Despite the abuse signs — a black eye, the malnutrition, a welt on his head, bruises from excessive spanking — Suffolk County's social services agency and the court system left Thomas Valva in his father's home.
Several Long Island child protection advocates said Child Protection Services caseworkers had seen enough of the boy's condition that they should have pushed to take the 8-year-old from the home. But removing a child from a home is never easy, especially on the kid, child advocates said. The act of being taken from their home, only to be thrust into a foster home or the spare bedroom of a family relative, can be emotionally wrenching, they said.
"There's a reluctance" to remove a kid from a home, said Jeffrey Reynolds, executive officer of the Family and Children’s Association in Mineola. "There's a trend toward keeping kids where they are, and working with the families."
Thomas died of hypothermia Jan. 17 after he was forced to sleep overnight in a subfreezing garage in the family's home in Center Moriches, police said. The boy's father, Michael Valva, 40, and his fiancee, Angela Pollina, 42, were charged Jan. 24 with second-degree murder and four counts of endangering the welfare of a child. Both pleaded not guilty and are still in jail. If convicted, they face up to 25 years to life in prison.
After learning details of the boy's CPS case file, child protection advocates, none of whom was involved in the case, said the agency missed or misread numerous signs of danger for Thomas and his two brothers. Newsday reviewed thousands of pages of documents, including court transcripts, CPS reports from several caseworkers, and assessments from court-appointed lawyers and the East Moriches school district.
"There should have been more interventions, more visits to the home, and he should have been removed," said Reynolds, whose group works with youth in foster care.
The case was complex, noted Anthony Zenkus, an adjunct professor who teaches family violence and trauma at the schools of social work at Columbia and Adelphi universities.
Thomas' mother, Justyna Zubko-Valva, 36, of Valley Stream, often refused to cooperate with CPS, the files show, and the children's stories often were inconsistent, at times blaming one parent for ill treatment and then the other. On numerous occasions, the children would not confirm they were being abused, the files show.
Zenkus, who has trained CPS caseworkers in Nassau and Suffolk, said it's difficult to request removal when a child tells different stories.
"If they can't corroborate, it's very hard to ask for the family court system to act," he said.
The documents show that the boys' parents were engaged in a bitter divorce, with each parent registering CPS complaints of abuse against the other. The couple had married in 2004 and initiated divorce proceedings in 2015. Michael Valva obtained temporary custody of Thomas, along with Andrew, 6, and Anthony, 10, in 2017.
From 2017 until virtually Thomas' death, CPS received numerous complaints about Valva's treatment of Thomas and Anthony — from the boy's mother, his school and some neighbors. The agency closed several complaints quickly, the paperwork shows. In those few instances when the agency did take action, the boy was still left with the father, the documents show.
In general, each county's CPS is required to investigate child abuse and neglect reports, and to protect children from abuse or maltreatment. The great majority of these cases do not include removing a child from the home, Zenkus said. In most instances, the agency might monitor the family as it helps provide services to children, parents and other family members, he said.
In both Nassau and Suffolk, the CPS recommendation to remove a child from a home must be vetted by an agency committee. The decision then must be approved by a Family Court judge.
"If a caseworker at any time feels that children are in imminent danger and need to be removed, they would immediately contact their supervisor and hold a removal meeting," Nancy Nunziata, commissioner of the Department of Social Services for Nassau, said in a statement. "If there are no services or resources and it is felt that there are no other options other than a removal for the health and safety of the children, then we petition the court for a removal.
"It is ultimately up to the judges who must uphold the removal. They have the final decision-making over whether or not the removal stands."
Removal could lead to foster care, though Nassau and Suffolk have seen a significant decrease in the number of kids placed in the system. In Suffolk, the number of kids placed in foster care decreased from 705 in 2008 to 497 in 2018, according to figures from the state Office of Family and Children's Services. Nassau saw a drop from 418 to 176 during that time period, figures show.
The 2018 federal Family First Prevention Services Act aimed to steer more children from foster care, said Jorge Rosario, former chief of the Children’s Law Bureau for the Legal Aid Society of Suffolk County, whose attorneys represent children in family court.
The goal of the law was to, when possible, keep children with their family, and offer family services and parent training. Rosario said the intent of the law was good but added that sometimes children are not moved into foster care when they should be.
“You have some children [where] foster care is necessary to protect them from family or whoever, even if it’s on just a temporary basis, so it allows CPS and others to investigate,” Rosario said.
Suffolk social service officials largely have declined to comment on Thomas' case, citing confidentiality laws. But Frances Pierre, commissioner of the Department of Social Services, has said Valva in 2018 was placed under court-ordered home supervision for a year. Suffolk officials also pointed out that both biological parents had been issued orders to not harm the children.
Daniel Levler, president of the Association of Municipal Employees 834, which represents CPS caseworkers, said workers did what they were supposed to do in Thomas’ case.
“Public sentiment is pointed toward them, and public sentiment is pointed at them in a negative way, as if they had willfully, deliberately shirked their responsibilities as a public worker and protector of children,” Levler said.
He added that caseworkers carry high caseloads and heavy paperwork demands.
"We’re always concerned something could go wrong,” Levler said, adding that the Association of Municipal Employees has advocated for additional staffing and new safeguards for caseworkers.
Rosario said one problem is a lack of accountability at CPS.
“You need an independent body, an IG [inspector general] or an auditing body that audits these folks” year-round, he said. “They don’t care what they do and how they do it because there is no accountability … You tell them this person is not working for the best interests of the child, they protect that person. It’s like they have a wall of silence."
Suffolk Legis. Robert Trotta and Anthony Piccirillo have introduced a bill for an inspector general, partly to investigate any “possible misconduct and mismanagement” in the case. Trotta also previously has tried to get an IG bill passed. There will be a public hearing March 3 on the latest bill.
County Executive Steve Bellone has pledged a “top-to-bottom” internal review of the Department of Social Services’ actions in the Valva-Pollina case. A separate task force is examining how CPS, which is part of the social services department, handles cases involving children with autism. Thomas and Anthony both were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, according to court records.
County officials reviewing the case have met several times, Suffolk spokesman Derek Poppe said. “The reviews are ongoing and it would be premature to comment before those committees finish their work.”
The state Office of Children and Family Services also is conducting a review. That office does not "have a timeline for when we’ll issue our findings, but our staff has been diligently working on the review," spokeswoman Monica Mahaffey said.
Child protection advocates pointed to several instances where they felt CPS did not handle Thomas' case appropriately.
On May 14, 2019, CPS received an anonymous complaint that Valva, an NYPD transit officer, had thrown a book bag at Thomas, hitting him in the head and leaving a bruise and bump on his forehead, according to CPS files. The tipster added that Valva also squeezed Thomas’ hand in anger and that the child’s hand still hurt, the report said.
But when a caseworker spoke with Valva, the father said the book bag was actually thrown by Anthony. The agency determined that there were no “safety factors” in the home and that no safety plan or interventions were needed, the files show.
Caseworkers often appeared to side with the boys' father over the mother, said Reynolds, who suspects that occurred because the father was a police officer living in a nice section of Center Moriches.
"They probably pulled up to the house and were greeted by a law enforcement officer in a clean house, and they fell into the stereotypes of who abuses children," Reynolds said. "If it wasn't a police officer, and he wasn't white, it might have been different."
Meanwhile, CPS workers described Zubko-Valva as being unstable and a potential danger to the children, according to CPS paperwork.
“It appears the mother’s mental health has deteriorated since losing custody of the children as her behaviors have become increasingly erratic and concerning,” the CPS report said. “Mother is consistently uncooperative and unmanageable when dealing with authority.”
On several occasions, the children told a caseworker they were fearful of Zubko-Valva and that she hurt them. For instance, on Jan. 3, 2018, Andrew told a caseworker that his mother "hurts him bad," that she had punched him in the belly and on his buttocks, according to an April 12, 2019, court transcript in the divorce case.
Zubko-Valva has denied abusing the children. She said she believed her estranged husband was filing false complaints against her and that the agency was biased against her. She stopped interacting with CPS in January 2018, and did not see her children until Thomas' death.
"I never punish, never hit, never abused my own children because they are the most important persons in my life," Zubko-Valva wrote in a letter last July asking for help from U.S. Attorney General William Barr.
She added that CPS closed some of her reports on Valva after only a day or two. Moreover, she said she believes the agency not only protected her husband but turned the tables on her and accused her of abusing her children.
"As a witness and whistleblower on this, I should have been protected," Zubko-Valva added in the Barr letter. "I was not. I became the victim of the system as the children already have been."
Zubko-Valva sought other ways, apart from CPS, to get the story out. She posted a video clip of Andrew on Twitter on Jan. 7, 2018.
“Daddy says to me that I can’t listen to you and I can’t hug you and I can’t say, ‘I love you, Mommy’ and ‘I miss you, Mommy,’ ” Andrew said in the clip.
“Why?” his mother asks.
“Daddy’s going to put me outside,” he replies.
In an April 12, 2018, decision, Suffolk Family Court Judge Bernard Cheng determined that the statements by the Valva boys — that they were hit and punched by their mother — did not constitute enough evidence to find neglect or abuse on the mother's part, according to the transcript. He raised the possibility that the boys were coached to say these things, according to a transcript of the hearings.
In addition, the judge contradicted CPS assertions that Zubko-Valva was mentally ill. He said that, after speaking with her, she was "focused, goal-directed and clear," according to the transcript.
After Thomas' death, Zubko-Valva was granted temporary custody of Anthony and Andrew.
On Jan. 16, 2018, CPS caseworker Michele Clark wrote that Thomas had "bruises on his buttocks that were red, green and brown in color." The boy said he got in trouble at home for saying bad things about his father and girlfriend. The bruises were still visible three days later, and Thomas said he was scared to return home to his father, the report said.
The agency's response was to obtain a court-issued protective order stating that Valva was to refrain from threats and violent punishment against the children.
This incident should have raised red flags, Zenkus said. "Green, red and brown bruises shows you that it did not happen on the same day or the same way. It's a pattern of physical violence lasting days," he said.
Zenkus added, "A kid being afraid to go home, and evidence of a pattern of physical abuse, is a concern."
In a Jan. 16, 2019, report, a CPS worker noted Thomas had received a “right swollen black eye.” The worker noted that there were no clear explanations for the injuries. The worker also noted that there is a history of physical abuse in the home involving Thomas. The agency attributed the black eye to Valva, according to the report.
It's unclear from the paperwork what action CPS took.
Teachers, the school nurse and psychologist at Thomas' school also shared numerous concerns about the treatment of the boys, according to CPS files. Thomas was a third grader at East Moriches Elementary.
In an Oct. 15, 2018, report, a teacher told a caseworker that Thomas had been sent to school in a wet pullup, and the boy stated he was not permitted to go to the school nurse's office. Moreover, the teacher said Thomas was often hungry and that she and other students had seen him eat crumbs off the floor and out of the garbage.
When the caseworker spoke with Thomas, the boy contradicted those claims, saying he ate breakfast every morning, had lunch at school, and dinner every night. Anthony said the same thing, according to the CPS report. The caseworker concluded, "All the children were seen to be: appropriately clothed, groomed and fed with no obvious concerns."
The report ended with the caseworker noting that the father had made an appointment with a doctor, and that the investigation would continue.
The caseworkers should have taken the teacher's concerns more seriously, said Serena Liguori, executive director of New Hour for Women and Children LI. The Brentwood-based group supports children and women impacted by the justice system, some of whom interact with child protection services.
"The teacher sees the child every day," Liguori said. "Their response should have matched the level of seriousness of the complaint."
With David Olson, Nicole Fuller and Rachelle Blidner
KIDS IN FOSTER CARE
- In Suffolk County, the number decreased from 705 in 2008 to 497 in 2018.
- In Nassau County, the number dropped from 418 in 2008 to 176 in 2018.
SOURCE: State Office of Family and Children's Services