Newsday's David Olson talks about the status of investigations into Thomas Valva's death. Credit: Newsday

More than three years after 8-year-old Thomas Valva froze to death following years of abuse, investigations into Suffolk County's child-welfare system that were promised still have not been completed, and some never started.

The state won’t release a report that is critical of Suffolk Child Protective Services. The Suffolk legislative task force looking into the Valva case hasn’t met since 2021, legislators said, and the county district attorney's office has not released findings of an investigation that was promised three years ago. Also, a planned review by the state court system on how judges handled custody and visitation issues was never done, court officials said.

Thomas died on Jan. 17, 2020, after his father, former NYPD officer Michael Valva, and Valva’s then-fiancee, Angela Pollina, compelled Thomas and his brother, Anthony, 10, to spend the night in their unheated garage in Center Moriches despite outdoor temperatures that dipped as low as 19 degrees. 

A Suffolk County jury on March 10 convicted Pollina of second-degree murder and four counts of endangering the welfare of a child. A Suffolk County judge sentenced her to 25 years in prison on April 11. Pollina is planning to appeal, said her attorney, Matthew Tuohy. Another jury in a separate trial convicted Valva of the same charges on Nov. 4. He is serving 25 years to life in an upstate prison.

Jeffrey Reynolds, president and CEO of the Garden City-based Family & Children’s Association, which works with abused children, said that in the weeks after Thomas died, there was increased discussion of child abuse and family violence, and their effect on children with special needs. Thomas was on the autism spectrum. But, Reynolds said, over time “that just vanished.”

“I don’t get the same sense of urgency in the systems that this could happen again,” he said. “I feel like everyone was put on notice, and everybody was on guard, and everybody was moved — but only for a moment.”

After Thomas’ death, it was revealed that Suffolk CPS caseworkers had received dozens of allegations of severe abuse of Thomas and Anthony — including that they were forced to sleep in the garage in cold weather — and repeatedly had questioned Valva and Pollina, and visited their home. Yet, they kept the boys with Valva and Pollina, even after the children came to school bruised, bloodied, dirty, hungry and soaked in urine. Caseworkers accepted some of the couple’s explanations for the children’s condition, despite school employees pleading with them to take action, CPS records and court testimony show.

Although the state Office of Children and Family Services and Suffolk won’t release the results of the state investigation into what led to Thomas’ death, a Suffolk “program improvement plan” created in response to the state report said CPS:

The findings referred to overall Suffolk CPS performance, not just in the Valva case, state agency officials said in an email.

The state gave Suffolk 13 “improvement opportunities” — including better supervision, more training, more documentation and more coordination between CPS and law enforcement — and the county has implemented all of them, Office of Children and Family Services spokesman Solomon Syed said in an email.

The state office has posted hundreds of “child fatality reports” — similar to the one prepared in Thomas’ case — on its website since Thomas died, with names and identifying information redacted.

Syed said the agency conducts "best-interest determinations" in deciding whether to publicly release fatality reports and did not do so for Thomas' case because of “the likelihood of additional trauma and public humiliation for surviving siblings.”

But Jon Norinsberg, the Manhattan attorney representing Thomas' mother, Justyna Zubko-Valva, in a $200 million lawsuit against Suffolk CPS and others, said he and Zubko-Valva want the state to release the report.

“There’s no reason why this should be secretive,” Norinsberg said.

Norinsberg said in a text Monday that he received the report through the discovery process — in which opposing sides exchange documents and other information — but it was provided under a confidentiality order. 

Jorge Rosario, former chief supervising attorney for the Children’s Law Bureau of the Legal Aid Society of Suffolk County, said that by not releasing the report, the state and Suffolk are making it harder to learn from what happened in the Valva case.

“You want the public to have access to it to scrutinize as to whether it was done correctly,” he said. “It’s children’s lives at stake.”

Zubko-Valva, who for years had implored CPS, the courts, the police and the state to take action to protect Thomas, sued CPS, seven CPS employees and several others in 2020, alleging their actions helped lead to Thomas’ death. A judge dismissed claims against two of the CPS employees; claims against five others remain.

In June 2022 rulings that allowed parts of Zubko-Valva’s 2020 lawsuit to go forward, U.S. District Court Judge Edward R. Korman scolded Suffolk CPS, saying that even after CPS had ample evidence of abuse, “CPS did not step in to protect the children” and allowed the couple to abuse the children “with impunity.”

Suffolk CPS and the bureau's parent agency, the Department of Social Services, declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing the pending litigation. The director of CPS at the time of Thomas' death, Annette Mahoney-Cross, remains in place, county records show, as does the social services commissioner, Frances Pierre.

In the wake of Thomas’ death, the Suffolk Legislature formed a task force to investigate the actions of CPS, police and the courts — and to make recommendations to prevent another tragedy.

The task force went to court to compel the Department of Social Services to turn over documents in the Valva case. The department had declined to do so because, county officials said at the time, state law made CPS files confidential.

A Suffolk County Supreme Court judge in September 2021 ruled that some documents could be released to the legislature — although none could be released to the public.

The first leader of the task force, the legislature’s presiding officer at the time, Robert Calarco (D-Patchogue), was defeated in the November 2021 election, and Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) took over as presiding officer and head of the task force.

McCaffrey said he suspended the task force's work at the request of Ray Tierney, who was elected district attorney in November 2021. Tierney believed the investigation could interfere with the trials of Valva and Pollina, McCaffrey said. Tierney's office declined to confirm whether he made such a request. 

"We did not want to get in the way of what they were doing," said McCaffrey, citing how, for example, the task force wants to interview some of the same witnesses who testified in the trials.

In addition, McCaffrey said, the legislature already had enacted reforms in the system by approving the CPS Transformation Act in 2020. 

"A lot of the things we knew we needed to do are already in place," he said. 

McCaffrey said that, after Pollina's March 10 conviction, he reopened the legislature's investigation. 

But Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), who sat on the task force until late 2021, said even though she is "really glad he reopened the investigation," it should never have been suspended.

"I'm convinced that every day we don't focus on this is a day that we can't be sure or certain that it won't happen again," Hahn said. "When you know what's failed in the past, you can prevent it from failing in the future."

Hahn said the committee had last met a few weeks before the November 2021 election.

The Democrat now on the task force, Minority Leader Jason Richberg of West Babylon, said he hadn't gotten word of any new task force meeting and wasn't told the committee would be reconvening. McCaffrey's office didn't respond to requests for details on the next meeting. 

Richberg said he doesn't believe the task force would have affected the trials and that it should have continued its investigation and meetings.

“I think it’s important to understand the timeline of events, and also to understand how we move forward, how we ensure child safety," he said.

Tim Sini, the Suffolk district attorney when Thomas died, also promised an investigation. He said in March 2020 that he had assembled a team of prosecutors with experience in child abuse to “investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of Thomas” and would impanel a special grand jury to do the same.

Sini declined to comment as to whether the investigation had begun. Grand juries were shut down because of COVID-19 shortly after Sini made his announcement, although they were later revived.

Rosario said Sini should have begun the investigation “right away” because of the urgency in protecting children. Even during the height of COVID-19, Sini could have requested documents and other materials, he said.

Tierney, Sini’s successor as district attorney, said there will be “a comprehensive investigation into how this happened and maybe ways in which we can ensure that something like this never happens again.”

A spokeswoman for Tierney later said the investigation had begun.

Tierney said “the most effective type of investigation in this case would be through the grand jury, because that gives us the ability to subpoena witnesses.”

He declined to say whether a grand jury already has been impaneled, citing the secrecy of grand jury proceedings.

Any report or findings of an investigation won’t be released until after the cases against Valva and Pollina are complete, he said before Pollina's conviction. Tierney's office declined to say whether Pollina's possible appeal could affect the timing of a findings release.

A Nassau County family court judge handed custody of Thomas and Anthony to Valva in 2017, after a court-appointed attorney for the children said Zubko-Valva had not brought the children to meet with her and an expert in forensic evaluations, accused her of lying, and recommended that the boys no longer live with Zubko-Valva. Valva's attorney said she worried about the children's safety with Zubko-Valva and assured the judge "they will be safe" with Valva. Zubko-Valva protested the allegations against her and said the two attorneys were lying.

Another Nassau judge in 2018 and 2019 would not allow Zubko-Valva unsupervised visitation, despite a Suffolk judge granting her visitation without restrictions.

In February 2020, Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the state courts, told Newsday that a review had begun into how the cases were handled.

But Chalfen recently told Newsday via email that “no review was done of the Valva case,” nor have there been any other “fatality reviews of pending cases” — although he said it is “under discussion” to conduct a review once the cases against Valva and Pollina are fully resolved, including appeals.

Asked why the initial intention was to conduct a review, even though criminal cases against Valva and Pollina already had started, Chalfen said there were “more complexities than first anticipated, especially in cases like this one with multiple matters pending.”

The former chief judge of the state Court of Appeals, Janet DiFiore, created a child fatality advisory council in 2020 “to develop protocols and best practices to better ensure the safety of vulnerable children involved in the family justice system,” according to a 2020 state court system report.

But the committee was specific to DiFiore and “is not currently active,” Chalfen said. DiFiore stepped down last year.

Jacqueline Franchetti of Manhasset, whose 2-year-old daughter was killed in 2016 during a visit to her abusive father and who has been lobbying for legislation to reform the court system’s handling of abuse-related cases, said, “It’s extremely frustrating” that the committee is not active.

Franchetti said wide-ranging reforms are needed, including required training for court officials and detailed risk assessments for children involved in custody and visitation cases in which child abuse is alleged. A risk assessment in the Valva case would have forced judges to look more carefully at evidence, she said.

The advisory council could have helped, even though "it would have been a small step," she said. “They’re not even taking this small step."

More than three years after 8-year-old Thomas Valva froze to death following years of abuse, investigations into Suffolk County's child-welfare system that were promised still have not been completed, and some never started.

The state won’t release a report that is critical of Suffolk Child Protective Services. The Suffolk legislative task force looking into the Valva case hasn’t met since 2021, legislators said, and the county district attorney's office has not released findings of an investigation that was promised three years ago. Also, a planned review by the state court system on how judges handled custody and visitation issues was never done, court officials said.

Thomas died on Jan. 17, 2020, after his father, former NYPD officer Michael Valva, and Valva’s then-fiancee, Angela Pollina, compelled Thomas and his brother, Anthony, 10, to spend the night in their unheated garage in Center Moriches despite outdoor temperatures that dipped as low as 19 degrees. 

A Suffolk County jury on March 10 convicted Pollina of second-degree murder and four counts of endangering the welfare of a child. A Suffolk County judge sentenced her to 25 years in prison on April 11. Pollina is planning to appeal, said her attorney, Matthew Tuohy. Another jury in a separate trial convicted Valva of the same charges on Nov. 4. He is serving 25 years to life in an upstate prison.

  • The Office of Children and Family Services conducted an investigation into Thomas Valva’s death, but will not release the results.
  • The Suffolk Legislature formed a task force to investigate the actions of CPS, police and the courts, but it was suspended in 2021 and hasn’t met since.
  • Former Suffolk District Attorney Tim Sini promised a probe, but there is no word if a grand jury has been impaneled.
Michael Valva and Angela Pollina inside Suffolk County Court in Riverhead...

Michael Valva and Angela Pollina inside Suffolk County Court in Riverhead on Feb. 6, 2020. Credit: James Carbone

Jeffrey Reynolds, president and CEO of the Garden City-based Family & Children’s Association, which works with abused children, said that in the weeks after Thomas died, there was increased discussion of child abuse and family violence, and their effect on children with special needs. Thomas was on the autism spectrum. But, Reynolds said, over time “that just vanished.”

“I don’t get the same sense of urgency in the systems that this could happen again,” he said. “I feel like everyone was put on notice, and everybody was on guard, and everybody was moved — but only for a moment.”

After Thomas’ death, it was revealed that Suffolk CPS caseworkers had received dozens of allegations of severe abuse of Thomas and Anthony — including that they were forced to sleep in the garage in cold weather — and repeatedly had questioned Valva and Pollina, and visited their home. Yet, they kept the boys with Valva and Pollina, even after the children came to school bruised, bloodied, dirty, hungry and soaked in urine. Caseworkers accepted some of the couple’s explanations for the children’s condition, despite school employees pleading with them to take action, CPS records and court testimony show.

I feel like everyone was put on notice, and everybody was on guard, and everybody was moved — but only for a moment.

— Jeffrey Reynolds, president and CEO of the Garden City-based Family & Children’s Association

Credit: Howard Schnapp

'Improvement plan'

Although the state Office of Children and Family Services and Suffolk won’t release the results of the state investigation into what led to Thomas’ death, a Suffolk “program improvement plan” created in response to the state report said CPS:

  • Was not always effectively documenting the history of its cases.
  • Did not give enough emphasis to child-abuse hotline reports in its decision-making.
  • Did not coordinate enough with law enforcement.
  • Did not give enough priority to abuse reports from school employees.

The findings referred to overall Suffolk CPS performance, not just in the Valva case, state agency officials said in an email.

The state gave Suffolk 13 “improvement opportunities” — including better supervision, more training, more documentation and more coordination between CPS and law enforcement — and the county has implemented all of them, Office of Children and Family Services spokesman Solomon Syed said in an email.

Justyna Zubko-Valva during a news conference at Suffolk County Court in Riverhead on Feb. 6, 2020. Credit: James Carbone

The state office has posted hundreds of “child fatality reports” — similar to the one prepared in Thomas’ case — on its website since Thomas died, with names and identifying information redacted.

Syed said the agency conducts "best-interest determinations" in deciding whether to publicly release fatality reports and did not do so for Thomas' case because of “the likelihood of additional trauma and public humiliation for surviving siblings.”

But Jon Norinsberg, the Manhattan attorney representing Thomas' mother, Justyna Zubko-Valva, in a $200 million lawsuit against Suffolk CPS and others, said he and Zubko-Valva want the state to release the report.

“There’s no reason why this should be secretive,” Norinsberg said.

Norinsberg said in a text Monday that he received the report through the discovery process — in which opposing sides exchange documents and other information — but it was provided under a confidentiality order. 

Jorge Rosario, former chief supervising attorney for the Children’s Law Bureau of the Legal Aid Society of Suffolk County, said that by not releasing the report, the state and Suffolk are making it harder to learn from what happened in the Valva case.

“You want the public to have access to it to scrutinize as to whether it was done correctly,” he said. “It’s children’s lives at stake.”

You want the public to have access to it to scrutinize as to whether it was done correctly.

— Jorge Rosario, former chief supervising attorney for the Children’s Law Bureau of the Legal Aid Society of Suffolk County, on the state’s child fatality report for Thomas Valva

Credit: Alejandra Villa Loarca

Zubko-Valva, who for years had implored CPS, the courts, the police and the state to take action to protect Thomas, sued CPS, seven CPS employees and several others in 2020, alleging their actions helped lead to Thomas’ death. A judge dismissed claims against two of the CPS employees; claims against five others remain.

In June 2022 rulings that allowed parts of Zubko-Valva’s 2020 lawsuit to go forward, U.S. District Court Judge Edward R. Korman scolded Suffolk CPS, saying that even after CPS had ample evidence of abuse, “CPS did not step in to protect the children” and allowed the couple to abuse the children “with impunity.”

Suffolk CPS and the bureau's parent agency, the Department of Social Services, declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing the pending litigation. The director of CPS at the time of Thomas' death, Annette Mahoney-Cross, remains in place, county records show, as does the social services commissioner, Frances Pierre.

Legislature forms task force

In the wake of Thomas’ death, the Suffolk Legislature formed a task force to investigate the actions of CPS, police and the courts — and to make recommendations to prevent another tragedy.

Suffolk County Legislature Presiding Officer Kevin McCaffrey in Hauppauge on July 26, 2022. Credit: Howard Schnapp

The task force went to court to compel the Department of Social Services to turn over documents in the Valva case. The department had declined to do so because, county officials said at the time, state law made CPS files confidential.

A Suffolk County Supreme Court judge in September 2021 ruled that some documents could be released to the legislature — although none could be released to the public.

The first leader of the task force, the legislature’s presiding officer at the time, Robert Calarco (D-Patchogue), was defeated in the November 2021 election, and Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) took over as presiding officer and head of the task force.

McCaffrey said he suspended the task force's work at the request of Ray Tierney, who was elected district attorney in November 2021. Tierney believed the investigation could interfere with the trials of Valva and Pollina, McCaffrey said. Tierney's office declined to confirm whether he made such a request. 

"We did not want to get in the way of what they were doing," said McCaffrey, citing how, for example, the task force wants to interview some of the same witnesses who testified in the trials.

In addition, McCaffrey said, the legislature already had enacted reforms in the system by approving the CPS Transformation Act in 2020. 

"A lot of the things we knew we needed to do are already in place," he said. 

McCaffrey said that, after Pollina's March 10 conviction, he reopened the legislature's investigation. 

But Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), who sat on the task force until late 2021, said even though she is "really glad he reopened the investigation," it should never have been suspended.

"I'm convinced that every day we don't focus on this is a day that we can't be sure or certain that it won't happen again," Hahn said. "When you know what's failed in the past, you can prevent it from failing in the future."

Hahn said the committee had last met a few weeks before the November 2021 election.

I'm convinced that every day we don't focus on this is a day that we can't be sure or certain that it won't happen again.

— Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket)

Credit: James Carbone

The Democrat now on the task force, Minority Leader Jason Richberg of West Babylon, said he hadn't gotten word of any new task force meeting and wasn't told the committee would be reconvening. McCaffrey's office didn't respond to requests for details on the next meeting. 

Richberg said he doesn't believe the task force would have affected the trials and that it should have continued its investigation and meetings.

“I think it’s important to understand the timeline of events, and also to understand how we move forward, how we ensure child safety," he said.

DA promises investigation

Tim Sini, the Suffolk district attorney when Thomas died, also promised an investigation. He said in March 2020 that he had assembled a team of prosecutors with experience in child abuse to “investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of Thomas” and would impanel a special grand jury to do the same.

Sini declined to comment as to whether the investigation had begun. Grand juries were shut down because of COVID-19 shortly after Sini made his announcement, although they were later revived.

Rosario said Sini should have begun the investigation “right away” because of the urgency in protecting children. Even during the height of COVID-19, Sini could have requested documents and other materials, he said.

Tierney, Sini’s successor as district attorney, said there will be “a comprehensive investigation into how this happened and maybe ways in which we can ensure that something like this never happens again.”

A spokeswoman for Tierney later said the investigation had begun.

Tierney said “the most effective type of investigation in this case would be through the grand jury, because that gives us the ability to subpoena witnesses.”

A spokeswoman for Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney said an investigation into...

A spokeswoman for Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney said an investigation into Thomas Valva's death has begun. Credit: Randee Daddona

He declined to say whether a grand jury already has been impaneled, citing the secrecy of grand jury proceedings.

Any report or findings of an investigation won’t be released until after the cases against Valva and Pollina are complete, he said before Pollina's conviction. Tierney's office declined to say whether Pollina's possible appeal could affect the timing of a findings release.

A Nassau County family court judge handed custody of Thomas and Anthony to Valva in 2017, after a court-appointed attorney for the children said Zubko-Valva had not brought the children to meet with her and an expert in forensic evaluations, accused her of lying, and recommended that the boys no longer live with Zubko-Valva. Valva's attorney said she worried about the children's safety with Zubko-Valva and assured the judge "they will be safe" with Valva. Zubko-Valva protested the allegations against her and said the two attorneys were lying.

Another Nassau judge in 2018 and 2019 would not allow Zubko-Valva unsupervised visitation, despite a Suffolk judge granting her visitation without restrictions.

In February 2020, Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the state courts, told Newsday that a review had begun into how the cases were handled.

But Chalfen recently told Newsday via email that “no review was done of the Valva case,” nor have there been any other “fatality reviews of pending cases” — although he said it is “under discussion” to conduct a review once the cases against Valva and Pollina are fully resolved, including appeals.

Asked why the initial intention was to conduct a review, even though criminal cases against Valva and Pollina already had started, Chalfen said there were “more complexities than first anticipated, especially in cases like this one with multiple matters pending.”

The former chief judge of the state Court of Appeals, Janet DiFiore, created a child fatality advisory council in 2020 “to develop protocols and best practices to better ensure the safety of vulnerable children involved in the family justice system,” according to a 2020 state court system report.

But the committee was specific to DiFiore and “is not currently active,” Chalfen said. DiFiore stepped down last year.

Jacqueline Franchetti of Manhasset, whose 2-year-old daughter was killed in 2016 during a visit to her abusive father and who has been lobbying for legislation to reform the court system’s handling of abuse-related cases, said, “It’s extremely frustrating” that the committee is not active.

Franchetti said wide-ranging reforms are needed, including required training for court officials and detailed risk assessments for children involved in custody and visitation cases in which child abuse is alleged. A risk assessment in the Valva case would have forced judges to look more carefully at evidence, she said.

The advisory council could have helped, even though "it would have been a small step," she said. “They’re not even taking this small step."

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