A federal judge has allowed parts of the $200 million lawsuit filed by the mother of 8-year-old Thomas Valva to proceed, including claims against Suffolk County and several county Child Protective Services employees for a series of alleged failures before his death.
U.S. District Judge Edward R. Korman, in an order filed last week in Brooklyn federal court, ruled that parts of the lawsuit alleging the county failed to train CPS employees to deal with abuse claims from children with autism could go forward. The judge’s ruling was in response to a motion to dismiss the complaint from Suffolk County, the county’s Department of Social Services and seven county CPS employees.
Prosecutors said that Thomas Valva, who was on the autism spectrum, died on Jan. 17, 2020, after his then-NYPD Officer father Michael Valva and then-fiancée Angela Pollina forced the boy to sleep in an unheated garage in freezing weather. They have each pleaded not guilty to murder and child endangerment charges. They are awaiting trial.
“At this preliminary stage, Mrs. Valva has adequately alleged that Suffolk County’s failure to train CPS employees violated her constitutional rights,” Korman wrote, adding: “Mrs. Valva plausibly alleges that Suffolk County’s failure to train CPS employees in ‘verify[ing] the claims of autistic children who may be the victim of abuse’ and ‘assess[ing] the veracity of autistic children who deny that they have been abused’ was responsible for several CPS employees privileging the claims against Mrs. Valva over those against Mr. Valva and Ms. Pollina despite significant evidence to the contrary, resulting in violations of Mrs. Valva’s constitutional rights.”
A spokeswoman for the county did not respond to a message seeking comment Monday. Justyna Zubko-Valva’s attorney Jon Norinsberg, of Manhattan, also did not respond.
Zubko-Valva’s civil lawsuit alleged that scores of officials tasked with protecting children — including school officials, lawyers and a judge — ignored years of warnings of sexual abuse, beatings, starvation and neglect of her three sons with Michael Valva.
A week after Zubko-Valva filed suit in June 2020, the Suffolk County Legislature passed The Child Protective Services Transformation Act, which set average caseload levels for caseworkers and created a specialized CPS team to handle cases involving children with autism or other disabilities.
Korman, in his ruling, also dismissed several claims made by Zubko-Valva including malicious prosecution and conspiracy, citing a lack of evidence.
However, the judge allowed claims alleging deliberate indifference to Zubko-Valva’s rights and the denial of the right to a fair trial in her earlier neglect proceedings to go forward against CPS Senior Caseworker Michele Clark, CPS Supervisor Edward Heepe, CPS Assistant Director Robert Leto, CPS Investigator Jennifer Lantz, CPS Investigator Melissa Estrada. The judge dismissed against two other CPS employees.
“While a single incident is typically insufficient to establish that a municipal actor was deliberately indifferent to constitutional violations, Mrs. Valva has plausibly alleged multiple constitutional violations by several CPS employees over the course of more than two years. At this stage, this is sufficient for Mrs. Valva to state a claim that Suffolk County ‘ha[s] deliberately chosen a training program that will cause violations of constitutional rights,’” according to the ruling.
The judge added that the caseworkers gave “preferential treatment” to Michael Valva as he and Zubko-Valva traded abuse accusations against each other as they battled for custody during divorce proceedings, noting that CPS agreed to an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal for abuse claims against Michael Valva while CPS “pursued its petition against Mrs. Valva until the family court dismissed it on the merits sixteen months after it was filed.”
Those actions, the judge wrote, could cause someone to “plausibly infer” that the CPS employees “enhanced the danger to [her children] because they conveyed” to Michael Valva that “no matter what they would learn about Mr. Valva, only Mrs. Valva would remain in their crosshairs. With this additional knowledge of CPS’ blinding fixation on Mrs. Valva, Mr. Valva could safely assume that he and Ms. Pollina could continue and escalate their abuse ‘with impunity.’”
In addition to the lawsuit, Zubko-Valva has called for a series of reforms, including the video and audio recording of courtroom proceedings and the requirement that all CPS caseworkers, as well as attorneys for children in custody and abuse and neglect cases, be required to wear body cameras during any interactions.