More answers are needed in the Thomas Valva case
The most searing lesson from the death of Thomas Valva is that we can never turn away from the suffering of abused and neglected children.
A faceless bureaucracy failed him just as it had in 2008 for Jewell Ward, Michael Demesyeux and Innocent Demesyeux, Jr. in Nassau County. And for Nixzmary Brown in Brooklyn in 2006 and Lisa Steinberg in Manhattan in 1987. The smiling faces in their photos disguised their personal horror. The family circumstances in each notorious case were different but there is one foundational truth: The social services agencies, and often the courts, knew something was wrong but did nothing about it.
The excuses echo one another: Frontline social workers are juggling too many cases, another government entity failed to ring the alarm, the abusing parents fooled us. With each case, elected officials promise reforms and changes are made. The parents who killed their children are sent to prison or confined or treated for their mental illness. Lawsuits are filed and usually settled, depriving the public a look behind the veil of confidentiality that blocks us from holding accountable those who made mistakes and making needed remedies.
Justyna Zubko-Valva, the mother of Thomas, was in a bitter divorce with his father when she lost custody of Thomas and his brothers in 2017 to Michael Valva and his then-fiance Angela Pollina. Zubko-Valva has filed a $200 million civil suit against Suffolk County, the East Moriches school district and others. In an October ruling allowing the case to move forward, U.S. District Court Judge Edward Korman wrote, “While the barbaric acts of Mr. Valva and Ms. Pollina are directly responsible for Tommy’s death, there is an institutional actor that is almost as culpable.”
SOME CHANGES MADE
Suffolk’s legislature took a step forward in June 2020 by passing the CPS Transformation Act, signed by County Executive Steve Bellone. The state Office of Children and Family Services reviewed the Valva file and gave the county Department of Social Services 13 recommendations, which officials say were instituted. Now, instead of one supervisor for eight to 10 caseworkers, the ratio is one supervisor, one assistant supervisor and five caseworkers on a team. Police and Child Protective Services now will share information. Caseworkers got new training to not automatically defer to those better able to game the system like lawyer Joel Steinberg or former NYPD member Michael Valva.
Suffolk CPS has about 1,480 open cases, most involving neglect caused by poverty, homelessness, or poor parenting skills. Now, the most difficult cases are supposed to be bumped to a more experienced CPS unit. To remedy one of the most enraging aspects of the Valva case, the lack of an urgent response to worried calls by teachers and school nurses, the caseworker or a supervisor must contact these professionals directly and continue with frequent follow-ups.
Hiring more caseworkers is a problem. No names are left on the Civil Service list for social workers and few signed up for the January exam. COVID-19 spurred more retirements. The salary of a CPS worker has been raised $8,000 to $52,000 but the job market for social workers is strong. Recruiting is so difficult that there is now a waiver of the testing requirement for one year.
GRAND JURY NEEDED
Shortly after Thomas Valva’s death, then-Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini said he would empanel a special grand jury to evaluate testimony and evidence to assess what went wrong and what should change. But the COVID shutdown hit a few weeks later in 2020 and Sini lost his reelection bid. Successor Ray Tierney’s priority, understandably, was the criminal trials against Michael Valva and Pollina. After the latter verdict, Tierney said his office “will continue to look at and try to learn lessons from what happened in this case, and to take steps to make sure that something like this never, ever again happens in Suffolk County.” But Tierney declines to say whether he will seek a special report.
This is no time for timidity. As Pollina jury forewoman Jeanine Salvaggio, a nurse, told Newsday after the verdict, “This case really brought to light how poorly CPS is functioning. Something needs to change in that aspect big time.”
The DA’s office has a big case file and attorneys well versed in its complex facts. If a special grand jury finds fixes to the system have been made, the public may be reassured. If the fixes are lacking, it would report what else can be done. This also could be the case that finally prompts a mandatory Office of Court Administration review of Family Court proceedings where a custody decision results in the death of a child.
Thomas Valva shamefully and inexplicably fell through the cracks of a bureaucracy. Until we document all that went wrong, we can’t rest believing that we have done enough. It’s time to demand more, for we know now we can’t trust that others will take care of the problem.
MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.