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A boy's life: Thomas Valva remembered as 'playful,' 'sweet' child who loved to draw, sing and dance

Family and friends remember Thomas Valva, the 8-year-old whose death has impacted many people across Long Island. (Credit: Newsday Staff; James Carbone; Justyna Zubko-Valva)

Thomas Valva was the boy on the scooter, zipping around his Valley Stream condo complex. He loved cars, especially Matchboxes and Hot Wheels. And the surest way to make him smile was to read him a story.

That’s how family and friends remember the 8-year-old boy, whose death has grabbed the attention of many people across the country. Police say his father punished the boy, who had a moderate form of autism, by making him lie overnight on the concrete slab of a subfreezing garage without a blanket or pillow.

Thomas, a third-grader at East Moriches Elementary School, died Jan. 17 of hypothermia. When brought to the hospital that morning, the unresponsive boy had a body temperature of 76 degrees, authorities said.

Thomas and his two brothers were living with their father and his fiancee on Bittersweet Lane in Center Moriches. His parents separated in 2015, and his father, NYPD transit officer Michael Valva, was awarded custody of the kids in 2017.

Suffolk County police arrested Valva, 40, and Angela Pollina, 42, on Jan. 24. On Thursday, both were arraigned on charges of second-degree murder and four counts of endangering the welfare of a child — two counts for Thomas and two counts for his older brother Anthony, who also was forced to sleep in the garage. Both defendants have pleaded not guilty and are in jail without bail.

Thomas' mother, Justyna Zubko-Valva, 36, said she spent years crying out to child welfare agencies, family court and police that her estranged husband was abusing the boys. Her efforts, she said, were futile.

Zubko-Valva, a correction officer on Rikers Island, had not been active in the children's lives since mid-January 2018, said Wieslaw von Walawender, a friend and advocate for Zubko-Valva. After an anonymous complaint against her to Child Protective Services, a judge issued an order that month saying she could not see the children unless the visits were supervised by CPS, von Walawender said. The complaint, which she denied, alleged she had struck the children and was feeding them a brown liquid that made them vomit, he said.

At the time, Zubko-Valva felt the agency was working against her, in favor of her estranged husband, and that CPS and her husband would trump up more complaints against her if she visited the kids, von Walawender said.

She did not see Thomas again until after his death, Walawender said. Since his death, a slew of documents and statements from investigators has emerged, shedding light on the dark side of Thomas' life with his father.

When Thomas and his brothers lived with their father, they at times were forced to sleep in the garage without sheets, pillows, blankets or mattresses, prosecutors said last week. The children were physically assaulted, including once when Pollina threw and dragged Thomas down the stairs, prosecutors said.

Those who knew Thomas said that despite all he went through, he retained his sense of joy and sweetness. He remained, they said, a little boy.

"He was my little hero," said Zubko-Valva, standing outside her brick town house in Valley Stream.

“Thomas was always singing and dancing; he was such a ball of joy,” said Ewa Pienkowski of East Meadow, who has known Thomas' mother since they went to college together. 

The boy loved to draw pictures. His mother cherishes them now, especially the ones he did for her. Her favorite: the drawing Thomas gave her of hearts and flowers.

"This is for you Mommy," he told her.

Thomas' first words

By the time Thomas was 2 years old, he still hadn't started speaking words, which many kids do by their first birthday. He didn't make a lot of eye contact with people, either.

His mother recalled, “It was a mild form of autism, but it was something that needed to be addressed, because when it’s addressed early on, then the child has the biggest chance to make the most improvements.”

That is when Kim Taylor entered his life. A speech pathologist, Taylor worked for a company contracted through the Nassau County Early Intervention program.

Twice a week for about a year, Taylor worked with Thomas at the Valley Stream house. His mother and father were still together then. Thomas had his big brother Anthony, now 10, and a younger one, Andrew, now 6.

Taylor spent a half-hour each trip working with Thomas. They played with blocks, balls, puzzles and picture cards. They clapped together as she sang him songs, she said.

"He was a bright, incredible little boy," said Taylor, 56, of Baldwin. "The eye contact was fleeting, but improving."

After about four months of working together, Taylor and Thomas were playing a game where they rolled a ball back and forth between them. At each pass, Taylor would call out "Go." 

Then came a breakthrough. Thomas broke his silence.

"Go," Thomas said.

They both got excited. So did Thomas' mother, who Taylor said sat through every session.

A month later, while playing the same ballgame, came another word.

"Ball."

Crying, throwing tantrums

Thomas was 4 years old when his father moved out of the house in late 2015. The departure hit Thomas hard, according to a 2016 psychological report by neuropsychologist Beryl Nightingale, obtained by Newsday.

He attended The School for Language and Communication Development in Glen Cove, the report said. The school, which serves children with language and autism-related disorders, is now known as Tiegerman Pre-K and Elementary School.

Little things frustrated and upset him, making him cry and throw tantrums, the report said.

"Thomas is currently experiencing significant stress around his parents' separation that is demonstrated in a regression of his behavior," said the report, which was done to determine an appropriate kindergarten setting for Thomas. 

Nightingale also noted that Thomas met the criteria for autism spectrum disorder, with his symptoms falling in the moderate range. Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that typically appears during early childhood and can impact a person’s social skills, communication and relationships, according to the Autism Society.

At the time, Thomas was struggling with language, as well as with interacting with his peers in the classroom, Nightingale said.

The school was a breakthrough for Thomas, Zubko-Valva said.

“Once he started attending that school, he started to speak,” she said. “He had excellent teachers who were able to detect all the areas of my son’s development that needed improvement and address it right on the spot."

Amanda Wildman came into Thomas' life in 2017, about a year after the report. She was hired as a nanny and worked for the family for about a year. At the time, Thomas and his brothers were living in Center Moriches with their father and Pollina, who had brought her own three daughters into the household.

Michael Valva was awarded custody of the boys in a Sept. 6, 2017, hearing, over the strenuous objections of their mother. Nassau County Judge Hope Schwartz Zimmerman made the decision after listening to complaints from the father’s lawyer, Shana Curti, and an attorney appointed to represent the boys, Donna McCabe. They both accused the mother of failing to obey court directives and telling falsehoods, according to the transcript of the family court proceeding.

During the hearing, Zubko-Valva, who represented herself, repeatedly raised concerns about her husband's treatment of the boys, according to the transcript. The judge repeatedly admonished her for speaking out of turn, at one point telling her, “Stop talking.”

At the home of Michael Valva, Thomas was all about his toy cars, and even had a track for them that lit up as the car went around. He was always open to Wildman reading him a story, day or night. They baked cookies together.

At the same time, Thomas was wetting himself, which angered his father and Pollina, Wildman said.

"He would cry, and they would yell at him more," Wildman said. "So he would know not to cry."

The boys shared a bedroom, which had little more than two dressers and a TV, she said. There were few toys in the room, she said.

The boys weren't allowed outside much, and Wildman said she never saw the family take off for a vacation.

By this time, the family was receiving visits from a child protection service caseworker from the Suffolk County Department of Social Services. The parents of the boys were divorcing and trading accusations of abuse with the agency. 

Wildman said she recalled that a caseworker would come in and take one of the boys upstairs to talk in private. But unknown to the caseworker, the house was full of video cameras, so Valva and Pollina would secretly videotape the interview, Wildman said. Then they watched what the child told the caseworker. Valva and Pollina let the kids know this, she said.

Both of the adults had bad tempers, Wildman said. Pollina clearly was the head of the household, Wildman said. She said she saw Valva angrily grab Thomas and pull  him up the stairs by the wrist. If the boys didn’t finish all their dinner, Pollina would force them to sit on the couch for a long time, even if they said they had to go to the bathroom, she said.

The boys would sometimes have accidents in which they urinated on themselves, Wildman said. When their father would come home from work, she said, “He would freak out on them.”

“It was heartbreaking to me,” Wildman said, adding that there were nights she came home crying about the treatment of the boys. 

She couldn't take it anymore, so she quit around January 2018.

Attorney Robert Del Col, who is representing Michael Valva, said he has yet to discuss the specifics of the case with his client. 

Matthew Tuohy, representing Pollina, said Valva was "very controlling" of her, and had told her that his three boys were his concerns.

"He would say, 'These are my kids, don't go there,' " Tuohy said.

Big eyes and a sweet spirit

Kathy Izzo, a neighbor of Zubko-Valva, recalls the sweet memory of Thomas riding his scooter up and down the sidewalks and across the asphalt of the Valley Stream condo community.

"A boy enjoying himself — nonconfrontational, playful and sweet," said Izzo, a longtime friend of his mother who has known Thomas since his birth in 2011. “Big, big eyes, long lashes, just a sweet spirit."

She recalled how Thomas called her "Cassie" because he couldn’t pronounce the “th” in her name.

She said Zubko-Valva regularly took the boys to the adjoining neighborhood park to play, or around the condo complex on scooters, bikes and child-size play trucks.

Izzo said she testified on Zubko-Valva’s behalf in a court hearing on the custody case. The mother shared with Izzo her worst fears about her estranged husband's treatment of the boys. The two women prayed together, wept together, she said.

"Nobody believed her," Izzo said. "He [Valva] made her seem like a crazy woman. It's unreal."

Meanwhile, educators at the boys' school made multiple calls to Suffolk Child Protective Services, reporting the children were neglected. They came to school hungry. They were seen eating out of garbage cans, and they were losing weight at a fearful rate, according to school documents and Child Protective Services reports obtained by Newsday.

Michael Valva tried to thwart the school's efforts, accusing educators of harassing him and his children, according to the school and Child Protective Services files. He told caseworkers he didn't want them interviewing the boys at school, and instructed the boys not to go to the nurses office, the files said.

Thomas' last days were dreadful, Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Kerriann Kelly said during a court hearing.

Two nights before Thomas died, he was banished to the garage, Kelly said. Footage from a camera in the garage showed Thomas shaking in the freezing cold air and exhibiting signs that he needed to use the bathroom, she said.

Since Thomas' death, people across Long Island and beyond have come to support Zubko-Valva, pinning Navy blue ribbons to their homes and holding rallies, vigils and fundraisers for the family. Elected officials are promising a hard look at Thomas' case.

"I know Tommy was a fighter who'd always stand for the truth and that’s why he died — for the truth," said Zubko-Valva. "He was a hero. He was opposing the abuse. But how much could he handle? He was only 8 years old.”

Thomas' mother posted some photos of him on Twitter: Thomas hugging his brothers. Thomas playing in a park. Thomas wearing a funny hat, smiling.

"Rest peacefully in heaven my sweet angel," Zubko-Valva wrote on the post.

With Nicole Fuller and Michael O'Keeffe

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