A community in mourning gathered in Center Moriches Sunday night, pledging to fight child abuse and lighting candles in the winter twilight to honor Thomas Valva, an eight-year-old boy who authorities said died after being forced to sleep in an unheated garage.
His mother, Justyna Zubko-Valva, who didn’t have custody of the boy at the time of his death, wept and held her two surviving sons in her arms as a pastor called Thomas, “the sacrificial lamb that through his death released his siblings from unthinkable abuse.”
“We stand because we can’t sit anymore,” said Pastor Sharon Pizzo of the Center Moriches United Methodist Church. “We can’t sit to another child falling through the cracks of broken systems.”
“Let us remember precious Thomas, who is no longer subject to the cold or a hungry belly.”
Thomas’ father Michael Valva, an NYPD transit officer, and fiancee Angela Pollina have been charged with second-degree murder in the Jan. 17 death of Thomas, who authorities said was kept overnight in the garage when temperatures outside plunged to 19 degrees.
Valva and Pollina, who previously worked for 17 years in operations for a Manhattan hospital, pleaded not guilty at their arraignment on Friday. Their attorneys did not respond to requests for comment on Sunday.
On her Twitter account, the boys' mother, Zubko-Valva, has publicly chronicled her repeated accusations of physical and verbal abuse her children suffered at the hands of their father, 40, and Pollina, 42.
Suffolk County Department of Social Services had investigated the Valva/Pollina family, who had custody of the three Valva boys, after child neglect petitions were filed in 2018, according to a statement Friday from Commissioner Frances Pierre. Pierre said the department is “formally reviewing the management of the case to ensure that all protocols were followed in accordance with the law."
At the vigil Sunday, Thomas' mother thanked the community for letting her “know I’m not alone” as her soft-spoken voice broke with emotion. She vowed to honor Thomas' legacy by working to fight against child abuse.
"Tonight is all about Tommy, my little baby who just loved everybody," Zubko-Valva said at Kalers Pond in Center Moriches, the community where the boy and his two brothers lived with their father. "My little angel Tommy, Rest in Peace, Amen."
Thomas' brothers, dressed in blue coats, were among the first to light candles.
"Are you ready?" asked Zubko-Valva, who occasionally smiled down at her sons. "Yes," they replied. Anthony, 10, then held his candle aloft to the sky, prompting the crowd to follow suit.
"God bless Tommy. Thank you for coming,” Andrew, 6, told the audience after his mother addressed the crowd.
His older brother, Anthony, 10, added, "We love you all, thank you for coming."
Their mother also prayed, addressing the Virgin Mary.
"Mary, I know you were my son’s mommy for the last two years when I wasn’t able to be there for him," she said. "Keep him close to your heart.”
The family was surrounded by more than 200 people, who stood in the cold, wearing blue ribbons to commemorate Thomas' life and promote the prevention of child abuse. Attendees wiped their eyes and sniffled as the candlelight illuminated the emotion on their faces.
"This turnout is overwhelming and inspiring," said Florence Dixon, who lived in the same development as Valva and helped organize the vigil.
Joann Vastola drove from Bay Shore to attend because "I feel compelled as a mother to be here."
"It broke my heart," she said of the vigil. "But it was good to hear (Zubko-Valva) saw the support that’s behind her."
Melissa Webster, who also lived in the same development as Valva, said she was "really moved by everybody coming together."
"I wish we knew and could’ve done something," Webster said.
Webster added that "we as a community feel like the system failed Thomas" and call for reforms to the county's Child Protective Services — which she called "highly understaffed" — and the family court system.
The community raised money for funeral expenses and planned to have at least two more vigils this week — including at the church that Thomas and his family attended — as it reeled from the tragedy.
St John the Evangelist will host a vigil Monday at 5 p.m., the same time Thomas attended religious class, with counseling available afterwards, a representative said.
The Center Moriches United Methodist Church is also holding a vigil Tuesday at 6 p.m.
Local shops were selling blue items to raise funds for the family. Brothers Four Pizzeria owner Frank Iorio said he will sell blue garlic knots on Monday and donate $5 for every pizza sold.
He remembers the family were customers. “I remember the faces. I remember the little boy, his face,” said Iorio.
The Center Moriches Fire Department will also take donations on Wednesday and Thursday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
A GoFundMe page in memory of Thomas Valva to benefit his biological mother Zubko-Valva had raised more than $20,000 as of Sunday evening.