A special boy with special needs, Thomas Valva was 2 going on 3 years old when he spoke his first words.
“‘Ball’ and ‘go,’” speech pathologist Kim Taylor told The Daily Beast on Monday. “So those were the first words with me and I believe to his mom, too. We were really thrilled with his progress.”
She remembered Thomas seemed equally pleased.
“The smiles! He was so happy, he really was,” Taylor remembered.
Taylor figured the remarkable progress was due at least in part to a remarkable presence.
“His mother,” Taylor said. “He was really, really loved.”
Now, just under six years later, Thomas lay in a funeral home and Taylor faced going to Friday’s wake. The boy’s father had somehow gotten custody of Thomas and kept it despite repeated warnings from the mother. And the words everybody remembered were the mocking ones police say his father uttered while the boy was dying from hypothermia.
“He keeps face-planting on the concrete,” the father, New York City Police Officer Michael Valva, said of Thomas, according to prosecutors.
The concrete was the floor of the unheated Long Island garage where detectives say Thomas’ father forced him to sleep without bedding as the temperature dropped to 19 degrees.
“You know why he’s falling,” the father’s live-in girlfriend, Angela Pollina, allegedly said.
“Because he’s cold,” the father allegedly replied. “Boo fucking hoo.”
As the whole country was horrified by those ghoulish utterances, Taylor was remembering those first syllables that were a testament to the boy’s mother. Taylor had worked with Thomas between the ages of 2 and 3 as part of New York State’s Early Intervention Program (EIP). She remembers that Thomas and his two brothers were blessed with an uncommonly loving and attentive mom.
“She was an amazing mother, she really was,” Taylor told The Daily Beast. “Just completely involved in their lives. Making sure they got the time they needed.”
Even though Justyna Zubko-Valva also had a newborn and a 4-year-old with his own special needs, she always devoted her full attention to Thomas during Taylor’s twice weekly visits to the Long Island home to help him with his speech and language disabilities.
“She was overwhelmed, but she was always trying to make sure he got everything he needed,” Taylor said.
Other mothers of autistic kids would wander off to another room during the sessions. But not Zubko-Valva.
“His mom sat with me the entire session, asking questions,” Taylor remembered.
Other autistic children of her considerable experience were emotionally muted and physically standoffish even with their moms. But not Thomas.
“He had this love for his mother,” Taylor recalled. “He was always hugging her, loving her. It was just a beautiful thing to see.”
And Thomas made tremendous progress.
“Great eye contact while trying to make sounds,” Taylor said. “I just saw amazing strides. Real interaction. A lot more than I saw with other students that age.”
Thomas delighted in puzzles and in games such as one that involved Taylor making a sound while rolling a ball toward him. Thomas began imitating the sound while rolling the ball back. She recorded it in her notes when Thomas uttered what she believed to be those two words born of a mother’s love.
On the few occasions the father was present, he stayed in another part of the house.
“I didn’t have a lot of interaction with the dad,” Taylor said. “My feeling about him is that he was not really involved. He was doing his own thing.”
The father was a cop with the NYPD’s Transit Bureau, assigned to District 30, which is based in the subway station where Michael Jackson filmed a music video from the Thriller album. The real hero of the family seemed to Taylor to be the mother.
“This is a mom who was extremely involved with her kids,” Taylor said. “They were very loving to her and she was to them.”
Taylor described the way the mother was with all her children the same way she did the mom and Thomas.
“It was beautiful to see.”
But on the eve of Thomas’s third birthday, just as he had been learning to say “ball” and “go,” the child welfare system that had brought Taylor to the house took her away.
“EIP services will end the day before your child turns three years old,” the New York State Department of Health handbook for the program advises. “A transition plan for your child will be made with your input.”
Whatever the transition may have been, it was almost certainly disrupted the following year, when the father filed for divorce in Nassau County Supreme Court.
The mother who had seemed to Taylor to be so heroic and remarkable somehow lost custody of the three boys to the father who had seemed only interested in doing his own thing. The mother would later say that the father falsely accused her of abuse. She would suggest that she was at an added disadvantage because she was an immigrant from another country.
“Polska,” she said. “Poland.”
One likely factor in the outcome is reflected in a fragment of the court record for matrimonial case 0203503/2015, which is largely sealed in accordance with state law.
“Attorney/Firm For Plaintiff: ORSETTI & CURTI, ESQ. Attorney Type: Retained Atty. Status: Active
227 TREMONT ROAD
Attorney/Firm For Defendant: JUSTYNA VALVA - Prose Attorney Type: Unrepresented”
The father had an attorney. The mother did not. And once she lost custody of the children, she was unable to regain it again. She was able to create the Twitter account StandAgainstChildAbuse in January 2018 and posted what appear to be school documents describing signs of abuse at the home the father had set up with his girlfriend and her three young daughters.
In November 2018, she posted a letter apparently written by a school psychologist, who reports, “Biggest concern is that Mr. Valva and his fiancée Angela do not understand the depth of Anthony and Thomas’s disabilities… Both Anthony and Thomas come into school hungry and frequently say they did not eat breakfast because they did not ask for breakfast or got in trouble.”
The letter added, “The boys were afraid to go to the nurse’s office for a while and they said it was because they were directed by Mr. Valva and Angela not to go to the nurse’s office. This occurred shortly after the school nurse became involved in a CPS case because Thomas has multiple bruises on his bottom from Dad.”
A second apparent school document the mother posted says, “Anthony and Thomas have stated that they were not allowed to eat breakfast because they did not use their manners, say good morning to Angela or were doing nothing. They have come in crying because of this.”
The document goes on, “The boys come in hungry and most days state that they have not eaten breakfast… Both boys were coming in with visible dirt on their bodies for days in a row.”
The postings were accompanied by what the mother termed a“Thanksgiving Wish.” She wrote, “Praying to receive justice for my three little children who are being severely abused mentally and physically by their father and his woman. My children cannot receive any protection, help, and justice.”
She also posted several voice recordings she apparently managed to make while the boys were with the father. He can be heard leading them in chants of “I love daddy!” and “mommy is mean!” and “mommy hits me!” and “mommy, don’t touch me!”
“Louder!” the father commands.
The mother also posted several videos. A Jan. 7, 2018, clip shows one of the boys, apparently Thomas, saying he had been ordered by the father not to hug the mother or tell her he loved her. The mother asks what the father would do if the boy disobeyed.
“Daddy’s going to put me outside,” the boy says.
Another video was taken in a parking lot on Jan. 18, 2018, when the father is delivering the boys for a visit with their mother. The father squeezes the younger boy’s hand so hard he howls.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be back,” the father then says.
Suffolk County Department of Social Services Commissioner Frances Pierre would later allow in a statement that her agency became aware that year of allegations of child abuse in the father and girlfriend’s home.
“Orders of Protection for the parents to refrain from harmful behaviors towards the children and mandated participation in a Positive Parenting Program had been put in place,” she said in a statement.
But the supervision had only been for a year. The agency seems to have taken no further action as its Child Protective Services department “investigated additional complaints” in 2019.
In May of last year, another agency, the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, sent the mother a report indicating that the agency had received a call from an unidentified tipster on Feb. 27 reporting that “Anthony has been staying in the garage and is not allowed in his room due to him urinating in his bed.”
The outside temperature at the time was in the 30s and low 40s. The report, as first detailed by the New York Post, further advised, “For the past week, Anthony (9) has been coming to school with his clothes and backpack soaked in urine, ... Step mother (Angela) and Father (Michael) are aware that the child is arriving at school soiled and fail to adequately address the concern… The child’s feet and hands are bright red, but it is unknown if this is as a result of the child being soaked in urine.”
The report was accompanied by a letter saying, “'The investigating district/agency has determined the report to be unfounded.”
In the meantime, the mother kept posting on Twitter and going from from judge to judge, from the police to the FBI. She says she warned one judge that her children would die if they were left in the father’s custody. Nothing was done.
Early on Jan. 17, Suffolk County Police received a call for help at the father’s home. Michael Valva appeared to be giving an unconscious Thomas CPR in the basement when they arrived. The father allegedly told them that the boy had been in the driveway when he fell and struck his head. Thomas was rushed to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
The father, using his middle name in calling himself “Michael Gerard,” apparently wasted no time in posting a GoFundMe page seeking funds to cover the funeral.
“It is with great sadness that I must bury my 8-year-old son. He passed recently due to a tragic accident. At this time I am not able to handle these unforeseen costs on my own and if there is any help anyone can provide we would greatly appreciate it. In lieu of floral arrangements we ask that a donation be made instead.”
He collected more than $10,000 from more than 200 donors and added on Jan. 21, “Thank you for your generosity and support. Myself and Angela will be handling the money together and all the funds are going to go towards funeral expenses.”
In the meantime, the medical examiner had determined that Thomas’ injuries were inconsistent with the father’s account. The primary cause of death was listed as hypothermia.
Detectives discovered an elaborate security system in the house. A camera feed from the garage was labeled “Kids Room.” A video from Jan. 15 showed Thomas and his older brother, Anthony, sleeping in the frigid garage with no bedding. The detectives decided that Thomas must have slept there again the following night, when the temperature dipped to 19 degrees.
A recording from shortly before the police arrive captured the father mocking how Thomas was repeatedly falling down face-first.
One of the other children can be heard asking why Thomas could not walk.
“Because he’s hypothermic,” replied the girlfriend, who worked in the medical billing department at a hospital.
At another moment, the girlfriend can be heard asking the father what he was now doing with Thomas.
“I’m fucking suffocating him, that’s what I’m doing,” the father says.
The recordings also led the detective to believe that the father put an unconscious Thomas in a hot bath to raise his body temperature, which was still only 76 degrees when measured at the hospital.
On Jan. 24, Michael Valva and Angela Pollina were arrested for murder. They both pleaded not guilty at their arraignment. They were ordered held without bail.
Pollina’s three daughters, 11-year-old twins and a 6-year-old, all of whom had apparently been treated as well as the stepsisters in Cinderella, were placed in the custody of their father.
The two surviving Valva boys were placed in the care of their mother. She had needed for her unheeded warnings to have resulted in the death of one boy for her to finally get the other two. The very fact that they were now placed in her care in these circumstances suggests that she is viewed as a fit mother.
One question that might be more fully answered by the sealed court records is exactly why she was initially denied custody and why she continued to be denied despite her pleas and tweets and the school documents and the tipster. At least two state Supreme Court judges, Joseph Lorintz and Hope Schwartz Zimmerman, appear to have made critical rulings.
On Sunday, Zubko-Valva appeared with Anthony and her younger son, Andrew, at a candlelight vigil for Thomas on Long Island.
“I just want to express gratitude to all of you for showing up tonight to honor my little angel Thomas, for being here to support a cause too precious to my heart—to honor his life,” she told the gathering. “Tonight is all about Tommy. My little baby, who just loved everybody … His legacy is not going to stop. I am pledging to continue fighting for all those victims of this abusive system… There are more victims out there. My heart goes out to you, to your families, to the little innocent babies that cannot speak for themselves.”
Anthony also spoke, and if he once had been deemed special needs, he now seemed simply special when most needed.
"We love you all,” the 10-year-old said. “Thank you for coming.”
Andrew, just 6, was equally special.
“God bless Tommy,” he said.
On Monday, the mother and the father appeared in Family Court. The father pleaded not guilty to several family court petitions charging him with abusing his sons and his girlfriend’s daughters. Judge Frank Tantone officially awarded the mother custody of Anthony and Andrew.
“She was found to be credible,” the judge said.
The mother afterward described to reporters her feeling on standing a few feet from the father.
“I just kept thinking of my baby and the way he was abused,” she said. “The way he died, it breaks my heart. I pray to God that Tommy—his death will not be in vain. The ones who did this, they deserve justice. I put the results in the hands of God.”
The father and the girlfriend are due in Suffolk County Supreme Court court regarding the murder case on Wednesday. Kim Taylor will be at the wake. She learned of the boy’s death on the TV news. She did not make the connection until she saw the woman who had been such an amazing, loving, and heroic mom back when Thomas learned to say “ball” and “go.”
“Then I knew,” she told The Daily Beast.
Against the horror of what had come was the memory of the love between a mother and son that was so beautiful to see.
Thomas' funeral Mass is on Friday, paid for by the funeral home. Hundreds of donors have contributed to a legitimate GoFundMe page established for the mother and her surviving boys, some good in response to evil.
Thomas leaves us with the question of what exactly happened.