Suffolk County legislators expressed concern Tuesday about whether the county can independently review how its own social services department handled the death of 8-year-old Thomas Valva, allegedly at the hands of his father and his fiancee.
Thomas' father, Michael Valva, 40, who is an NYPD officer, and Angela Pollina, 42, are facing second-degree murder charges in the death of Thomas, who died Jan. 17 from hypothermia after allegedly being forced to sleep in an unheated garage.
Minority Leader Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) said in an interview that if he doesn't get answers quickly about the circumstances surrounding the boy's death, he'll demand an outside investigation.
"Is it appropriate for a group of county employees and one former employee to lead an investigation into what happened here?" Cilmi asked. "I’m interested in seeing what their plan is for this investigation, how long they expect it to take ... and I think it should become clear pretty quickly whether or not we should ask for an outside agency."
County Executive Steve Bellone on Monday night announced the members of an internal review committee assigned to conduct a "top to bottom" review of the Department of Social Services' actions in the case. DSS filed a petition alleging the two severely abused the six children in their custody, including Thomas, after they were charged criminally. The couple has pleaded not guilty to the charges and denied the allegations.
The state Office of Children and Family Services, which is also conducting an independent review of the case, will work with the committee doing the internal probe, as well as the Suffolk District Attorney's Office, officials said.
The internal review committee is composed of county employees and one former county employee: Frances Pierre, the commissioner of DSS; Mike Heiser, Family Court Bureau Chief at the Suffolk County Attorney's Office; Mark Clavin, the division administrator for Family and Children Services Administration; Dennis Nowak, the former DSS acting commissioner; and Karlesha Hewitt, the principal attorney for DSS.
Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Solonga) also questioned whether the probe would be independent enough, saying in a text message: "Forgive me if I am somewhat skeptical that politicians and political appointees will be investigating themselves.”
But Bellone, in an interview Tuesday, said it's important for DSS to review its own actions in the case to determine if they complied with their procedures. “There is not a lack of independent scrutiny on this," said Bellone, adding that the district attorney and the state are also providing independent oversight.
A separate task force, chaired by Deputy County Executive Jon Kaiman and Deputy Presiding Officer Kara Hahn, will examine how Child Protective Services handles cases involving children with autism. Thomas had autism, officials said.
Bellone said cases concerning kids with autism and other developmental disabilities are especially troubling.
“We’ve seen an explosion of autism diagnoses in the last decade or more. I’m not sure the system has adjusted to this dramatic shift," he said, "I want to make sure we are both doing everything we can to protect these vulnerable kids and provide the support these families need.”
Suffolk prosecutors said the boy was forced to sleep on the floor of an unheated garage without blankets or a pillow when air temperatures outside were just 19 degrees. The boy's body temperature was just 76 degrees on the morning he died, police officials said.
Matthew Tuohy, Valva's Huntington-based defense attorney, did not respond to a message seeking comment Tuesday.
Prosecutors have said they have audio and video evidence of the abuse, including an audio recording hours before Thomas died, in which his father says the boy is "face planting" and mocks him for being cold.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a news conference Tuesday that Valva "should burn in hell" for allegedly killing his son. "I don't understand how any human being does that to a child," said de Blasio. "I especially don't understand how a sworn officer does that...I think this is someone, when all the facts are proven, this is someone who should burn in hell from my point of view."
With Matthew Chayes
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story gave an incorrect title for Mike Heiser, Family Court Bureau Chief, Suffolk County Attorney's Office.