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State Office of Children and Family Services creates team to review child deaths

The state has created a statewide Child Fatality Review Team to examine child deaths and develop strategies to prevent them, officials said.

The team will be comprised of multiple state agency and local professionals from disciplines including public health, child protective services, law enforcement and education, according to a news release Thursday from the state Office of Children and Family Services.

OCFS established the statewide team to build upon the work of the 19 county and regional CFRTs, officials said. When a child fatality occurs, these local child fatality review teams examine the events leading up to the death, review any case files to check on any preventive services that were in place or should have been employed, officials said.

“This dedicated team will work to prevent the heartbreaking tragedy of a child fatality caused by errors or from abuse and neglect,” said OCFS Commissioner Sheila J. Poole. “The CFRT will dig deeply to identify the most effective means of prevention and best practices, and will work collaboratively to establish them in statewide child welfare policy and practice.”

The creation of the team — which has been in the works since September, OCFS officials said — comes in the wake of the Jan. 17 death of Thomas Valva, 8, a third-grader at East Moriches Elementary School.. Authorities say Thomas, who was on the autism spectrum, died of hypothermia after being punished by having to stay overnight in a freezing garage. His father, Michael Valva, 40, and his fiancee, Angela Pollina, 42, have been charged with second-degree murder and endangering the welfare of a child. Both have pleaded not guilty and are being held without bail.

Suffolk County Child Protective Services had a long history with the Valva family, and the boy's mother, Justyna Zubko-Valva, has criticized the agency for not doing enough to address her concerns that Thomas was being abused by Valva, her estranged husband.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has formed two committees to review the handling of the case. Also, the county agency and the OCFS are doing their own reviews.

The statewide CFRT members will work with their regional and local counterparts to better understand why child fatalities occur and how to prevent them, officials said. 

“New York State invests heavily in preventive services for families,” said OCFS Deputy Commissioner for Child Welfare and Community Services Lisa Ghartey Ogundimu. “This team will, for the first time, bring child fatality investigators from across the state together to identify systemic issues and make recommendations on policies, practices and programs that promote child health, safety and well-being.”

The statewide CFRT will meet quarterly and identify initiatives to promote locally and across the state to prevent child deaths.

State & Region