A woman attends a candlelight vigil for Thomas Valva at...

A woman attends a candlelight vigil for Thomas Valva at St. John the Evangelist R.C. Church in Center Moricnes on Monday. Credit: James Carbone

In 2017, a special grand jury in Suffolk County recommended changes to improve oversight of child foster care.

The report came after a Ridge man was arrested and charged with multiple counts of abusing foster kids who lived in his home.

After a trial, the man, Cesar Gonzales-Mugaburu, was acquitted of all charges.

Still, the 83-page special grand jury report — which never mentioned Gonzales-Mugaburu by name — had value.

After sifting and sorting through voluminous material, spread over multiple political and geographic jurisdictions, the grand jury determined that a lack of coordination between child welfare agencies in Suffolk, New York City and the state left foster children unprotected.

The report included dozens of recommendations to improve oversight and coordination of foster care, including changes in state law.

One recommendation was that Suffolk bolster staffing in its social services department.

“It's a bureaucratic nightmare," then-Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota concluded at the time. "Systemic failures left these kids totally unprotected.”

Fast forward three years.

The body of Thomas Valva, all of 8 years old, is being carried away from St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church in Melville in a white casket, with his mother, Justyna Zubko-Valva, and two brothers following behind.

"In so many ways, I feel we failed this little boy,” auxiliary Bishop Andrzej Zglejszewski, of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, tells reporters. 

“The system failed or we, as religious leaders, social leaders, we failed him," said Zglejszewski, who presided over the boy's funeral. "We are the ones who are supposed to make change, to protect life.”

Valva died of hypothermia.

Authorities, following the arrest of Valva's father and the father's girlfriend, detailed abuse they allege the boy suffered, including being forced to bed down — sans bed, sheets, pillows and blankets — on the floor of an unheated garage in frigid weather.

Valva also, and with some frequency, showed up at his elementary school hungry, according to news reports.

The boy wasn't in foster care.

But multiple entities, spanning multiple agencies, bore some responsibility to protect him.

Officials at the boy's school have said that they report any suspected instances of abuse.

And while the school district, because of privacy laws, did not mention Valva by name, the boy's mother posted letters on Facebook, that she said came from the school, in which officials expressed concern about Valva and one of his brothers.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone issued a news release last week saying the county would review how social services handled the Valva case — and pull together a task force to review protection policies relating to children, such as Valva, who have autism or other developmental disabilities.

A day or so later, Bellone's office released several quarterly reports sent to the county Legislature by the Department of Social Services.

A Newsday report, however, would show that caseworkers in the child protection services division bear a heavy workload.

Then there's the judicial system.

According to news reports, a judge in 2018, among other things, issued orders of protection for the boy's parents to "refrain from harmful behaviors towards the children." The question of who should have custody of Valva during his parent's contentious divorce also was decided by a judge.

So many agencies, so many layers, so many ongoing probes, including those of agencies investigating themselves.

First came shock; then came anger.

Just as in 2017, it may take appointment of a special grand jury to tie it all together — to do the sifting, sorting, deliberating and, most important, the airing of what went so wrong, and why.

And that would be just the start.

Because no one wants, three years down the line, to again be where we are — with some other child.

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