Officials and experts look back at how Suffolk County Child Protective Services handled the child-abuse case of Thomas Valva. NewsdayTV’s Shari Einhorn reports.

Three Suffolk County Child Protective Services employees who played key roles in the agency’s investigations into abuse allegations against the couple convicted of murdering 8-year-old Thomas Valva were promoted after the boy’s death, records show.

Moreover, Daniel Levler, head of the union that represents CPS workers, said he is unaware of any agency employees who have been disciplined for their involvement in the Valva case.

CPS critics were outraged by the promotions and absence of discipline, saying they indicate a lack of accountability for actions that might have contributed to the death of a child. Levler said CPS employees followed agency regulations in investigating the case. County officials declined to comment because of a $200 million lawsuit that Thomas' mother, Justyna Zubko-Valva, filed in 2020 against CPS, agency employees and others.

The lawsuit, CPS documents and court testimony show how — despite mounting evidence that Thomas' father, Michael Valva, and his then-fiancee, Angela Pollina, were severely abusing Thomas and his 10-year-old brother, Anthony — the three CPS employees and other caseworkers and supervisors took little action against the couple.

Child welfare experts said caseworkers might have developed a bias early on in favor of Valva and against Zubko-Valva, as each accused the other of abusing their children. That tunnel vision might have led them to minimize the significance of abuse and neglect reports coming in from neutral sources, such as school officials, during a time when Valva and Pollina were Thomas' sole caretakers, the experts said.

CPS allowed Thomas, Anthony and Zubko-Valva’s other son, Andrew, to continue living with Pollina and Valva, a then-NYPD officer, in their Center Moriches home, and caseworkers repeatedly wrote in reports that the children were safe there.

Thomas died of hypothermia on Jan. 17, 2020, after Valva and Pollina forced Anthony and him to sleep on the concrete floor of their unheated garage in subfreezing weather. Prosecutors said the couple were especially cruel toward Thomas and Anthony because the boys were on the autism spectrum.

Zubko-Valva sued seven CPS employees. U.S. District Court Judge Edward R. Korman, who is overseeing the lawsuit, dismissed claims against two.

Korman singled out the five remaining employees for how they handled the abuse investigations, writing in June that Zubko-Valva “adequately alleged that these defendants’ actions enhanced the danger Mr. Valva and Ms. Pollina posed to her children."

Suffolk has promoted three of those five employees, county records show.

Michele Clark, who Zubko-Valva Manhattan attorney Jon Norinsberg said in a phone interview with Newsday was “most directly responsible for the failures that took place,” was promoted Aug. 1, from senior caseworker to caseworker supervisor. Her promotion is provisional, county spokeswoman Marykate Guilfoyle said.

The county promoted Edward Heepe from a supervisor who helped oversee the Valva case to assistant bureau director on Nov. 23, 2020. 

Officials promoted Jessica Lantz from caseworker to senior caseworker on Sept. 20, 2021. 

Norinsberg called the promotions “highly disturbing.”

“You would like to see that people who have failed miserably in their responsibilities, and that directly or indirectly led to the death of a small child, that they would be held accountable,” he said in the Newsday interview.

Clark, Heepe, Lantz and the four other CPS employees named in Zubko-Valva's lawsuit either declined to comment and referred questions to the county, or could not be reached for comment.

In addition to allowing claims to proceed against Clark, Heepe and Lantz, Korman maintained claims against Robert Leto, an assistant bureau director, and caseworker Melissa Estrada.

Officials from the county, whose attorneys are representing CPS and its caseworkers and supervisors, declined to comment on allegations against CPS and the employees, and on why the three employees were promoted, with Guilfoyle citing the “pending litigation.”

CPS promotions are subject to state Civil Service law, said Alan Schneider, who was Suffolk’s personnel director from 1983 to 2019. For each open position, department heads must choose among job candidates who had the top three scores on the Civil Service exam for that post. Within that group of highest scorers, the department head — in this case, Frances Pierre, commissioner of the Suffolk Department of Social Services, the parent agency of CPS — can consider any factors in deciding which person to promote, including overall job performance and whether mistakes were made on certain cases, Schneider said.

Provisional promotions are common if there is no current list of candidates for a position, he said. The appointment is made permanent only if the employee has among the three top scores on the next Civil Service exam, he said.

Jorge Rosario, former chief supervising attorney of the Children’s Law Bureau of the Legal Aid Society of Suffolk County, said he found it "almost impossible that somebody wasn’t disciplined."

He said some caseworkers or supervisors should be fired, following an investigation into their actions.

“How does a place make improvements if there’s no accountability?” he asked. “There was definitely negligence on the part of several people here. This case doesn’t happen unless they were negligent in their duties.”

Pierre declined to confirm whether employees were disciplined or if she believes employees did anything wrong, citing the ongoing litigation.

In the weeks after Thomas' death, several investigations into CPS were promised. The state won't release the results of its investigation, a Suffolk legislative task force on the Valva case hasn't met since 2021, and the status of a grand jury investigation is unknown.

Levler, president of the Suffolk County Association of Municipal Employees, said CPS employees on the Valva case worked within department guidelines.

“What was required of them, they did," he said. "Where I see a failing — I see it [as] systemic [the family services system as a whole], and not on an individual basis.” 

More CPS staff and training would lead to better, more thorough investigations systemwide, Levler said.

After Thomas died, Suffolk expanded CPS training and increased oversight of abuse cases, and over the last several months, the county hired more caseworkers, bringing down the number of cases each handles. More hiring is planned, Pierre said.

For four years, CPS caseworkers received accusation after accusation of abuse against Thomas, CPS documents and court testimony show. Black eyes and bruises. Hunger so intense that at school Thomas ate food out of the garbage and off the floor. And, in a chilling foreshadowing of his death, Thomas told a CPS caseworker he was ordered to sleep in the garage, according to testimony in Valva’s and Pollina’s trials.

“This was a pattern of abuse,” said now-retired Suffolk County Judge William Condon, who presided over Valva’s trial. “The one thing CPS cannot say is that they were not informed, because they were.

“Clearly somebody dropped the ball,” added Condon, who wondered “how many others” have suffered because of CPS’ failure to act.

After a jury convicted Valva of second-degree murder and endangering the welfare of a child, Condon on Dec. 8 sentenced him to the maximum 25 years to life in prison. A separate jury convicted Pollina of the same charges, and Suffolk County Judge Timothy Mazzei on April 11 gave her an identical sentence.

The suit states that "Tommy's death was not only foreseeable, but completely preventable," and that despite "overwhelming and irrefutable evidence of abuse," the CPS employees and other defendants "exhibited a shocking indifference to the health, safety and welfare" of Thomas and his brothers.

Depositions in the case are scheduled for June and July, Norinsberg said. The depositions, documents and trial testimony would, he said in the Newsday interview, reveal “the full scope of the horrors that took place and the failures that occurred.”

A December 2020 court memorandum from an attorney for the county said all of Zubko-Valva’s claims against the CPS caseworkers and the county “are without merit,” and it noted that CPS took action against Valva by filing a “neglect petition” after a badly bruised Thomas in January 2018 said his father had hit him multiple times. The county later dismissed the petition with conditions, including Valva completing a parenting class, records show.

Rosario said CPS has a history of ignoring its employees’ mistakes, misjudgments and other deficiencies. He said when he was with the law bureau, he had provided the county with names of CPS employees who he believed were not doing enough to protect children, but nothing happened to them.

“There’s never been any accountability,” he said of CPS.

Jacqueline Franchetti of Manhasset, whose 2-year-old daughter, Kyra, was killed in 2016 by her abusive father in a murder-suicide, said that by not holding CPS employees accountable, “You are putting other children in harm’s way. If you can’t protect Thomas, if you can’t protect Kyra, what makes you think that they’re going to protect your kid? They won’t.”

CPS and court records show that as caseworkers sometimes downplayed or dismissed evidence against Valva and Pollina, they wrote multiple reports impugning the mother, who was trying to convince them that her sons were in grave danger.

Even in the last two years of Thomas’ life, when Thomas was living exclusively with Valva and Pollina, and Zubko-Valva had no contact with her sons, CPS continued with a neglect petition against Zubko-Valva that alleged she used “excessive corporal punishment” against her children and that she was so mentally impaired that she put her kids in “imminent risk of harm.”

As CPS was in court trying to convince a judge that Zubko-Valva was neglectful toward her children, teachers and administrators at East Moriches Elementary School, which Thomas attended, expressed frustration that CPS was not taking their allegations of abuse against Thomas and Anthony seriously, despite a “flood” of calls to the state child-abuse hotline in 2019 and multiple written complaints to CPS, court testimony and documents reveal.

Korman, the federal court judge, wrote in June that “CPS’ blinding fixation on Mrs. Valva” meant that “Mr. Valva … could safely assume that he and Ms. Pollina could continue and escalate their abuse ‘with impunity.’ ”

CPS “favored Mr. Valva over Mrs. Valva,” and submitted “glowing reports of his care for the children,” Korman said.

A CPS “safety assessment” for the children the day after Thomas’ severe bruises were discovered focused less on the father, who had beaten him, and more on unproven allegations against Zubko-Valva.

Lawyers for Suffolk even called Valva as a witness against Zubko-Valva in CPS’ neglect petition case against her. Among the evidence CPS presented was that the boys had said their mother hit them.

But in April 2019, Suffolk County Family Court Judge Bernard Cheng dismissed the CPS case for lack of evidence. He said the children may have been coached or manipulated to say their mom physically abused them.

Zubko-Valva, who had lost custody of her children to Valva in 2017, never saw Thomas alive after CPS filed the neglect petition in January 2018, and after she later temporarily lost unsupervised visitation rights.

Emily Putnam-Hornstein, a professor for children in need in the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said that, based on her knowledge of Thomas’ death from media reports, and from a summary of the case provided by Newsday, CPS caseworkers may have been influenced by “confirmation bias,” which she described as “the natural human tendency to try to fit new information into one’s existing beliefs and theories.”

In this matter, caseworkers appeared to decide Zubko-Valva was lying and Valva and Pollina were telling the truth, she said.

“And that belief persisted in the face of important new evidence that the initial conclusions they had drawn were likely wrong,” and after “it was abundantly clear that someone was still mistreating Thomas outside of his mother’s custody,” Putnam-Hornstein said in an email.

CPS caseworkers’ reports portrayed Pollina and Valva as cooperative throughout most of the case. They, in turn, said Zubko-Valva was often belligerent and uncooperative.

George Gonzalez, a former area administrator for a Washington state CPS office and currently assistant director of Harborview Abuse and Trauma Center in Seattle, said CPS caseworkers sometimes can be swayed by parents who are calm and “tell you what you want to hear. From my time in child protection, I am more worried about those parents.”

When a parent is “passionate” or even hostile, a good social worker should “not get bogged down by the noise,” he said, and instead ask, “What is this mother trying to convey to me, not how she’s conveying it, but what is it she’s trying to convey to me?”

Jeffrey Reynolds, president and CEO of the Garden City-based Family & Children’s Association, which works with abused children, said it was “understandable” that, initially, with each parent accusing the other of abuse, CPS may have had difficulty discerning “whom to believe.”

But, he said, “The minute those school calls come in, from an independent third party whose sole focus is the education and well-being of children, that should have risen to a very, very different level. That transcends the noise of a parental dispute.”

Reynolds believes CPS caseworkers’ handling of the case likely was influenced by Valva’s position as an NYPD officer.

“I do think the father got the benefit of the doubt because he was a cop, because it's a middle-class home — you pull up in front, it looks nice,” Reynolds said. “We generally think that cops are law-abiding citizens. … It’s hard to imagine a scenario where that didn’t play into some of the decisions that were being made.”

Gary Kubala of Shirley, a retired Suffolk CPS caseworker, said that as a police officer, Valva understood how to deal with CPS.

“He knew what to say and not to say,” Kubala said.

Zubko-Valva alleged that Valva was receiving special treatment from CPS and from Suffolk police and other government agencies because he was a police officer.

Suffolk police did not respond to requests for comment. CPS employees wrote in reports that Valva was not being treated differently because he was a cop.

Reynolds said it’s easier to look back at the decisions made before Thomas' death and point out mistakes than it was to assess the case in the moment. CPS caseworkers have “an incredibly difficult job” deciding what is really going on behind closed doors, he said.

But Reynolds said it’s clear there were “lots and lots of missed clues and missteps along the way.”

“Something obviously went horribly wrong," he said, "because a kid is dead.”

Three Suffolk County Child Protective Services employees who played key roles in the agency’s investigations into abuse allegations against the couple convicted of murdering 8-year-old Thomas Valva were promoted after the boy’s death, records show.

Moreover, Daniel Levler, head of the union that represents CPS workers, said he is unaware of any agency employees who have been disciplined for their involvement in the Valva case.

CPS critics were outraged by the promotions and absence of discipline, saying they indicate a lack of accountability for actions that might have contributed to the death of a child. Levler said CPS employees followed agency regulations in investigating the case. County officials declined to comment because of a $200 million lawsuit that Thomas' mother, Justyna Zubko-Valva, filed in 2020 against CPS, agency employees and others.

The lawsuit, CPS documents and court testimony show how — despite mounting evidence that Thomas' father, Michael Valva, and his then-fiancee, Angela Pollina, were severely abusing Thomas and his 10-year-old brother, Anthony — the three CPS employees and other caseworkers and supervisors took little action against the couple.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Three Suffolk County Child Protective Services employees who were an integral part of the investigations into whether Thomas Valva was being abused were promoted after the 8-year-old boy was murdered by his father and the father’s fiancee.
  • The head of the union that represents CPS employees is unaware of anyone who was disciplined in connection with the Valva case. He defended the employees, saying they followed agency regulations.
  • Critics of CPS argued that the promotions showed a lack of accountability within CPS and said that could put other children in harm’s way and make improvements to the agency less likely.

Child welfare experts said caseworkers might have developed a bias early on in favor of Valva and against Zubko-Valva, as each accused the other of abusing their children. That tunnel vision might have led them to minimize the significance of abuse and neglect reports coming in from neutral sources, such as school officials, during a time when Valva and Pollina were Thomas' sole caretakers, the experts said.

CPS allowed Thomas, Anthony and Zubko-Valva’s other son, Andrew, to continue living with Pollina and Valva, a then-NYPD officer, in their Center Moriches home, and caseworkers repeatedly wrote in reports that the children were safe there.

Thomas died of hypothermia on Jan. 17, 2020, after Valva and Pollina forced Anthony and him to sleep on the concrete floor of their unheated garage in subfreezing weather. Prosecutors said the couple were especially cruel toward Thomas and Anthony because the boys were on the autism spectrum.

Zubko-Valva sued seven CPS employees. U.S. District Court Judge Edward R. Korman, who is overseeing the lawsuit, dismissed claims against two.

Korman singled out the five remaining employees for how they handled the abuse investigations, writing in June that Zubko-Valva “adequately alleged that these defendants’ actions enhanced the danger Mr. Valva and Ms. Pollina posed to her children."

Suffolk has promoted three of those five employees, county records show.

"Mrs. Valva has adequately alleged that these defendants’ actions enhanced the danger Mr. Valva and Ms. Pollina posed to her children."Source: Order issued by U.S. District Court Judge Edward R. Korman

Michele Clark, who Zubko-Valva Manhattan attorney Jon Norinsberg said in a phone interview with Newsday was “most directly responsible for the failures that took place,” was promoted Aug. 1, from senior caseworker to caseworker supervisor. Her promotion is provisional, county spokeswoman Marykate Guilfoyle said.

The county promoted Edward Heepe from a supervisor who helped oversee the Valva case to assistant bureau director on Nov. 23, 2020. 

Officials promoted Jessica Lantz from caseworker to senior caseworker on Sept. 20, 2021. 

Lawyer: Promotions 'highly disturbing'

Norinsberg called the promotions “highly disturbing.”

“You would like to see that people who have failed miserably in their responsibilities, and that directly or indirectly led to the death of a small child, that they would be held accountable,” he said in the Newsday interview.

Clark, Heepe, Lantz and the four other CPS employees named in Zubko-Valva's lawsuit either declined to comment and referred questions to the county, or could not be reached for comment.

In addition to allowing claims to proceed against Clark, Heepe and Lantz, Korman maintained claims against Robert Leto, an assistant bureau director, and caseworker Melissa Estrada.

Officials from the county, whose attorneys are representing CPS and its caseworkers and supervisors, declined to comment on allegations against CPS and the employees, and on why the three employees were promoted, with Guilfoyle citing the “pending litigation.”

CPS promotions are subject to state Civil Service law, said Alan Schneider, who was Suffolk’s personnel director from 1983 to 2019. For each open position, department heads must choose among job candidates who had the top three scores on the Civil Service exam for that post. Within that group of highest scorers, the department head — in this case, Frances Pierre, commissioner of the Suffolk Department of Social Services, the parent agency of CPS — can consider any factors in deciding which person to promote, including overall job performance and whether mistakes were made on certain cases, Schneider said.

Provisional promotions are common if there is no current list of candidates for a position, he said. The appointment is made permanent only if the employee has among the three top scores on the next Civil Service exam, he said.

Michael Valva and Angela Pollina at their indictment in Suffolk County...

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

Jorge Rosario, former chief supervising attorney of the Children’s Law Bureau of the Legal Aid Society of Suffolk County, said he found it "almost impossible that somebody wasn’t disciplined."

He said some caseworkers or supervisors should be fired, following an investigation into their actions.

“How does a place make improvements if there’s no accountability?” he asked. “There was definitely negligence on the part of several people here. This case doesn’t happen unless they were negligent in their duties.”

How does a place make improvements if there’s no accountability?

— Jorge Rosario, former chief supervising attorney of the Children’s Law Bureau of the Legal Aid Society of Suffolk County

Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Pierre declined to confirm whether employees were disciplined or if she believes employees did anything wrong, citing the ongoing litigation.

In the weeks after Thomas' death, several investigations into CPS were promised. The state won't release the results of its investigation, a Suffolk legislative task force on the Valva case hasn't met since 2021, and the status of a grand jury investigation is unknown.

Levler, president of the Suffolk County Association of Municipal Employees, said CPS employees on the Valva case worked within department guidelines.

“What was required of them, they did," he said. "Where I see a failing — I see it [as] systemic [the family services system as a whole], and not on an individual basis.” 

More CPS staff and training would lead to better, more thorough investigations systemwide, Levler said.

After Thomas died, Suffolk expanded CPS training and increased oversight of abuse cases, and over the last several months, the county hired more caseworkers, bringing down the number of cases each handles. More hiring is planned, Pierre said.

WATCH: Reforms changing how CPS operates, Bellone says

The Suffolk Department of Social Services instituted several changes after a state review of the Thomas Valva case, including increasing staffing on CPS cases and retraining caseworkers, officials said. NewsdayTV’s Shari Einhorn reports.

Judge: 'Somebody dropped the ball'

For four years, CPS caseworkers received accusation after accusation of abuse against Thomas, CPS documents and court testimony show. Black eyes and bruises. Hunger so intense that at school Thomas ate food out of the garbage and off the floor. And, in a chilling foreshadowing of his death, Thomas told a CPS caseworker he was ordered to sleep in the garage, according to testimony in Valva’s and Pollina’s trials.

"She advised that the videos prove that [Michael] is making the children stand outside as punishment, that he is not feeding them properly, and that [Michael] and Angela are hitting the boys."Source: Report of documentation Justyna Zubko-Valva provided to CPS that she said was proof that her children were being abused by Michael Valva

“This was a pattern of abuse,” said now-retired Suffolk County Judge William Condon, who presided over Valva’s trial. “The one thing CPS cannot say is that they were not informed, because they were.

“Clearly somebody dropped the ball,” added Condon, who wondered “how many others” have suffered because of CPS’ failure to act.

The one thing CPS cannot say is that they were not informed, because they were.

— William Condon, retired Suffolk County judge

Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

After a jury convicted Valva of second-degree murder and endangering the welfare of a child, Condon on Dec. 8 sentenced him to the maximum 25 years to life in prison. A separate jury convicted Pollina of the same charges, and Suffolk County Judge Timothy Mazzei on April 11 gave her an identical sentence.

The suit states that "Tommy's death was not only foreseeable, but completely preventable," and that despite "overwhelming and irrefutable evidence of abuse," the CPS employees and other defendants "exhibited a shocking indifference to the health, safety and welfare" of Thomas and his brothers.

Depositions in the case are scheduled for June and July, Norinsberg said. The depositions, documents and trial testimony would, he said in the Newsday interview, reveal “the full scope of the horrors that took place and the failures that occurred.”

A December 2020 court memorandum from an attorney for the county said all of Zubko-Valva’s claims against the CPS caseworkers and the county “are without merit,” and it noted that CPS took action against Valva by filing a “neglect petition” after a badly bruised Thomas in January 2018 said his father had hit him multiple times. The county later dismissed the petition with conditions, including Valva completing a parenting class, records show.

Rosario said CPS has a history of ignoring its employees’ mistakes, misjudgments and other deficiencies. He said when he was with the law bureau, he had provided the county with names of CPS employees who he believed were not doing enough to protect children, but nothing happened to them.

“There’s never been any accountability,” he said of CPS.

Jacqueline Franchetti of Manhasset, whose 2-year-old daughter, Kyra, was killed in 2016 by her abusive father in a murder-suicide, said that by not holding CPS employees accountable, “You are putting other children in harm’s way. If you can’t protect Thomas, if you can’t protect Kyra, what makes you think that they’re going to protect your kid? They won’t.”

CPS and court records show that as caseworkers sometimes downplayed or dismissed evidence against Valva and Pollina, they wrote multiple reports impugning the mother, who was trying to convince them that her sons were in grave danger.

"After reading through the transcripts, there was nothing of serious CPS concerns."Source: CPS report dismissing the importance of recordings in which Justyna Zubko-Valva said Michael Valva stated that she hit their children and the children repeated it

Even in the last two years of Thomas’ life, when Thomas was living exclusively with Valva and Pollina, and Zubko-Valva had no contact with her sons, CPS continued with a neglect petition against Zubko-Valva that alleged she used “excessive corporal punishment” against her children and that she was so mentally impaired that she put her kids in “imminent risk of harm.”

As CPS was in court trying to convince a judge that Zubko-Valva was neglectful toward her children, teachers and administrators at East Moriches Elementary School, which Thomas attended, expressed frustration that CPS was not taking their allegations of abuse against Thomas and Anthony seriously, despite a “flood” of calls to the state child-abuse hotline in 2019 and multiple written complaints to CPS, court testimony and documents reveal.

Korman, the federal court judge, wrote in June that “CPS’ blinding fixation on Mrs. Valva” meant that “Mr. Valva … could safely assume that he and Ms. Pollina could continue and escalate their abuse ‘with impunity.’ ”

CPS “favored Mr. Valva over Mrs. Valva,” and submitted “glowing reports of his care for the children,” Korman said.

A CPS “safety assessment” for the children the day after Thomas’ severe bruises were discovered focused less on the father, who had beaten him, and more on unproven allegations against Zubko-Valva.

"With this additional knowledge of CPS' blinding fixation on Mrs. Valva, Mr. Valva could safely assume that he and Ms. Pollina could continue and escalate their abuse 'with impunity.' "Source: Order issued by U.S. District Court Judge Edward R. Korman

Lawyers for Suffolk even called Valva as a witness against Zubko-Valva in CPS’ neglect petition case against her. Among the evidence CPS presented was that the boys had said their mother hit them.

But in April 2019, Suffolk County Family Court Judge Bernard Cheng dismissed the CPS case for lack of evidence. He said the children may have been coached or manipulated to say their mom physically abused them.

Zubko-Valva, who had lost custody of her children to Valva in 2017, never saw Thomas alive after CPS filed the neglect petition in January 2018, and after she later temporarily lost unsupervised visitation rights.

Influenced by 'confirmation bias?'

Emily Putnam-Hornstein, a professor for children in need in the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said that, based on her knowledge of Thomas’ death from media reports, and from a summary of the case provided by Newsday, CPS caseworkers may have been influenced by “confirmation bias,” which she described as “the natural human tendency to try to fit new information into one’s existing beliefs and theories.”

In this matter, caseworkers appeared to decide Zubko-Valva was lying and Valva and Pollina were telling the truth, she said.

“And that belief persisted in the face of important new evidence that the initial conclusions they had drawn were likely wrong,” and after “it was abundantly clear that someone was still mistreating Thomas outside of his mother’s custody,” Putnam-Hornstein said in an email.

CPS caseworkers’ reports portrayed Pollina and Valva as cooperative throughout most of the case. They, in turn, said Zubko-Valva was often belligerent and uncooperative.

Thomas Valva's mother, Justyna Zubko-Valva, at Suffolk County Court in Riverhead...

Thomas Valva's mother, Justyna Zubko-Valva, at Suffolk County Court in Riverhead on Oct. 28, 2020. Credit: James Carbone

George Gonzalez, a former area administrator for a Washington state CPS office and currently assistant director of Harborview Abuse and Trauma Center in Seattle, said CPS caseworkers sometimes can be swayed by parents who are calm and “tell you what you want to hear. From my time in child protection, I am more worried about those parents.”

When a parent is “passionate” or even hostile, a good social worker should “not get bogged down by the noise,” he said, and instead ask, “What is this mother trying to convey to me, not how she’s conveying it, but what is it she’s trying to convey to me?”

Jeffrey Reynolds, president and CEO of the Garden City-based Family & Children’s Association, which works with abused children, said it was “understandable” that, initially, with each parent accusing the other of abuse, CPS may have had difficulty discerning “whom to believe.”

But, he said, “The minute those school calls come in, from an independent third party whose sole focus is the education and well-being of children, that should have risen to a very, very different level. That transcends the noise of a parental dispute.”

Reynolds believes CPS caseworkers’ handling of the case likely was influenced by Valva’s position as an NYPD officer.

“I do think the father got the benefit of the doubt because he was a cop, because it's a middle-class home — you pull up in front, it looks nice,” Reynolds said. “We generally think that cops are law-abiding citizens. … It’s hard to imagine a scenario where that didn’t play into some of the decisions that were being made.”

I do think the father got the benefit of the doubt because he was a cop, because it's a middle-class home.

— Jeffrey Reynolds, president and CEO of the Family & Children’s Association

Credit: Howard Schnapp

Gary Kubala of Shirley, a retired Suffolk CPS caseworker, said that as a police officer, Valva understood how to deal with CPS.

“He knew what to say and not to say,” Kubala said.

Zubko-Valva alleged that Valva was receiving special treatment from CPS and from Suffolk police and other government agencies because he was a police officer.

Suffolk police did not respond to requests for comment. CPS employees wrote in reports that Valva was not being treated differently because he was a cop.

Reynolds said it’s easier to look back at the decisions made before Thomas' death and point out mistakes than it was to assess the case in the moment. CPS caseworkers have “an incredibly difficult job” deciding what is really going on behind closed doors, he said.

But Reynolds said it’s clear there were “lots and lots of missed clues and missteps along the way.”

“Something obviously went horribly wrong," he said, "because a kid is dead.”

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