A Suffolk County legislative panel investigating the death of 8-year-old Thomas Valva voted Thursday to sue county Social Services Commissioner Frances Pierre to obtain records in the alleged abuse case because the department has not complied with a subpoena for the material.
The three-member committee directed its counsel, Lawrence Jay Braunstein, to file an Article 78 proceeding in state Supreme Court to direct Pierre to comply with the subpoena the panel issued last month.
The social services department has provided some documents, legislative Presiding Officer Robert Calarco (D-Patchogue) said. They include records concerning Child Protective Services caseworkers who investigated complaints against the Valva family, and the department’s corrective action plan following a state review,
But Pierre has refused to provide documents directly related to the Valva case, citing an opinion by the county attorney that state law social services law prevents DSS from turning over the material.
"New York State Social Services Law does not allow County DSS to provide the records being requested to the County Legislature," Derek Poppe, a spokesman for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, said in an email Thursday.
State law makes CPS files confidential in most instances.
A commissioner may release information if a child has died and disclosure would not go against the interests of other children in the household.
Release also can be made to law enforcement officers, district attorneys, judges or "any other state or local investigative agency," according to state law.
That law has been a "severe hindrance" to the legislature's investigation into the Valva case, Calarco said.
"Our goal is to discover what policies or procedures or laws need to be changed to prevent something like this from happening again — or if we simply failed to do the job — and it is impossible to do without having access to information," Calarco said.
Thomas died Jan. 17, 2020, after authorities said he and his brother were forced by their father, Michael Valva, and his fiancee, Angela Pollina, to sleep in an unheated garage overnight as the outside temperature fell to 19 degrees.
Pollina and Valva have pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and child endangerment.
Suffolk CPS had investigated complaints against the Valva family, including reports by the childrens' teachers at East Moriches Elementary School, and had monitored them for a year before Thomas’ death, according to documents and officials.
Thomas’ death prompted changes at county CPS, including increased oversight of cases, reduced caseloads and more caseworker training, officials have said.
Also Thursday, the legislative committee voted to seek all Suffolk County Surrogate Court records related to Thomas's death; all records in Thomas' parents' divorce and custody case in state Supreme Court in Nassau; and all records related to Michael Valva, Pollina and Thomas' mother Justyna Zubko-Valva in Nassau County Family Court.
The three- person panel was created a year ago to review the events that led to Thomas’ death and recommend ways to prevent a similar tragedy.