Thomas Valva’s mother was so desperate to protect her young sons from harm that she took her case to the nation's top law enforcement officer.
Justyna Zubko-Valva wrote a detailed 75-page letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr in July asking for the Justice Department’s intervention.
“I cannot sleep well at night knowing that my three sons are forced to live with their abusive father and his paramour ... who commit the most horrifying and inhuman form of child abuse based on locking them in freezing cold garage in a winter time,” Zubko-Valva wrote in a foreshadowing.
Six months later, 8-year-old Thomas, a third grader at East Moriches Elementary School, was dead from hypothermia. Suffolk authorities said his father, Michael Valva, an NYPD officer, and the father’s fiancee, Angela Pollina, forced Thomas to sleep on the floor in the garage of their Center Moriches home as the outside temperature plummeted to 19 degrees. Thomas died on Jan. 17.
Valva, 40, and Pollina, 42, have been indicted on charges of second-degree murder in Thomas' death and four counts each of endangering the welfare of a child, related to alleged abuse of Thomas and his older brother, Anthony, 10. They pleaded not guilty and are being held without bail in Suffolk jails.
Zubko-Valva repeatedly sought help at different levels of authority — from police, county social service agencies and the courts in Nassau and Suffolk, in addition to her letter to Barr. But her efforts ended in a series of legal setbacks that culminated more than two years ago, when she lost custody of Anthony, Thomas and Andrew, 6, her youngest child.
Newsday reviewed thousands of pages of documents, including court transcripts in both counties, Child Protective Services reports from several caseworkers, and assessments from court-appointed lawyers and the East Moriches school district.
The documents show systems intended to protect children ultimately ignored multiple warnings, including those from Zubko-Valva, who painstakingly documented the alleged abuse of her sons.
The accusations against the father and his fiancee — as well as Michael Valva's counterclaims of abuse allegedly committed by the mother, which were found to be unsubstantiated — are contained in court filings in the divorce and custody battle between Thomas’ parents. The cases spanned at least four judges in two counties beginning in late 2015.
Among the key findings:
- Four months before Thomas' death, a judge in Nassau dismissed Zubko-Valva's concerns after the mother told the judge her children's lives were in danger. The jurist told her that CPS was in charge of investigating such complaints and reminded her that she had made allegations as such before, saying they could be examined during a trial.
- The boys’ court-appointed attorney in the divorce case dismissed Zubko-Valva’s allegations amid her refusal to cooperate with a judge’s directives and depicted instead a happy, suburban family at the Valva home on Bittersweet Lane in Center Moriches. The children, the attorney said, showed her their bedroom and belongings and described “what they enjoy eating" during a time period when Suffolk prosecutors allege the boys were starving.
- A Nassau judge presiding over the estranged couple’s divorce in September 2017 stripped custody of the boys from their mother and awarded temporary custody of the boys to Valva. The mother regained emergency temporary custody of the other two boys after Thomas died.
- A Suffolk judge concluded allegations that Valva made against Zubko-Valva were “not credible,” and suggested the children may have been coached to make allegations against their mother, yet the children continued to live with their father and Pollina.
- Nassau police investigated Zubko-Valva’s allegations that the father had sexually abused two of the boys, but deemed the allegations unfounded. And a Suffolk judge in 2018 said that while Suffolk CPS thought the mother acted in bad faith by making the sex abuse claims in 2016, counter-abuse claims by Valva against her were never substantiated.
- Teachers at East Moriches Elementary, which Thomas and Anthony attended from 2017 to 2020, repeatedly reported to CPS that the children arrived to school dirty, hungry and with bruises, but the children continued to live with their father.
Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart has said investigators believe Thomas slept on the concrete floor of the garage on the night before he died.
When an EMT arrived at the family’s home Jan. 17, Thomas was unconscious and “cold to the touch,” prosecutors said. When he died later that morning, Thomas' body temperature was just 76 degrees, Hart said.
A normal body temperature is within about a degree of 98.6 degrees, and any temperature below 95 is considered hypothermia, said Dr. Fred Davis, associate chair of emergency medicine at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, who said at Thomas' level, patients are "almost in a suspended hibernation."
Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini, whose office is investigating all of the contacts Thomas' family had with the court system, CPS and other authorities, has raised the possibility of convening a special grand jury to examine the case. The case has sparked a number of other probes.
A troubled family history
Zubko-Valva, 36, a New York City correction officer, and Valva were married in 2004. By late 2015, the father of three had “abandoned” the family, moving out of their Valley Stream condo, Zubko-Valva alleged in court papers. Zubko-Valva, in the papers, also accused her husband of cheating with Pollina. Valva filed for divorce.
Years earlier, according to documents, Zubko-Valva reported she suffered verbal and financial abuse by Valva during an intake appointment on Feb. 4, 2011, at the Safe Center LI, the Nassau County agency that provides support to victims of domestic violence.
“The domestic violence incidences Mrs. Zubko-Valva reported included, but were not limited to, Michael Valva threatening to take all of their money away from her [especially if she tried to involve the police], threatening that he would lose his job if she involved the police, threats to file false police reports against her, yelling and screaming at her, destroying property in the home, and throwing items around the house,” wrote crisis center coordinator Leigh Buchman in a Sept. 15, 2017, letter to attorney Jason Barbara of New Hyde Park, who briefly represented Zubko-Valva. He did not return a message seeking comment.
Zubko-Valva, who is not an attorney, has insisted on representing herself in court.
Legal experts have questioned the wisdom of navigating the court system without the benefit of an attorney; Zubko-Valva has said no lawyer can advocate for her children as fervently as she can.
Thomas, like his older brother Anthony, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, according to court records. The boy received special education services, occupational therapy and speech therapy, the documents said.
Between October 2017 and February 2018, there were seven Child Protective Services reports alleging neglect against both parents, according to CPS case worker testimony.
A Suffolk judge later dismissed neglect allegations against the mother, which included her alleged use of corporal punishment and forcing them to ingest a brown liquid, after a trial in which Valva’s testimony against his estranged wife was deemed “less than credible.”
But even after a Suffolk CPS caseworker “saw bruises on Thomas’ buttocks and at the base of his spine, which Thomas said were caused by his father” on Jan. 15, 2018, the boys continued to live with their father.
Police and CPS get involved
Over the last five years, Nassau police responded to a total of 21 calls to 911 from the family’s Valley Stream home — 11 of the calls made by Valva and the other 10 from Zubko-Valva, said Nassau police spokesman Det. Lt. Richard LeBrun, who added that Nassau police notified the NYPD of all of its interactions with Valva.
The majority of the calls — 16 — were related to visitation disputes, LeBrun said.
A police report contained in the divorce paperwork shows Zubko-Valva reported — in graphic detail — to police on Aug. 4, 2016, that two of her sons were sexually abused by their father.
LeBrun said the sex abuse allegation was investigated by the police department’s Special Victims Squad and Child Protective Services. After a “thorough investigation, which included interviews and medical documentation, there was no evidence to support this allegation.”
A CPS caseworker later said in court papers that she was “concerned about the allegations because the children had to go through several invasive exams."
In another call from the mother to police claiming the children had not eaten in a day, the boys arrived home with their father, who had a McDonald’s bag “filled with food in his hands,” LeBrun said. Zubko-Valva's report was again deemed unfounded.
Multiple allegations of child abuse reported to the Statewide Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment or SCR hotline dating to September 2018, and investigated by CPS, mirror what prosecutors have alleged the boys endured, including being kept in the cold garage and deprived of food as punishment.
Nevertheless, the boys' court-appointed attorney, Donna McCabe, offered the court a glowing review of the boys under the care of their father.
“Although they experienced some ups and downs, their performance was amazing overall,” McCabe wrote in 2018 court papers. “I heard Anthony, who had never attended a traditional school before, read with clarity and understanding. All three boys are comfortable and assimilated into the household. They showed me their room, their belongings and told me about their routine.”
She said Pollina’s three daughters “love the Valva boys and treat them like brothers,” saying she saw them dancing together. The boys, she said, spoke of how “they celebrated the holidays and what they enjoy eating.”
McCabe, who declined an interview request, said in an email that Thomas' death was a tragedy and that she prays for the boys daily.
"My role as an attorney for the children is no substitute for a parent," McCabe wrote. "I advocated for Ms. Zubko-Valva to have visitation. The Court afforded her many opportunities to see her children. For nearly two years she refused visitation, leaving Mr. Valva as the only parent these boys would have."
Boys' school reported concerns
Nicole Papa, a special-education teacher at East Moriches Elementary, in an undated “Valva Family Concerns” memo, presented a stark contrast to McCabe's portrayal of the family.
Thomas and Anthony, described as "sweet and loving" children by school district employees, were not provided enough food to get them through the school day, Papa wrote. Anthony lost 11 pounds in nine months, while Thomas gained just one pound in the preceding 20 months, Papa wrote.
“Anthony and Thomas have stated that they are not allowed to eat breakfast because they did not use their manners, say good morning to Angela, or were doing nothing,” Papa wrote. “They have come in crying because of this.”
“I often supply them with cereal bars, chips, fruit and juice throughout the day,” she added.
In a second document from East Moriches schools, dated April 25, 2018, school psychologist Renee Emin expressed concerns about Anthony’s weight loss. “Anthony has grown in height and should have gained weight,” Emin said. “Mr. Valva reports that Anthony has lost weight because he is more active, however, we have asked the family to provide more food during the school day and they have not.”
In an Oct. 15, 2018, CPS court-ordered investigation report, caseworker Melissa Estrada reported interviewing all three children “separately and in private” in front of their school principal — and all three said they were adequately fed.
In the notes about Thomas, the caseworker wrote: “He eats breakfast, lunch and dinner every night and that his stepmother Angela cooks for the family every single night."
“Mr. Valva denied that the children are ever denied access to food, are always supplied with breakfast, lunch at home and to school, snack and dinner," according to the report. "This has been confirmed by this caseworker and the ongoing service workers Jessica Lantz who has not reported concerns in the Valva home.”
Also noted was Zubko-Valva’s lack of contact with the assigned CPS caseworker.
“Caseworker attempted to contact biological mother Justyna Valva on numerous occasions via phone messages and letters, unsuccessfully,” Estrada wrote. “It was reported that by ongoing service worker Lantz that Ms. Zubko-Valva has been noncompliant with the court mandates or having any contact with CPS.”
But five days after Thomas died, a Suffolk County Family Court judge granted emergency temporary custody of Anthony and Andrew to Zubko-Valva. And at a subsequent hearing this month, the judge saw no need to specify increased CPS monitoring.
Suffolk County’s Department of Social Services Commissioner Frances Pierre declined to talk about the case. Pierre is a member of an internal review committee appointed by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone to investigate the department’s management of the case. The New York State Office of Children of Family Services is also investigating. The Justice Department didn't comment on Zubko-Valva's letter to Barr.
A contentious custody battle
The court file provides insight on why Zubko-Valva lost custody of her children in 2017. Judges frequently expressed frustration toward Zubko-Valva.
When Zubko-Valva argued that Anthony should continue to attend a school for disabled children in Manhattan during the Sept. 6, 2017, hearing — the day she lost custody of the children — Nassau Supreme Court Justice Hope Schwartz Zimmerman told her to sit down and be quiet, according to paperwork. “Don’t talk,” the judge told the agitated mother, “because you’re not making any sense.”
Nassau County Court Judge Francis Ricigliano, meanwhile, took Zubko-Valva to task at a July 15, 2017, hearing after she expressed concerns that Pollina — whom she called Valva’s “paramour” — accompanied Valva when he picked up his kids. Zubko-Valva said it affected the children to see their father in a new relationship shortly after he “abandoned our family."
“What’s the difference between a paramour and a girlfriend?” the judge asked before urging Zubko-Valva to stay away from “bad words.”
After Thomas' death, the case was reassigned to the court's supervising judge.
McCabe, the attorney who was appointed in March 2016 to represent Thomas and his brothers, also clashed frequently with Zubko-Valva. The mother accused McCabe of being more interested in advocating for her estranged husband than her children. McCabe, during one court appearance, refuted Zubko-Valva’s claim that Anthony was terrified of his father.
In a July 2019 court appearance, after McCabe said the children were "not maltreated or malnourished," Zubko-Valva said the attorney was "completely misleading the court" and should be "severely punished" with "prison time."
McCabe also laid out a series of complaints against the mother, including her resistance to a court-mandated psychological examination.
Zubko-Valva “made demands that all sessions be videotaped," McCabe said, adding that the doctor who ultimately conducted the exam quit the case after Zubko-Valva "took pictures of the questions and answers on the exam."
A judge later noted that Zubko-Valva “submitted her psychological testing records from her employment as a corrections officer," which she had passed.
McCabe also said it had been “impossible” for her to see the boys while with their mother. And when she saw them with their father, Zubko-Valva canceled their visit and alleged McCabe had “acted inappropriately” at a previous meeting and the children were “afraid” of her.
McCabe denied the claims and wrote in a report that she feared for the safety of the children under the mother's care.
Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the state court system, said a review of how the cases were handled is underway and said it would be "inappropriate for any of the judges to comment as this is a pending criminal matter."
“In the Nassau matrimonial case, the administrative judge has asked for all the transcripts to be reviewed," he said. "We’re reviewing the case file to look at exactly what transpired and to see if everything was handled appropriately.”
Chalfen declined to comment specifically on the 2017 move to grant custody to Valva.
Dueling abuse accusations
On Oct. 31, 2017, more than a month after Zubko-Valva lost custody, CPS received a Statewide Central Register report alleging the mother was hitting her children, leaving scrapes, bruises and cuts, according to records. It was also alleged the mother suffered from mental illness, that her condition was deteriorating and she was incapable of caring for her children.
Zubko-Valva has maintained she never mistreated her children and any reports of abuse on her part were fabricated by the boys' father.
On Dec. 19, 2017, the mother met with CPS investigative case worker Michele Clark. She said the mother admitted she had “placed recording devices in the children’s backpacks when they lived with her and visited the father,” according to a later court order from Suffolk Judge Bernard Cheng.
Zubko-Valva was concerned, the court documents said, that the boys' father "was leaving the children in the cold without shoes as discipline."
The mother also alleged Valva got special treatment from police in Suffolk when she called them during a visitation dispute on Dec. 31, 2017. She told the court that police refused to take a report from her.
“Three police cars pulled up and went into the father’s home. They stayed for about 15 minutes, then left without speaking to the mother,” Cheng wrote. Suffolk police could not immediately verify the visit.
In January 2018, Suffolk CPS filed neglect petitions against both Valva and Zubko-Valva, alleging they each had used corporal punishment on the boys.
The judge issued temporary protection orders requiring the parents to refrain from striking the children. Valva's case ended with an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal, which allows charges to be dismissed if a defendant stays out of trouble.
Zubko-Valva had been visiting her children unsupervised since losing custody, but after the January 2018 neglect petition, she was ordered to have supervised custody. Her case went to trial.
On April 12, 2019, Cheng, who presided over her family court trial, wrote in an order that he found “insufficient evidence to sustain a finding of child neglect against the mother.”
The judge seemingly criticized the prosecutor who argued the case, saying Suffolk Assistant County Attorney Randall Ratje’s closing arguments “did not concentrate on the allegations in the petition” but instead concentrated on "arguing that the mother was mentally ill and that she believes there is a conspiracy between the father and Child Protective Services to falsely accuse her of child neglect.”
The judge also noted the mother believed the allegations against her “have been made up by the father in order to gain an advantage in the divorce" and said “certainly it seems odd" that complaints about visitation pickups and the mother speaking disparagingly about the father were included in a child neglect case.
Chalfen, the courts spokesman, said of the Suffolk Family Court case: “Judge Cheng was quite thorough in this case and spent an inordinate amount of time on it and ordered further investigation and additional medical visits for the children, which is not a usual occurrence once the petition is filed.”
Still, Zubko-Valva refused supervised visits with the children after the last time she spent time with them Jan. 14, 2018, alleging a conspiracy between CPS and the court system.
A few months before Thomas died, a judge asked the mother four times during one court appearance if she wanted to see the children, but she protested over the issue of supervised visits, according to a transcript.
The next time Zubko-Valva saw Thomas, he was in the morgue.
Reports: Abuse continues after mother loses custody
The reports of abuse of the boys continued into 2019.
On Jan. 16, 2019, someone called the state child abuse hotline and reported Thomas had a black eye.
The next month, another report claimed his brother, Anthony, was “coming to school with his clothes and backpack soaked in urine. Anthony has been staying in the garage and is not allowed in his room due to him urinating in his bed.”
Anthony had a “foul odor and is extremely cold," the report said, adding: “The garage is not heated, making the punishment excessive."
It’s unclear what investigatory steps were taken, but Zubko-Valva said CPS quickly closed the reports.
On May 14, 2019, a caller to the hotline alleged Valva threw a book bag at Thomas, then 7, hitting him on the head. He had a bruise and bump on his forehead area.
But when CPS investigators confronted Valva a week later, the NYPD officer told a safety assessment team that it was Anthony who threw the book bag.
“Family is uncooperative as they feel they are being harassed by the school,” the assessment said. “They do not want the children to be interviewed at the school and do not allow CW [caseworker] to interview other children. Investigation to continue.”
Despite the red flags, the team determined the children were not in "immediate or impending danger," and recommended nothing be done at the time.
Anthony Zenkus, who teaches about family violence and trauma at Columbia University and Adelphi University, noted that most child protective cases do not rise to the level of a child being removed from a parent. The agency first tries to strengthen the family, putting services in place, such as teaching them better parenting skills, Zenkus said.
“There must be an imminent danger of harm or that harm has already occurred,” Zenkus said.
In both Nassau and Suffolk, cases generally go before an agency removal committee before a child is taken out of the home. A family court judge also must approve the recommendation, he said.
“There must be a continual pattern of abuse and neglect that’s resistant to intervention,” said Jeffrey Reynolds, president of the Mineola-based Family and Children Association.
A mother's last bid to save her child
Inside a Mineola courtroom on Sept. 10, the mother warned State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Lorintz that her kid’s “life is in danger."
“I keep expressing to your honor multiple, multiple times,” Zubko-Valva pleaded, according to a transcript. “I keep attaching the reports that were created from State Central Registrar filed by, I’m assuming, teachers, on the CPS hotline regarding enormously concerning situation with my children. The teachers are, and even the parents from that school, complain about children looking for food on the floor, your honor.”
Lorintz, who recused himself from the case after Thomas' death, replied: “Ms. Valva, I’m interrupting you because you’ve now repeated what you’ve just said numerous, numerous times. I’ve heard what you said and I’ve told you that I am not CPS. I am not Child Protective Services … I have told you that your complaints and concerns need to be investigated by the proper agencies that investigate child abuse.”
Zubko-Valva answered: “Your Honor, the CPS is not doing their job.”
Lorintz told her: “What would you like me to do though? I am not CPS. I cannot physically go to his home and conduct an investigation.”
Zubko-Valva again pleaded for help, suggesting the judge subpoena the boys’ teachers to testify in court.
Lorintz replied: “We will have a trial.”
Zubko-Valva ominously told the judge: “But this cannot wait until trial because his life is in danger.”
Thomas Valva died 129 days later.
With David Olson