Justyna Zubko-Valva came into St. Elizabeth of Hungary Roman Catholic church on Long Island with the three sons to whom she had by numerous accounts been a heroically loving and selfless mother, without equal.
One of the boys, 8-year-old Thomas, was in a coffin.
His mother’s boundless devotion had not been able to save him from an incompetent, ultimately indifferent, and effectively misogynistic child welfare system. Thomas and his brothers had been in the custody of a monstrous father who is alleged to have consigned him overnight to an unheated garage. The father, Michael Valva, is said by prosecutors to have then laughed as Thomas repeatedly pitched face-first onto the concrete while in the fatal stages of hypothermia.
All the mother could do now was keep a hand on the pall-covered casket as it was slowly rolled toward the altar. The older boy, 10-year-old Anthony, was at her side, his expression solemn as he joined in with his own small hand. Andrew, age 6, followed with his maternal grandmother.
The funeral Mass began with a blessing from Bishop Andrzej Jerzy Zglejszewski, who had been a parish priest when he married Justyna Zubko and Michael Valva back in 2005. She was a mathematics student who had come to New York from her native Poland to study English. He was a rookie New York City police officer. They had been introduced by friends. The first two of their three children, Thomas and Anthony, were autisic. Their father is said to have done next to nothing to help raise them.
Anthony now stepped up to the lectern and gave the first reading. He had made remarkable progress before his father is said to have yanked him from the specialized learning program his mother had enrolled him in. He read from the scripture clearly and unhesitatingly, precociously steady at such a moment before so many people.
“The word of the Lord,” he said with what sounded like the voice of the Lord if you believe that holiness resides in children.
When the bishop spoke, he demonstrated that there are people who completely deserve the title and respect. He marveled aloud at the many people who had been deeply touched by a story that would touch them even deeper if they knew all the facts.
“A little boy who in these past few days became a giant,” the bishop said. “This death, this passing, cannot be forgotten. We have to do something about it.”
He was issuing a call to action, to do what should have already been done.
“Why does it take another tragedy, the death of an innocent child to shake us up?” he said. “Where and how are we going to learn our lesson? How many children will have the same fate?”
He offered a guiding truth.
“Children are given to us as a gift to be taken care off,” he said. “They are the future of humanity. Not to be punished. They are to be cherished.”
The bishop gazed at the child-sized coffin that marked a bigger than adult-sized loss.
“His name was Thomas. You saw his smile… This little boy just wanting to be loved… He was a gift.”
The bishop caught himself.
“I’m sorry. He is a gift… A gift and a challenge to us. What happened? What have we done? We’ve lost our opportunity again.”
He went on, “Let’s be honest, our system failed him. Our legal and social system failed him.”
But the bishop was not putting the blame on just the judges and the folks in the child welfare system who failed to heed repeated warnings that the Valva boys were in dire danger in the custody of their father.
“We make our system,” the bishop noted. “We elect our officials… We failed him.”
The bishop asked the question we should all be posing.
“What happened? What went wrong?”
He continued, “Perhaps this is the moment to do something about it, to change our lives, to change our system.”
The bishop then spoke tenderly to the child in the coffin.
“Thomas, little boy, thank you for the gift of your life,” he said. “And thank you for the challenge you have made for all of us.”
He went on.
“You have made the ultimate sacrifice… Perhaps, because of you, other children will survive.”
The bishop spoke of what he figured was Thomas’ reward on high.
“A warm room.”
The bishop made a request of the little boy.
“Please pray for us,” the bishop said. “You can pray for us in a place that is warm—heaven.”
At the Sign of Peace, the mother was embraced by Dr. Kim Berens, a behavioral psychologist who co-founded FIT Learning, an individualized tutoring center with a team approach, specializing in children with autism and associated language and learning disabilities. The two had first met in 2015, when Zubko-Valva brought Anthony in to be evaluated, saying he had been floundering in a traditional school setting.
FIT determined he was in need of its special skill and attention. A panel of doctors agreed, and the insurance company consented to cover it. The hitch was that FIT only had an opening in its Manhattan center. Zubko-Valva was not to be deterred and began commuting every day from her Long Island home, even as she was also raising an autistic 3-year-old and a new baby. She also attended regular planning meetings.
“Strategizing, troubleshooting,” Berens said.
Zubko-Valva often would come in early or stay late for parent training and an update on her son’s progress.
“She was tireless in her effort to ensure he was getting effective treatment,” Berens told The Daily Beast. “I’ve been doing this for over 20 years and she is one of the most loving, caring, devoted mothers I’ve ever met.”
Zubko-Valva would often have her other children with her.
“They’d be climbing all over her and kissing her,” Berens recalled. “The person you see, that loving, kind woman, is who she is.”
And with all she had to do with the other kids, Zubko-Valva still managed to make her son Anthony a notable lunch.
“It was like a four-course meal in a lunch box every single day,” Berens said. “It was these tremendous four-course meals.”
Berens saw absolutely no indication that the boys were abused by their mother.
“Not the slightest shred,” Berens said.
The father was never there, even though he worked in the city and as a cop could have come by FIT without paying so much as the subway fare.
“The only times I interacted with Mike was about the bills,” Berens said. “He didn’t want to make the co-pays.”
Then, on the second to last day of 2015, Michael Valva filed for divorce, saying that the marriage had “fallen apart.” Justyna Zubko-Valva countered with well-founded claims backed by texts that he had been serially unfaithful. He appeared to brag in a message about having oral sex with four women simultaneously. He on one occasion is said to have enlisted the help of fellow officers after locking the keys inside an NYPD radio car while at an assignation.
When her husband was home, Zubko-Valva said, he would announce that he was not a “slave” if she asked him to do even so minor a household chore as taking out the garbage. She reported that he would spew profanities at her in front of the children, once pointing his service weapon at her.
Court records show that after he moved out, he often failed to make even modest support payments, leaving her all but penniless. She continued to take Anthony to FIT while she attended a training course to become a New York City corrections officer. She had chosen what may be the toughest job in the city because along with a paycheck it offered the same insurance plan that her husband had with the NYPD and would ensure that the boys could continue to take part in their special needs programs.
“That woman became a corrections officer for the sole reason to maintain the medical insurance to preserve the services her children needed,” Berens said.
On what would prove to be Anthony’s last session at FIT, he was continuing to make great progress and seemed as delighted as ever to be there.
“Happy, hugging, kissing, see you tomorrow, high-fiving, buddy,” Berens remembered.
But he never returned. A distraught Zubko-Valva called Brenes to say that her estranged husband had secured full custody of the boys, enlisting the Nassau County police to assist him in taking them. She had not even been able to say goodbye to Thomas, as the boy had been coming home on the school bus when his father whisked him away. She spoke not of herself, only of the welfare of her children.
“I just can’t emphasize enough the amazing human being Justyna is,” Berens said.
The father had announced plans just to stick the boys in a traditional school. Berens was alarmed and made repeated calls to warn the father that such a sudden transition could trigger a serious setback.
“Not once did Mike respond to any of my phone calls,” Berens said. “I kept calling, saying, ‘Please let me speak to the school district.’”
A school official did finally contact her and suggested that the mother was unstable.
In the meantime, Anthony had been suddenly stuck in school, as had Tommy, who had also been in a special needs program where Zubko-Valva had also proven herself a very special mom.
Where the boys had always been well scrubbed and groomed, and had long been potty-trained, they now came to school dirty and wearing pull-up diapers. Their clothes were sometimes wet with urine.
And where they once enjoyed fabulous four-course lunches, they now came with a half of a Nutella sandwich, and hungry from having no breakfast and sometimes no dinner as punishment. A teacher reported seeing a famished Thomas eating “crumbs off the floor and out of the garbage.” Anthony was seen snatching food off desks and off the floor, stuffing it into his mouth as fast as he was able.
The school noted that the boys were losing weight, but the father blamed it on “increased activity.” He also blamed the aftereffects of supposed abuse suffered while living with the mother. That seems to have been part of the father’s larger fabrication that Zubko-Valva was an unfit and unstable mom.
The mother still had periodic visitation with the boys and was stunned when they started saying that they hated her. She was desperate enough that she contrived to record the boys when they were with their father. She tweeted a recording of the father leading the boys in such chants as “We love Mommy!… Mommy hits us!... We love daddy!”
When Thomas was found to have serious bruising on his bottom that he told the school nurse had been inflicted by his father, the school notified Suffolk County Child Protective Services (CPS). The agency had also received a report from an unnamed caller stating all three Valva boys were suffering abuse at the father’s home that included being forced to sleep in the unheated garage.
After the father was charged in Family Court with child abuse, a different unnamed caller spoke to CPS about the mother. She was also charged with child abuse. The allegations—which would later be ruled unfounded—included hitting the children.
The father admitted to the charges and was subjected to a one-year order of protection that essentially told him to keep his hands off the boys. He also took a parenting course that seemed to have little effect.
But Zubko-Valva contested the charges against her on the grounds that they were not true. The boys were left in the custody of the admitted child abuser while a series of hearings were conducted on the allegations against the mother. She did not see her boys for nearly two years as they continued to forage for food on the floor and in the garbage at school. A school report says Anthony came to school one day with a urine-soaked backpack.
In the meantime, the father apparently told anybody who would listen that his wife was mentally unbalanced and paranoid. He further sought to strengthen the case against the mother by suggesting that she had abused Anthony by taking him out of a traditional school.
If CPS investigators had bothered to investigate, they would have contacted Berens as well as Kim Taylor, the speech pathologist with whom Thomas had made great progress. They would have been able to present detailed reports documenting Anthony’s particular needs and remarkable progress, along with the mother’s wholehearted involvement. Berens and Taylor also would have informed CPS that Zubko-Valva was the fittest of mothers in even the most difficult circumstances.
“Not once did they investigate the legitimacy of Mike’s claims by actually talking to the experts involved in these children’s lives,” Berens said. “Never, not once has a single CPS worker reached out to interview me about my perspective about this. How could they not be contacting me?”
Berens also could have explained to the CPS investigators why the boys might say that their mother hit them. Anthony had been observed to have echolalia, a condition related to his autism in which a child parrots part of what is said to him. He might respond to a leading question such as ”Does mommy hit you?” with, “Mommy hit you,” which a CPS worker might register as “Mommy hit me.”
“It is highly likely an untrained, unqualified CPS worker would ask a leading question and get partial parroting,” Berens said.
Even the father had said Thomas tended to follow Anthony’s lead. And Andrew would understandably go along with what his two older brothers were saying at their father’s repeated prompting.
A CPS lawyer did hear Berens’ views when she testified in Family Court at Zubko-Valva’s request. The CPS lawyer gave Berens the impression the lawyer had bought the father’s mantra that the mother was unstable.
“When you’ve destroyed her life, of course she’s destitute,” Berens noted.
Even so, the court finally ruled after two years that the child abuse allegations against Zubko-Valva were unfounded. But the case took an added Kafkaesque twist when the judge said he could not just let her see her children without supervision after such a long time.
Zubko-Valva was by then understandably untrusting. She apparently feared the supervision might be some kind of trap, a way to revive the charges against her. She refused and had still not seen her children when she was awakened by the arrival of somebody at her front door at 1:37 a.m. on Jan. 18.
Alarmed, she called 911 and asked for the police to be sent to her house. She was told the police were already there. She was still scared enough to call a Polish friend. She kept him on the phone as she answered the door. The friend could hear her cry of searing pain and grief when she was informed that one of her boys had died on the morning of Jan. 17.
Zubko-Valva did not learn the full circumstances of Thomas’ death for several days. The father and his girlfriend were arrested for murder. A surveillance system in his house is said to have recorded him mocking Thomas after the girlfriend asked why the boy kept falling after a night in the garage in 19-degree weather.
“Because he’s cold,” the father allegedly said. “Boo f–king hoo.”
That was the man deemed the more fit parent by CPS and the courts for over two years. The parent deemed unfit was the woman widely viewed as a magnificent mom.
On Wednesday, Zubko-Valva was as strong as ever at the Mangano Funeral Home on Long Island, which donated its services. She greeted each of the hundreds of mourners who filed past the open white coffin where Thomas lay in a white suit and white shoes in which he would never take a step. A good many people brought toys for the other boys, who continued to be boys. Andrew was busy playing with an outsized teddy bear when the time came to leave.
“Andrew, let’s go!” Anthony called.
“One sec!” Andrew said,
After a 6-year-old’s very long second, he finally joined Anthony. They paused by the casket and gazed at the brother who had suffered a fate that could have been theirs.
In the morning, the boys were in the church with their mother as the bishop gave a call to action. Both surviving boys had a hand on the coffin as it was rolled back out. Anthony had a knit cap against the cold, but it was eight degrees warmer outside than it had been that fatal night in the garage, and the sun was out.
Behind them came Berens. Also, a contingent of uniformed corrections officers. They serve with Zubko-Valva, who took the toughest job in the city out of devotion that all the doubters would have seen if they had bothered to look.
The mother proceeded to the cemetery with her three boys. She buried one. The rest of us are left with a challenge.