Long Island officials charged with protecting Thomas Valva, the autistic boy who died of hypothermia in January after being forced to sleep in an unheated garage, ignored years of warnings of sexual abuse, beatings, starvation and neglect, according to a $200 million federal lawsuit filed Tuesday by his mother.
The 99-page lawsuit, filed by Justyna Zubko-Valva in Central Islip federal court, said a Nassau judge, Suffolk Child Protective Services employees, East Moriches school officials and others are complicit in the boy's death. They dismissed mountains of evidence she presented to them that showed her estranged husband, Michael Valva, an NYPD police officer, and his fiancee, Angela Pollina, abused Thomas and his brothers Anthony and Andrew, the suit said.
Valva, 41, and Pollina, 42, both of Center Moriches, have been charged with killing Thomas.
“Tommy’s death was not only foreseeable, but completely preventable,” the lawsuit said.
Zubko-Valva’s attorney Jon Norinsberg of Manhattan said the 8-year-old boy’s death — which horrified people across the nation and sparked demands for reforms — raises fresh questions about how police officers accused of wrongdoing are investigated.
“This was truly a conspiracy of silence,” Norinsberg said. “Valva was protected because he was a police officer. If he had been a normal citizen, he would have been arrested and put in jail. But because he was a police officer, the defendants looked the other way and let him get away with this horrific abuse.”
Zubko-Valva said in a statement that she filed the lawsuit to protect other children from abuse and to promote legislation she calls “Tommy’s Law” that would initiate reforms in child protection and accountability.
“The first step should require cameras in the courtrooms during the proceedings, and body cameras on all CPS caseworkers, attorneys for the children, and forensic evaluators during any interactions with the children and their parents," Zubko-Valva said.
The lawsuit echoes many of the conclusions Newsday reached in February after an exhaustive review of thousands of pages of documents in the case that showed systems intended to protect children failed to respond to multiple warnings about Thomas’ abuse.
“There’s no amount of money that we could come up with that would express the outrage we have with the death of a child,” Norinsberg said. “This is a complete systemic failure.”
The defendants include Nassau Supreme Court Justice Hope Schwartz Zimmerman, who the court papers contend failed to review evidence of abuse and improperly awarded temporary custody of Thomas and his brothers to Valva without a hearing in 2017. A spokesman for state courts said he could not comment on pending litigation.
Suffolk County and Child Protective Services officials are also among the defendants. “We are unable to comment at this time due to pending litigation,” said Marykate Guilfoyle, a spokeswoman for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.
The lawsuit alleges that East Moriches Union Free School District Superintendent Charles Russo and East Moriches Elementary School Principal Edward Schneyer turned a blind eye to evidence of abuse. East Moriches school officials did not return requests for comment.
The lawsuit contends that attorneys Shana Curti, who represented Valva in his divorce proceedings, and Donna McCabe, who was appointed to represent the estranged couple’s children during the divorce, also ignored evidence of abuse and conspired with Valva to win custody of his sons. Curti and McCabe did not return calls for comment.
Valva and Pollina were charged earlier this year with second-degree murder and endangering the welfare of a child. Both have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting resolution of the case in Suffolk jails. Valva remains suspended from the NYPD, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.
At a brief conference Tuesday in Valva and Pollina’s criminal case, Suffolk Supreme Court Justice William Condon set a July 7 deadline for the prosecution to turn over evidence to the defense. Both defendants waived their virtual appearances, their attorneys said. The case is due back in court on July 7.
John LoTurco, Valva’s criminal defense attorney, said he’ll review the lawsuit with his client and help him retain legal representation.
“We believe the lawsuit is viable to some extent in reference to Child Protective Services as well as Center Moriches School District in that we feel that they were negligent in the care of Thomas and Anthony Valva. … So we can understand the nature of the lawsuit, but it doesn’t have any impact on the representation of our client in the criminal realm.”
Matthew Tuohy, Pollina's attorney, said: “I understand the serious nature and sensitivity in connection with this case. All I can say is how sorry I am for the family, but also that my client maintains her innocence."
Suffolk police and prosecutors say Thomas died after Valva and Pollina forced him and Anthony to sleep in an unheated garage at their home as temperatures outside fell to just 19 degrees.
Authorities have said Thomas, Anthony and Andrew were frequently denied food or access to toilets, and were frequently sent to school in soiled, urine-soaked clothing. Suffolk prosecutor Kerriann Kelly described Valva’s and Pollina’s Bittersweet Lane home as a “house of horrors” at a hearing in February.
Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini impaneled a special grand jury in March to investigate the circumstances surrounding Thomas’ death and make recommendations on reforming Child Protective Services, the judiciary and law enforcement.
Bellone appointed two committees to investigate Thomas’ death and propose reforms. A Suffolk County legislative panel Tuesday approved a package of Bellone-backed bills to reform Child Protective Services.
The lawsuit comes as the county is considering cuts to services because of shrinking tax revenues due to the coronavirus crisis.
Cries of poverty, however, are unlikely to satisfy Zubko-Valva or the hundreds of supporters who attended rallies across Long Island seeking reforms and justice for Thomas in the wake of the boy’s death.
“Little Tommy would still be alive,” Norinsberg said, “if these defendants had done their jobs properly.”