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Suffolk lawmakers pass child protection reforms after Thomas Valva's death

An image from a candlelight vigil for Thomas

An image from a candlelight vigil for Thomas Valva, 8, who died in 2019 after being forced to sleep in a freezing garage at his Center Moriches home. Credit: Howard Simmons

The Suffolk County Legislature on Tuesday approved a package of bills aimed at reforming Child Protective Services in response to the death of Thomas Valva, 8, who authorities say died of hypothermia after being forced to spend the night in a freezing Center Moriches garage.

The Child Protective Services Transformation Act, proposed in early March by County Executive Steve Bellone, sets average caseload levels for caseworkers and creates a specialized CPS team to handle cases involving children with autism or other disabilities, who are more likely to be abused, officials said.

The package of six bills, which also increase training for caseworkers and scrutiny for certain cases, aims to address “major failings” of the county's CPS system, Bellone said in March. CPS had investigated complaints against the Valva family and had monitored them for a year before Thomas’ death, officials said.

Bellone said the legislation will make CPS more effective.

“By passing this package of bills we have created lasting change that will ensure that CPS never operates the same way again,” he said Tuesday in a statement

Deputy Presiding Officer Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) acknowledged the legislation "does not solve the problem" but is a step in the right direction. 

The legislature voted a week after Valva’s mother, Justyna Zubko-Valva, filed a $200 million lawsuit against county CPS employees and other officials, alleging they ignored warnings of sexual abuse, beatings, starvation and neglect and were complicit in his death.

Zubko-Valva has said she wants legislators to require family courtrooms to have cameras and CPS caseworkers and children’s attorneys to wear body cameras.

Thomas’ father, Michael Valva, and fiancee Angela Pollina, have been charged with second-degree murder and endangering the welfare of a child in the boy's January death. Both have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting resolution of the case in Suffolk jails.

The legislature has already formed an investigative committee into the case and approved bills to create a task force on improving communications between CPS and Suffolk police and to hire a CPS psychiatric social worker and eight caseworker trainees.

The legislature also voted Tuesday to approve the Suffolk County Community College’s $216.9-million operating budget for 2020-21 and contribute $44.8 million to it. But legislators declined the college’s request to increase the county contribution by 2%, or nearly $900,000, because of the county’s expected shortfall from the economic impacts of COVID-19. The college’s proposed budget reduced spending by $7 million and froze student tuition.

“Facing this pandemic and the high rate of unemployment, the last thing our students and their families need is a tuition increase, so it is important that Suffolk County maintain the funding of the Community College,” interim college President Louis J. Petrizzo said in a statement before the vote.

The legislature also voted to:

— Recognize Juneteenth, which commemorates the day that enslaved people in the United States learned about the Emancipation Proclamation, which had been issued more than two years earlier. The county will light county buildings and offer educational programming and events starting next year. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo recently announced the day will be a state holiday after a President Donald Trump campaign rally initially planned on that day drew criticism. 

— Declare June LGBTQ+ Pride Month

— Appoint Dan Dubois, who most recently worked for presiding officer Robert Calarco, as chief deputy clerk to the legislature.

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