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Suffolk judge to decide if DSS records in case of Thomas Valva should go to county lawmakers

Undated photograph of Thomas Valva.

Undated photograph of Thomas Valva. Credit: Justyna Zubko-Valva

A Suffolk County judge has agreed to review confidential Child Protective Services records that a county legislative panel is seeking for its investigation into the circumstances of 8-year-old Thomas Valva's death, officials said Wednesday.

State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Santorelli on Monday agreed to review the documents himself to determine whether to compel the county to turn them over to lawmakers. The county legislature’s Special Legislative Committee, convened last year to investigate Thomas' death and recommend reforms, subpoenaed the Suffolk County Department of Social Services for documents earlier this year, but was denied access.

"The Legislature is a coequal branch of government and has a right to understand what led to this unimaginable tragedy," said Presiding Officer Rob Calarco, (D-Patchogue) in a statement Wednesday. "We need to address any shortcomings in our County departments to ensure something like this does not happen again. These documents are essential to this process..."

Thomas died on Jan. 17, 2020, after, prosecutors alleged, the boy was forced by his father, Michael Valva, and his father’s then-fiancee, Angela Pollina, to sleep in an unheated garage at their Center Moriches home in 19-degree weather.

Valva, 42, and Pollina, 44, have both pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder in connection with Thomas’ death and child endangerment charges in the alleged abuse of both Thomas and his brother Anthony, then 10. Both boys were on the autism spectrum, officials have said.

The defendants, through their defense attorneys, have blamed each other for Thomas' death.

The legislative committee in April filed suit against Social Services Commissioner Frances Pierre to obtain records — including past complaints against the Valva family — about the circumstances leading to Thomas' death after the county refused to comply with a subpoena. DSS cited state law that prohibits public disclosure of its records.

The law, however, allows for the release of records to law enforcement, judges and "any other state or local investigative agency."

Suffolk CPS had investigated several complaints against the Valva family, including reports by the children's' teachers at East Moriches Elementary School that the boys came to school in urine-soaked clothing, hungry and dug in trash cans for food, Newsday has reported.

Thomas’ death prompted reforms to CPS, including the increased oversight of cases, reduced caseloads and more caseworker training.

"The work of our committee can only be as complete as the information we have access to," said Deputy Presiding Officer Kara Hahn (D-Setauket). "As lawmakers entrusted with a solemn responsibility to review the actions of County agencies prior to Thomas's death, we fully appreciate the importance of maintaining the confidentially of CPS records, but we are reliant upon the review of these documents to fulfill our obligation to Thomas, his loved ones and the residents of Suffolk County."

Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) said in a statement: "We cannot change the past. We can and should, however, do everything in our power to ensure the effectiveness of the systems and the people responsible for protecting children in our County. We owe it to Thomas that his legacy be one of change."

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