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First, figure out what happened

A picture of Thomas Valva at St. John

A picture of Thomas Valva at St. John the Evangelist R.C. Church in Center Moricnes on Monday, Jan. 27, 2020. Credit: James Carbone

The tragic death of Thomas Valva is a complex story. The 8-year-old, who had autism, died from hypothermia after sleeping on the bare concrete floor of the unheated garage in the family’s Center Moriches home as the temperature plunged to 19 degrees.

Investigations have now exposed dozens of calls to Suffolk County Child Protective Services and the Suffolk and Nassau police departments from the boy’s mother and his teachers, alleging he was being abused.

Finding out why he was allowed to die despite repeated reports of abuse to authorities has to be a priority. Understanding how the system and the people tasked with operating it are at fault is crucial. Developing an understanding of precisely what needs to be remedied should come before passing new laws. What’s needed to reach that understanding is the invoking of a state law that allows the convening of a “special” grand jury. Its purpose is not to bring criminal charges against individuals but to investigate systemic failures, and suggest fixes.

The two Suffolk County panels formed to look at the issue, while valuable, can’t conduct the intense probe needed to chart a path forward.

In response to Valva’s death and those commissions’ recommendations, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone Wednesday proposed six new laws. They would mandate:

  • When CPS receives three allegations on one case, a supervisor must review it.
  • Parents or guardians being investigated must certify there is no surveillance equipment in use while the caseworker is visiting.
  • Average CPS worker caseloads cannot exceed 12 cases, and no caseworker can have more than 15.
  • CPS caseloads and staffing levels would be posted on a county website.
  • New training rules would be set for CPS caseworkers.
  • A specialized CPS unit would be created for kids with special needs.

There may be nothing wrong with these bills, but the rush to adopt them before a thorough investigation clarifies what went wrong risks fooling the public into thinking the mistakes were addressed. Teachers believed Thomas and his 10-year-old brother, Anthony, were abused by his father, Michael Valva, and his father’s girlfriend, Angela Pollina. Those teachers repeatedly contacted CPS to say the Valva children came to school dirty, hungry and bruised.

CPS repeatedly decided the charges were unfounded and did little or nothing to address them.

The father and the boy’s mother, Justyna Zubko-Valva, were locked in a bitter divorce-and-custody battle that may have colored how authorities reacted. The father’s job as an NYPD transit officer, the fact that he was granted custody and the mother’s difficulty working with authorities may have complicated the situation. But there were so many red flags here, including 33 calls to 911 between 2015 and 2019, that demand answers.

Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini should impanel a special grand jury to find out how the bureaucracy failed Valva and propose solutions, a move he says he is considering. If Sini does not do so, and expeditiously, the governor should give the probe to another jurisdiction.

Taking the right action is what matters most. And to do that, we first must understand what’s wrong.

 — The editorial board

This editorial has been updated from its original version.