Protesters lashed out at Nassau County Child Protective Service employees during a disruptive and emotional Wednesday night legislative hearing convened to review Nassau's own procedures after 8-year-old Thomas Valva died in Suffolk. Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost

Protesters lashed out at county Child Protective Service employees during a disruptive and emotional Wednesday night legislative hearing convened to review Nassau's own procedures after 8-year-old Thomas Valva died in Suffolk.

The department and union that represents Child Protective Service employees vigorously defended themselves and their mission, while acknowledging understaffing in the Department of Social Services at the more than three-hour hearing.

In the midst of an already charged evening, Thomas' mother, Justyna Zubko-Valva, testified to legislators for 20 minutes in a heart-rending speech in which she made damning allegations that the judicial system and Suffolk CPS ignored warnings and dismissed concerns about her children's care.

"What happened to him was preventable," she told lawmakers. She said she was speaking for children who "cannot speak for themselves … the people in the institutions are supposed to protect them, make sure they're safe, and actually are protecting the accusers."

"My cry for help for my children was being turned against me," she said.

Nassau legislators scheduled the Wednesday night hearing following Thomas' death on Jan. 17 after, police said, he was left overnight in the family's unheated garage when temperatures dropped to 19 degrees. 

Thomas' father, Michael Valva, 40, an NYPD transit officer, and his fiancee, Angela Pollina, 42, are facing second-degree murder charges in Thomas' death from hypothermia after he was allegedly forced to sleep in the unheated garage. The couple are being held without bail and have pleaded not guilty, through their attorney, to the criminal charges.

Justyna Zubko-Valva attends the Nassau County Legislature Health Committee hearing...

Justyna Zubko-Valva attends the Nassau County Legislature Health Committee hearing held in Mineola on Wednesday response to the death of her 8-year-old son, Thomas Valva. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

The case has prompted lawmakers and child welfare advocates to call for top-to-bottom reviews of procedures and practices in both counties' social service departments. Suffolk is reviewing how its own department handled Thomas' case.

Thomas was among about 1,000 children each year that Suffolk CPS caseworkers are charged with monitoring and delivering services to, according to county records. Allegations that he was mistreated were among more than 9,000 reports in Suffolk of child abuse or neglect that are investigated annually.

Nassau CPS has higher-than-recommended caseloads. It handles on average 16.7 cases-per-worker, according to county figures. The state's recommended figure ranges from 12-15 cases per worker, and Nassau is within "striking distance" of that number, Commissioner of Social Services Nancy Nunziata told legislators.

Nunziata said the county plans to hire 11 more caseworkers for Child Protective Services, which has 65 full-time caseworkers.

Protesters at the hearing heckled Jerry Laricchiuta, president of Nassau Civil Service Local 830, as he testified with dozens of county CPS employees. He said members are "people that put their entire family, their minds, their lives on the line every day and their job is to make sure our children are safe, and they really want that done 100 percent right, not halfway done."

Protesters shouted, “You cannot be trusted or funded any longer.“

"Shut down family court! Shut down CPS!”

Nunziata testified that CPS employees are "superstars" and part of a "very, very special group."

She said the "work is fast-paced, is very stressful, and the stakes are very high.”

She added, "They have dedicated themselves to trying to meet the needs of families and children."

A protester heckled, "there are no superstars when children are dead!"

In 2019, Nunziata said, the county received an average of 680 reports of abuse and neglect. In 2018, there were 6,370 reports alleging abuse and neglect — about 21.1 children out of every 1,000 were named as a confirmed victim in one or more CPS reports.

Nunzatia said she has requested to hire another 20 employees.

Jeanette Feingold, director of Children's Protective Services, defended the training of caseworkers and said it's a job that takes a tremendous toll on them.

"It takes a while to train people … It takes a good three years to make a caseworker. This is a very difficult job to be a caseworker. It takes a lot. There's a lot of emotions involved." said Feingold. "We don't want to take these children. We want to build these families. We want to keep our children together. We're not there to rip families apart."

She continued, "That's our job. We have families too, that's not what we want to do, but we can only do that with the resources that we have. We're people, we're human, but we need resources out there." 

She said "a small number" of caseworkers are managing 30 or more cases.

Legis. Rose Marie Walker (R-Hicksville), chairwoman of the health and social services committee, said the meeting was to make sure that the Department of Social Services has the "resources and the support they need to protect all of our children.”

"We're not doing this out of suddenly thinking everything is wrong, but we wanted to be proactive, rather than reactive here in Nassau County," Walker said.

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