who died after a night spent sleeping on the concrete floor of an unheated garage.

The boy who, documents show, endured years of physical and emotional abuse.

The boy who, documents show, sifted through waste cans and scoured the floor of his school for food.

The boy who, documents show, was — as are so many others caught in the middle of divorces — weaponized during the bitter salvos between his mother and his father.

The boy who died not as a consequence of a single explosion of rage, but after a long, slow slog through multiple systems that were supposed to protect children like him, the documents show.

The child welfare system includes New York State agencies, Nassau and Suffolk's departments of social services, child protective service case workers, judges and court-appointed child advocates.

County police departments also have a role.

And, of course, so do parents and guardians. "It is easy to blame CPS and judges," Reynolds said, "but there were parents here, too."

Reynold's agency has a role, too.

The association, a Mineola-based nonprofit, started out as an orphanage 135 years ago.

Today, the association helps children and families with programs for addiction and treatment, child mental health, family support, and senior and adult services.

As such, Reynolds said, social workers and other association workers often have contact with the child welfare system, where protecting the privacy of families — and those who call in to report suspected abuse — is imperative.

"The child welfare system is, for all intents and purposes, the most closed system we probably have because we’re talking about substance abuse issues, mental health issues, child abuse and neglect and minors," Reynolds said.

After Thomas' death,  Newsday obtained thousands of documents about the boy's case. Such material almost always is sealed.

For the first time, Reynolds and the rest of us could read news reports about testimony from divorce and child custody court proceedings; notes from school officials; police reports; and videos that documented the journey of Thomas, his siblings, his mother, father and his father's live-in girlfriend through the system.

"I read, like you read, news reports and I read through some of those documents," Reynolds said.

"Even as an outside organization, I feel like we normally get a small glimpse into what's going on, and maybe CPS feels the same way, and maybe judges feel exactly the same way — that all of us, regardless of where you fit into the spectrum of services, are seeing only a little snapshot in time and nobody is seeing the entire picture," he said.

With the release of so many documents detailing so much about so many aspects of Thomas' case, Reynolds said, "you can now begin to pull all of the pieces together, and when you begin to align all of those snapshots, kind of like Polaroids on a poster board, a fuller picture begins to emerge."

With that, he said, "It is easy to see things, it is easy to wonder, if all of the players were able to see all of those snapshots in time, whether it be a 10-minute court appearance or a 30-minute CPS visit, would we do things differently?"

The documents have put a spotlight on a complex system, and that will make it harder for institutions conducting internal reviews about how they handled interaction with the boy and his family to scrub systemic failure away with expressions of sympathy and promises to do better.

Institutions defend themselves.

For example, consider any head of social services. They're all political appointees who report to municipality's top elected executive.

"Every year, at budget time, you can see the legislature ask whether they have enough money for the department," Reynolds said. "And they say yes, even though everybody knows that's not true."

Even a cursory look at the documents, Reynolds said, exposes gaps in the overall system.

"When you read, you see everybody pointing the finger," he said. "I read part of a transcript … where a judge kept saying, 'Well, if the child should be removed, that’s CPS’s job, you should talk to CPS and CPS workers — they are saying 'Judges order the removal and not us.'"

"So you have everybody pointing fingers at each other and nobody really taking responsibility and saying, you know what, maybe we can do something about it," Reynolds said.

That's important. While the documents detail the case of a single 8-year-old boy, they're a wake-up call for everyone in every part of the system.

"I think there is an immense value in all of this material," Reynolds said. "At every step along the way, we are finding out about these little gaps, and although they are little, all it takes is one gap for kids like Thomas to fall through." 

"Thomas fell through multiple gaps, and frankly I would be … [angry] if a little boy died on a garage floor and nobody took a look at all of this."

Thomas is one child, he pointed out.

There are plentiful others, and plentiful other families, still in the system.

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