Before former NYPD officer Michael Valva’s 2022 conviction for murdering his 8-year-old son Thomas, he spent years successfully fighting off his ex-wife’s requests for custody. From 2017 until the boy’s death in January 2020, the Suffolk County Family Court system repeatedly found that Michael Valva was the appropriate custodial parent despite numerous incidents of abuse and neglect documented by physicians and by the children’s mother, Justyna Zubko-Valva. Over and over, even as Valva beat and starved his children, Child Protective Services and Family Court judges agreed with his contention that his ex-wife was the unstable parent — based not on her treatment of her children, but on her courtroom behavior alone.
Sadly, this case is not exceptional. As a psychologist specializing in conflict and a member of Gov. Kathy Hochul’s blue ribbon commission on reforming child custody evaluations, I’ve routinely seen cases where authorities refused to believe the protective parent.
Court records are typically protected. However, data from appeals cases, investigative journalism and families’ detailed accounts show this is a systemic problem in the court system. The data show that every child left in the custody of an abusive parent is at great risk for being harmed and even murdered. Experts estimate that New York State courts annually award hundreds of children to abusive parents, and that each year five of these children on average are murdered by the custodial parent. This reflects not only an underfunded and overwhelmed system, but also a lack of understanding about the real origin of abuse.
The Valva case is typical of these highly divisive cases, in which the abuser appears to the court to be reasonable and competent, filled with righteous anger, and burdened with the responsibility of managing an unstable partner. The other parent, typically a victim of their partner’s abuse, comes across as highly dependent and emotionally overwhelmed. The abuser’s righteous anger (abusers are often shaking with rage as they always believe they are the victim) has the impact of a tornado on a small town, disorienting everyone involved. The actual victim’s accusations in these cases are often not believed, resulting in the child being taken away from the primary caretaker and the person to whom the child is most attached.
Family Court repeatedly mistakes abuse for mere “he said-she said” disputes, or simple polarization. Tragically, custody decisions are often shaped by the abuser’s powerful if unconscious projections in which they accuse others of feelings and behavior that they themselves are experiencing — creating those tragedies in which the abuser is viewed as the victim. While this dynamic is at the heart of most custody conflicts, it is often true of other conflicts that appear merely “polarized” as well. Upon examination, many such conflicts involve one-sided abuse.
Awareness of this dynamic is the first step in limiting its destructiveness. Hochul has taken the groundbreaking step of turning this scientific finding into reality for many families, signing into law in 2022 a bill that mandates training in abuse and this powerful dynamic for forensic evaluators charged with analyzing custody cases. The new law is a positive and encouraging sign that will allow Family Court decisions to reflect a fundamental value and norm of society: Abusers must not be given custody of children. Child custody policies and decisions that reflect that principle should have a significant ripple effect on society and will bring a greater understanding of all that is entailed in a “polarized” conflict.
This guest essay reflects the views of Robin M. Lynch, a psychologist and former chair of the New York State Psychological Association's Child Custody Evaluation Committee.