Ignored pleas for help and closed cases: How the system failed Thomas Valva
The New York Daily News - 2/2/2020
Whatever small measure of warmth little Thomas Valva enjoyed in his brief and brutal lifetime disappeared in the two ugly years before his death in a freezing Long Island garage.
Records of repeated abuse complaints obtained by the Daily News after the autistic 8-year-old’s heartbreaking death two weeks ago showed some 20 calls from the child’s teachers to the state abuse hotline in 2018-19, when Thomas was living with his accused killers: His father, NYPD Officer Michael Valva, and the cop’s fiancee Angela Pollina.
The repeated allegations of neglect and mistreatment from teachers in East Moriches also involved the dead boy’s 10-year-old autistic brother Anthony, with reports that the boys missed school for two and three days at a time; that they showed signs of physical abuse, including a black eye in one case; and often arrived at school hungry and unfed.
“Anthony and Thomas have stated they were not allowed to eat breakfast because they did not use their manners,” wrote Nicole Papa, a special education teacher at East Moriches Elementary School, in a letter filed in court. “Both boys were coming into school with visible dirt on their bodies for days in a row.”
In another instance, the boys arrived carrying urine-soaked backpacks. Yet Suffolk County authorities never removed the two siblings from the toxic and ultimately lethal Center Moriches home where they were left to fend for themselves.
“This is fraud across the board," charged Wieslaw von Walawender, an advocate for the slain child’s mother Justyna Zubko-Valva. “The case is about criminal fraud, collusion, corruption and cover-up.”
Prosecutors already revealed the two boys were forced to sleep on the concrete floor of the family’s unheated garage, even as temperatures dropped into the teens last month. Thomas’ body temperature at the time was death was recorded at 76 degrees, with his father heard declaring “boo f---ing hoo” about his dying son on an audio recording, authorities said.
Michael Valva, 40, and Pollina, 42, remain jailed without bail on murder charges following their Jan. 24 arrests.
The years before Thomas’ death were rife with warning signs of the tragedy ahead, the records show. The child’s parents were involved in a contentious divorce battle starting in 2015, with the couple calling the Nassau County police 21 times to report each other on everything from visitation disputes to petty larceny, officials said.
In July 2016, the boys’ city correction officer mother Zubko-Valva reported abuse of her three children by her transit cop husband. The Nassau County Police Department’s Special Victims Unit and Nassau County Child Protective Services investigated the claims; after medical evaluations and interviews with the children, both units found no evidence to support the allegations, officials said.
“The CPS workers would claim I have mental illness, that I’m drinking, that I have erratic behavior," the devastated mother said. "They did not have any evidence of this.”
Zubko-Valva said she passed every clearance to get her job. "I went through the most detailed evaluation. I was a person without mental illness, able to perform the job without any restrictions or concerns. They were just biased claims without any medical proof.”
In September 2017, Judge Hope Zimmerman granted Michael Valva temporary custody of all three boys, and issued a six-month order of protection against his estranged wife, barring her from even seeing the children.
“He’s going to kill my kids,” the distraught mother said on the night of the ruling in a phone call to Kimberley Berens, who ran an organization specializing in educating autistic kids before they enroll in regular schools. Both Anthony and Thomas attended her Fit Learning school, and the outraged Berens fired off a letter to the judge.
No one with the courts or CPS responded.
“What was mind-blowing was she was the most devoted mother,” Berens told The News. “I worked with Anthony for two years and saw Justyna every day. She didn’t neglect a single aspect about those boys, but I didn’t see Valva at the school at all."
Berens believes Michael Valva’s main motive in seeking custody was financial. “I think it was about the money,” she said. “I firmly believe he sought the kids because he did not want to pay child support or pay her alimony.”
Dr. Beryl Nightingale, a neuropsychologist who examined both Anthony and Thomas, offered a similar endorsement of the mother: “(Zubko-Valva) always puts the needs of her children at the forefront of her thoughts and practices.” And the boys’ pediatrician, Dr. Mark L’Ashley, wrote that she has “kept excellent care of the children.”
When the boys’ father got custody, he immediately pulled Anthony out of Fit Learning with a curt phone message to Berens and put him in a regular school without any transitional training or much concern.
Zubko-Valva wrote in court papers that she filed her first child neglect complaint in Suffolk County via the state hotline on Nov. 7, 2017, alleging her husband and Pollina abused her kids physically and emotionally, starved them and tried to alienate them from her. She claims the complaint was closed two days later with no investigation.
On Jan. 16, 2019, a school official filed a complaint with Child Protective Services against Pollina and Michael Valva, with five different caseworkers involved in the investigation.
“Thomas, age 7, presented a right, swollen black eye today that he didn’t have within the past two days," the caller said. "There is a history of physical abuse in the home involving Thomas so his black eye is suspicious due to conflicting explanations and conflicting time frames.”
Both Thomas and Anthony Valva were listed as “maltreated,” the records show. The paperwork indicates the allegations included inadequate guardianship, emotional neglect, inadequate food clothing and shelter, and inflicting lacerations, bruises and welts on Thomas.
Yet the CPS caseworkers concluded the case did "not rise to the level of immediate or impending danger of serious harm. No controlling interventions are necessary at this time.” The report did note that while Michael Valva denied using any physical punishment in the home, there was an “indicated history of using excessive corporal punishment in the past.”
The report said the father claimed to caseworkers that Anthony told him the black eye came from a playground mishap. And yet, barely a month later on Feb. 27, 2019, another deeply disturbing complaint was filed against him and Pollina.
“Anthony now nine has been coming to school with his backpack soaked in urine," the caller declared. "Anthony has been staying in the garage and is not allowed in his room due to him urinating in his bed. As a result of the child being soaked in urine, he has a foul odor and he is extremely cold. (Pollina and Valva) failed to adequately address the concern.”
On March 12, 2019, Thomas and Anthony were once again reported as being mistreated by their dad and Pollina for removing him from the school for autistic kids. “Anthony began yelling in class and as a result the behavioral outbursts are having a negative impact on his emotional well-being,” the report said.
But case workers again concluded there was no “immediate or impending danger."
On May 13, 2019, another caller reported Michael Valva for flinging a book bag at Thomas, leaving a bump and a welt on the boy’s forehead. The veteran cop claimed Anthony threw the back pack at Thomas, but refused to let the two boys be interviewed at school, where they might have felt freer to speak, or to allow the other children in the home to be interviewed.
The case was closed as “unfounded.”
The boys’ mom, Zubko-Valva, said she also filed a complaint against her husband with the NYPD. That probe was closed as unfounded on Aug. 5, 2019, the same day that the state Office of Children and Family Services also closed a case of “suspected child abuse or maltreatment,” the records show.
On Dec. 31, 2019, von Walawender wrote a letter to Vito Caruso, a senior administrative judge with the Office of Court Administration, decrying Zimmerman’s custody decision and the handling of the case by subsequent judges.
Von Walawender alleged the boys had been “starved, kept in (a) cold garage without heat in winter, beaten up, sent to school wearing diapers, dirty.” It’s not clear what if anything Caruso did with the complaint.
“This is a heartbreaking tragedy and the protection of all children is a great responsibility which we take very seriously, said Christine Geed, spokeswoman for the Nassau County Department of Social Services. "We offer our deepest condolences to the families.”
A spokesman for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said there were safeguards in place in the home: court-ordered home supervision for one year, orders of protection for the parents to refrain from harmful behaviors towards the children and mandated participation in a positive parenting program
Earlier this week, the county said it will conduct an internal review of the handling of the child welfare case.
Suffolk County police declined to comment.
“Maybe 8 or 9 days before Thomas’s death I begged CPS not to close Thomas’ case. Her excuse was she has another emergency case, she has to go, it seemed she thought that my allegations were ridiculous,” his heartbroken mother said.
Berens said there’s enough blame to go around in this case.
“The real starting point is how did this woman lose custody based on allegations that could have easily been refuted," said Berens. "There are so many people who are culpable.”
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