It’s happened again. Another child is dead after being removed from a loving mother and placed with an abusive father. Another child is dead after more than 20 reports from school officials concerned about his treatment at home. Another child is dead after a judge and child protection workers made the wrong decisions over and over again.
On January 17, as reported by Newsday and other media outlets, police responded to a 911 call at the home of NYPD Officer Michael Valva and his fiancee Angela Pollina in East Moriches, Long Island. The caller stated that eight-year-old Thomas Valva, who had autism, had fallen in the driveway. Police soon learned that there was no fall in the driveway. The night before he died, Thomas and his brother were forced to sleep on the concrete floor of their family’s unheated garage, while outside temperatures fell to 19 degrees, Thomas’ body temperature was 76 degrees at the time of his death in the hospital. A chilling recording obtained by the police records the father mocking his dying son, who repeatedly fell when trying to walk, jeering that he was”cold, boo-[expletive]-hoo.” Valva and Pollina were arrested and charged with second-degree murder, among other crimes. They have pleaded not guilty and are being held without bail.
The facts stated above are clear, but the chronology below had to be pieced together from multiple articles in the media, each containing part of the puzzle. Many questions still remain.
The Family Court Places Thomas in Harm’s Way
A decision by Nassau County Supreme Court Judge Hope Schwartz Zimmerman in the divorce case between Thomas’ parents set the stage for the tragedy. On September 17, 2017, she took Thomas and his two brothers away from their mother, Justyna Zubko-Valva, and placed them with their abusive father and his fiancee, Angela Pollina, who also had three girls. Based on court records obtained by Eyewitness News reporter Kristin Thorne, the judge had ordered forensic evaluations of both parents, a normal procedure in a custody case. But Justina Zubko-Valva, Thomas’ mother, refused to be interviewed by the psychologist without being able to tape the session. Due to the “sensitive nature of the testing materials,” the evaluator refused this request and the evaluation was not done.
It is not clear why Zubka-Valva insisted on a videotape of the interview, but she has indicated on Twitter and elsewhere her conviction that there was a conspiracy against her. She and her children paid a high price for her choice. The judge told the court, according to the court papers obtained by Eyewitness News, that “There’s certain things that have to be done in terms of preparing this case for trial … and until that happens I can’t have the trial. So I’m awarding temporary, temporary custody of the children to the father.” The Judge’s reasoning is unclear from the quotes provided by Eyewitness News, but the most plausible explanation is that she gave custody to Valva in order to pressure Zubko-Valva to submit to the evaluation. If that was her goal, it was certainly improper (as children should never be treated as tools to gain a parent’s compliance), and it certainly did not achieve its intended effect.
Ms. Zubko-Valva was by most accounts a devoted mother. She trekked daily to Manhattan to bring her autistic sons to a special school. Struggling to provide for her children with minimal support from Mr. Valva after their separation, she had taken a job as a correctional officer to make ends meet and keep them on the same health insurance plan as they had before. Dr. Kim Berens, a behavioral psychologist who worked with the boys told the Daily Beast that Ms. Valva “one of the one of the most loving, caring, devoted mothers I’ve ever met.” The children’s pediatrician and the neuropsychiatrist who examined both boys also praised Ms. Valva. Judge Zimmerman never got to hear from them thanks to Ms. Zubko-Valva’s own refusal to submit to the court-ordered evaluation.
CPS Seals Thomas’ Fate
The decision to place Thomas with his father opened the door to his murder, But it was the egregious failure of Nassau County Child Protective Services (CPS) over the succeeding two years that sealed Thomas’ fate. After Valva and Pollina gained custody of the boys, they were apparently able to coach them to accuse their mother of abuse. By October 2017, Zubko-Valva was being investigated for child abuse. It appears that CPS actually substantiated the trumped-up charges and brought her to “trial”1 for abuse. The charges were dismissed in April 2018. Thus, the “temporary, temporary” custody stretched to become a long-term arrangement as Ms Zubko-Valva was apparently denied even visitation with her children once the abuse charges were filed or substantiated by CPS.
In the meantime, calls began streaming in from the boys’ school public school, where Valva had moved them from their special program in Manhattan immediately upon gaining custody. The New York Daily News obtained records of “some 20 calls” from Thomas’s teachers while he was living with Valva and Pollina. The calls reported that Thomas and his brother Anthony, who is also autistic, missed school for two or three days at a time, showed signs of physical abuse, and often arrived in school hungry and dirty.
The Daily News found that at least one abuse allegation (that Thomas had a black eye) was substantiated against Valva and Pollina but that CPS concluded that it did “not rise to the level of immediate or impending danger of serious harm. No controlling interventions are necessary at this time.” Another report alleged that Anthony had been coming to school with his backpack soaked in urine. “As a result of the child being soaked in urine, he has a foul odor and he is extremely cold,” the report continued.
Another call reported that Thomas had a welt on his forehead caused when Michael Valva threw a backpack at him. The report continues that Valva “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.” However, the New York State Child Protective Services Manual states that if CPS is refused access to the home or to any child in the household “the CPS worker, in consultation with a CPS supervisor, must assess within 24 hours of the refusal whether it is necessary to seek a court order to obtain access.” Allowing an abusive parent to deny access to his children effectively neutralizes CPS’s ability to investigate. Why did CPS fail to follow its own procedures?
At least one allegation apparently resulted in CPS monitoring Valva for a year under a court order that also required him to take parenting classes and “refrain from harmful activities,” according to Newsday. This order was apparently imposed by Suffolk County family court judge, Bernard Cheng, who was also presiding over the child abuse trial of Zubko-Valva, according to the Daily News. (The divorce case with Judge Zimmerman was in Nassau County Supreme Court). But the case closed and the children were left to their fate. It appears that Judge Cheng sensed that something was badly wrong in the Valva household but felt his hands were tied. The Daily News cites the Judge expressing concern in February 2019 about several issues:
- Anthony arrived at an interview walking bent over at the waist and complaining his backside was sore. His school reported that he arrived with injuries so severe from beatings that officials needed to ice down his buttocks and upper thighs. Judge Cheng indicated that Anthony said that “his father told him to say he does not get hit at his house.”
- Ten-year-old Anthony had lost six pounds in one month, and Thomas gained just four pounds in the 12 months of 2018.
- Teachers at the boys’ school told investigators that the children could not concentrate due to hunger and were looking for food in garbage cans or off the floor.
- In his April 12 decision dismissing the charges against Ms. Zubko-Valva, the Judge stated that he found the father’s denials of abuse “less than credible,” since his testimony changed when he was asked for more detailed accounts.
But, despite expressing all of these serious concerns, the judge took no action to protect the boys. The attorney for CPS argued at the February hearing that the concerns brought up were “non-issues.” Judge Cheng disagreed with him, stating that the concerns were valid. He also stated, with more knowledge of child development than CPS, that “deterioration in [Anthony’s] level of functioning suggests that his needs are not being met.” But he said he had to rely on the opinions of CPS investigators. This statement is confusing to this former social worker who has more than once been overruled by a Family Court judge. It is hard to say what is more astonishing: that Judge Cheng was aware of so much credible evidence of abuse and did not order the removal of the children despite CPS’s opinion, or that CPS thought the children should be left in this lethal home.
Justyna Zubka-Valva has custody of her surviving two sons now. She was granted that custody by another judge at an emergency hearing following Thomas’ death. But it was too late for Thomas. Inquiries are underway into Judge Zimmerman’s conduct in the case as well as the actions of CPS.
Why were Thomas and his brothers not protected?
More information is necessary to make conclusions about why the system failed. The factors that affected the court case–Ms. Zubko-Valva’s intransigence and the Judge’s inappropriate response–may be specific to this one case. But widely-known systemic issues with CPS appear to have played into this tragedy.
High CPS Caseloads: As in many jurisdictions, Suffolk County CPS caseloads are too high, with the average caseload at 17.9 per worker at the beginning of 2019, declining to 12.4 by the end of the year, and several caseworker handling more than 30 cases a month. The Child Welfare League of America recommends that CPS workers carry no more than 12 cases at a time. In addition, Nassau County CPS workers complain that they spend too much time on paperwork instead of investigating allegations–a complaint that this former social worker heartily endorses.
Making it difficult to substantiate abuse: But the overwhelmed CPS explanation can only take us so far. The head of the union representing social workers told CBS-New York that workers did what they were supposed to do in Thomas’s case but their hands were tied. “You can’t remove a child from a parent without having clear cut evidence as supported by the law that will be upheld by the judicial system,” he said. It is hard to believe that CPS did not consider it had such evidence–and that makes one wonder if a policy of quelling such findings was being imposed from on high. A chilling comment by Jeanette Feingold, director of Suffolk County Child Protective Services illustrates the issue. At an emotional legislative hearing covered by Newsday, she said “We don’t want to take these children. We want to build these families…. We’re not there to rip families apart.” I’ve written before about the exaggerated emphasis on family preservation that has taken hold in most child welfare systems. But with the mother being the primary parent for most of her older children’s lives, it is hard to understand the preference by CPS for Mr. Valva over his wife.
The need for an independent review
Multiple reviews of judicial and agency conduct are underway, but they may never be available to the public. Or they may end up whitewashing official conduct, like the recent review of child welfare agency responsibility for the death of Noah Cuatro in Los Angeles. Needed is an independent agency such as the Inspector General for the Department of Children and Family Services in Illinois, which reviews such cases and publishes detailed summaries that are redacted to preserve the confidentiality of living children and innocent adults.
Some analysts say the focus on fatalities is not useful because they are atypical. I disagree. Fatalities and other extreme cases are the tip of the iceberg that is the total universe of abused children. For every fatality, we have no idea how many other children are living with pain and fear even though child welfare agencies or courts have been alerted. These same judges and social workers operating under the same laws and policies hold the fates of hundreds of other children in their hands every year.
A repeating story in New York
Moreover, this cases are not as atypical as one might think. Within two weeks of Thomas’ death, the deaths of two other little boys from abuse after being abandoned by the state made it to the pages of the New York Times. In New York City, Teshawn Watkins was arrested late in January for murdering his six-week old son, Kaseem, after video was found showing him smothering the infant with a pillow. Now New York City’s Administration on Children’s Services (ACS) is facing questions about why the infant was not protected despite his father’s known history of abuse. It turns out that not only was Watkins arrested twice for assaulting the baby’s mother, but he has been investigated four times for child abuse, including a broken leg suffered by one of his two other sons. The two older brothers (now ages 3 and 4) were actually placed in foster care until the police found no evidence of the infant’s abuse. Watkins is being held without bail on Riker’s Island, where ironically Justina Zubka-Valva is a correctional officer.
In the same week, the ACS’ failure to protect another little boy was on display: Rysheim Smith was convicted for the murder of six-year-old Zymere Perkins after ACS disregarded numerous reports that the little boy was repeatedly injured and in constant danger from his mother’s violent boyfriend. The case shocked the city in 2016 and led to a raft of reforms that apparently failed to protect tiny Kaseem. The New York Times reported on Smith’s conviction for killing Zymere on January 15, Thomas’ death on January 24, and baby Kaseem’s death on February 7. All of the articles were by different reporters. Nobody at the paper seems to be putting the pieces together to expose what appears to be a crisis of children abandoned by the state.
We need to pay attention to these egregious cases for at least two reasons. Only by finding out what went wrong in these cases can we know how to change policy and practice to prevent future tragedies. But we also need accountability. I’m tired of hearing that we don’t want to punish people or create a climate of fear. It’s not about punishment. It’s about removing people who should not have custody over children’s lives.
This post was updated on February 13, 2020.
- The term “trial” connotes what is called a “neglect trial,” not a criminal trial. ↩