4 Years After Thomas Valva Died, A Cry For Change: 'He Was A Hero'

CENTER MORICHES, NY — The temperatures in Center Moriches in the early morning hours of January 17, 2024 hovered in the low teens, rising only to about 20 degrees at 8 a.m. Those frigid temperatures were reminiscent of the 19-degree night in 2020 that Thomas Valva spent in his father’s icy garage, no blankets or pillows for warmth — before he was doused with cold water, naked, by his father outside the Center Moriches home the following morning.

Thomas Valva died that morning, on January 17, 2020, of hypothermia. He was just 8 years old.

The years since have been heavy with grief as his mother Justyna Zubko-Valva, his two brothers, his teachers and a shattered community struggled to find answers as the story of the days that led to his death became agonizingly clear.

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Days in which Thomas and his brother were so hungry that they foraged through the trash at school and ate crumbs from the floor. Mornings they were sent to school soaked in urine and hands, red and chapped, from nights in the cold garage. Evenings when they sat alone in that garage while the rest of the family ate and laughed and celebrated holidays, without them. When their pleas to use the bathroom, or to get a glass of water, were denied.

Thomas’ father, former-NYPD Officer Michael Valva was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison after he was convicted of murder in the death of his 8-year-old son.

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Valva, along with his then-fianceé Angela Pollina — who was also found guilty and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison in 2023 — were arrested Jan. 24, 2020, and charged with second-degree murder and four counts of endangering the welfare of a child.

Thomas and his older brother, both autistic, lived in a “house of horrors,” according to Assistant District Attorney Kerriann Kelly. When he died, Thomas’ body temperature was 76.1 degrees, 20 degrees lower than normal.

Despite the outward appearance of the home, where Thomas lived with his father and two brothers, as well as Pollina and her three daughters — inside was a nightmare that brought tears to the eyes of so many who listened to the stories of abuse, day after day, in both Valva and Pollina’s trials.

Witnesses, including teachers at Thomas’ school, sobbed as they recounted seeing Thomas and his brother starving, cold, with bruises and scratches, and eating crumbs from the floor. The boys were sent to school in soiled, wet clothing and pullups, they said.

Four years after Thomas’ death, those whose lives have been forever changed by the memory of his trusting eyes, bright with hope at the school he loved, despite the agony he endured at home, are rallying, still, for justice — hoping for a future where no child, again, has to die alone and cold, hungry and afraid.

Four years after his death, newly elected Suffolk County Executive Ed Romaine vowed, in his inaugural speech, to fix the current system so that no child will ever again slip through Child Protective Services and die, despite numerous, documented calls to save him.

Romaine said he is serious about the need to improve the county’s Child Protective Services. At the inauguration ceremony, he pointed to his grandson who, he said, “sat next to a young boy in third grade called Thomas Valva. That lesson is never lost on me. It’s one of the failures of government today. And I am going to work very hard to make sure that we have a system that does not fail another child.”

On Wednesday, Romaine told Patch that he “continues to assess the county’s Social Services and Child Protective Services departments and will unveil a plan that will address any deficiencies which may have contributed to the tragic death of Thomas Valva.”

On the fourth anniversary without her boy, Thomas mother, Justyna Zubko-Valva, who pleaded for help on her Twitter page before her son died, remembered the son whose bright smile and laughter still echo on YouTube videos she made with him during his short life.

In 2020, she filed a $200 million wrongful death suit.

“As a family, we try to cherish every single memory of Tommy and often recall his beautiful personality, kind, gentle and merciful heart, beautiful bright smile, and all his heartwarming hugs and kisses, expressed often to those who loved him. . . Tommy is smiling down from heaven, being remembered by so many of you.”

His brothers, she said, miss him tremendously. “Despite the fact that our hearts are still completely broken to a million pieces, over the tragic death of our precious angel, knowing Tommy is with God and Holy Mary brings us tremendous healing.” Her son, she said, “became God’s warrior for truth and justice.”

Others remembered Thomas Wednesday. Gino Cali, father of Pollina’s youngest daughter, said his life is forever changed. “I still, after all this time, get incredibly mad knowing Thomas died to save five other kids,” he said. “A hundred years can go by, and I’ll still feel this way because he was failed.”

Of Valva and Pollina’s prison sentences, Cali expressed the anger that still pulses. “If there’s a God in heaven, he’s making sure their stay there is horrible,” he said.

Geri Antonacci, Cali’s significant other, also remembered Thomas. “Today is four years since Thomas left this cruel world due to evil monsters. We know that he is in beautiful heaven, enjoying the childhood he so much deserved, but never got,” she said. “Although today is the anniversary of his death, he is a part of our family every day; we think of him every day, we cry for him often, and we talk about him very much.”

She added, of Thomas: “He was a hero; he saved five other children. He is their guardian angel and we know he is always looking down on his wonderful brothers and his amazing mom.”

And, said Antonacci, a broken system needs to change. “We pray that changes are actually made with CPS and those involved in failing to protect Thomas and the other children involved are punished finally. We also hope that every day is hell for Michael Valva and Angela Pollina —just like they made those children’s lives hell.”

Dina Marie Marrazzo, who created the “Take Action: Justice for Thomas” Facebook page, also mourned Thomas. “It’s been four years and justice was served for Valva and Pollina — however, I would like to know what these new officials have planned to protect our children forced into the system.”

She added, “I continue to pray for him and hope he is happy and free.”

Marrazzo said she is grateful that her Facebook group helps to keep his spirit alive. “He touched so many lives and is loved so dearly. It makes me sad around his birthday. September is also the beginning of a new school year. A life taken so soon in the hands of evil.”

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