Suffolk County legislators launched a special investigation Tuesday into the case of Thomas Valva, the boy who died after authorities say he was forced to sleep in a freezing Center Moriches garage, as officials try to uncover what went wrong with the county’s child protective system.
The task force, which met for the first time Tuesday after delays from the coronavirus pandemic, will examine the county's interactions with the Valva family after abuse allegations were made, identify systemic failings and try to avoid another tragedy, Presiding Officer Robert Calarco (D-Patchogue) said.
The three-person committee will comb through child protective services, police, school, court and other records to establish a case timeline and issue recommendations for reforms.
“Hopefully Thomas’ death, while tragic, creates change that prevents similar occasions from happening,” Minority Leader Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) said.
Thomas, 8, a third-grader at East Moriches Elementary School on the autism spectrum, died of hypothermia on Jan. 17 after authorities say his father, Michael Valva, and fiancee Angela Pollina, forced him and his brother to spend the night in a freezing garage as temperatures dipped to 19 degrees outside.
Valva and Pollina have pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree murder. Valva’s attorney, John LoTurco, has said Thomas’ death was an accident and that an electric space heater was on inside the garage.
Thomas’ mother, Justyna Zubko-Valva, filed a $200 million lawsuit in federal court in June, accusing Child Protective Services, school officials, a Nassau judge and others of misconduct she said led to Thomas' death.
A Newsday review of thousands of records in February showed that systems intended to protect children ultimately ignored multiple warnings of Thomas' abuse.
Calarco said there needs to be a public accounting for Thomas’ death, especially after there were so many attempts to report alleged abuse while he was alive.
“We have a moral and legal responsibility to act and protect children from harm,” Calarco said.
The legislative task force, led by Calarco, Cilmi and Deputy Presiding Officer Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), initially planned to issue a report within 90 days of forming in March. Calarco pledged that the investigation would be done expeditiously, but not until investigators receive needed documents and testimony.
The task force's final report will be public, but most of its work will be behind closed doors to allow for more thorough fact-finding and to avoid impeding the criminal investigation, Calarco said. The task force's rules require that at least one meeting of witness testimony be public.
The task force will have subpoena power and can place witnesses under oath. But employees involved in the case won’t be named publicly without their express permission under committee rules.
The committee on Tuesday hired family law attorney Kevin J. Werner of the Bay Shore firm Long Tuminello to aid in the investigation and obtain relevant documents, including child protective services case notes, police department incident reports, 911 calls, school records and family court documents.
Thomas' death prompted other county investigations, including an internal review and a task force examining CPS issues for children with disabilities. Some county legislation was also passed, including the CPS Transformation Act, which adopted caseload standards and training requirements, among other measures.
The legislative task force will meet again after they obtain relevant documents, Calarco said.