The most recent suppression stems from an unusually high-profile case: The January death of Thomas Valva, the autistic 8-year-old who had allegedly bee... beaten by his father, then forced to sleep in a freezing garage in Suffolk County, Long Island, where he froze to death.
By law, after the death of a child in the CPS system, the state Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) must create a report examining whether CPS workers followed required protocols in investigating allegations of abuse that had been reported prior to the fatality. But OCFS has discretion about whether to release the resulting report, and often employs an exemption that blocks disclosure — a step the agency has taken in the Valva case.
“I’m just flabbergasted that they would take a position like that,” said attorney Jon Norinsberg, who is representing Thomas Valva’s mother in a negligence case against Suffolk County. “It’s obviously something of enormous public importance in general, and particularly to this family, which has suffered greatly from CPS’ negligence.”
As the Times Union recently reported, OCFS often suppresses reports on child deaths at the recommendation of county governments — the same county governments whose CPS workers are critiqued in the reports.
recently reported Indeed, Suffolk County urged OCFS to withhold the state agency's review of Thomas Valva's death from release, arguing that keeping the information secret was in the "best interest" of the boy's surviving siblings.
The attorney for Justyna Zubko-Valva, the mother of those surviving siblings, disagrees and believes the report should be released. Thomas' two brothers are living with Zubko-Valva, who was not in any way implicated in the boy's death.
Suppressing the report could certainly be in the best interest of Suffolk County, which faces a $200 million negligence lawsuit from Zubko-Valva.
OCFS has suppressed 725 reviews of child deaths since 2010, the agency said in response to an open records request from the Times Union. The agency also disclosed last week that it was refusing to provide a copy of the report on Thomas Valva's death.
Thomas' father Michael Valva, a New York City police officer, and his fiancee Angela Pollina face charges of second-degree murder and more. Both maintain their innocence.
Records from the Valva case reviewed by the Times Union, as well as other news organizations, indicate that Suffolk CPS did not follow certain rules in investigating whether Thomas and his brothers were being abused. The OCFS report would include much more information about whether Suffolk CPS followed procedures in its investigation of allegations that Michael Valva was abusive. The agency's decision to suppress its review could conceivably deprive Thomas’ mother of crucial evidence that could be used in the civil case.
reviewed by the Times Union When a member of the public requests a copy of a child fatality report, OCFS asks the relevant county social service agency for a written recommendation as to whether the release is in the "best interest" of surviving siblings or other children in the household. That is the lone exemption in state law allowing a report's suppression by the commissioner of OCFS.
In making such recommendations, counties also may have their own interests in mind — including negligence lawsuits from grieving families or the desire to avoid public criticism. All provide incentive to exaggerate the harm a report's release might cause to the child's surviving siblings.
A Suffolk County spokesman, Derek Poppe, refused to say if the OCFS report had negative conclusions about Suffolk CPS' handling of the Valva case. He also declined to say whether the $200 million negligence lawsuit against Suffolk played a role in the county recommending the report be suppressed.
“The county consulted with the NYS OCFS and made the determination to withhold the public release of the child fatality report, as is commonplace when there are surviving children in the household," Poppe said. "Public release of this report could further traumatize or exacerbate feelings of violation among the other children involved in the case as they continue the healing process and attempt a new start.”
Poppe also declined to provide a copy of an internal Suffolk County review of Thomas' death that was compiled earlier this year.
After children die, counties find a way to avoid scrutiny
Before children died, investigations skirted state rules
Norinsberg, the attorney for Thomas' mother, said the county had an “enormous conflict of interest” weighing in on whether the report should be suppressed. He plans to seek the report in the civil case’s discovery process.
Series: The Times Union investigation of New York Family...
Albany dad faces prison for accidentally shooting daughter while protecting family Saturday Night Live spoofs Albany news in sketch Cuomo: 'We have definitely entered a new phase with COVID' Fiery meteor lights up night sky over Capital Region, Northeast Driver crashes into stores at Delmar's Four Corners The entire process by which counties urge OCFS to suppress reports is also kept secret, so it’s difficult to say whether counties’ arguments for suppressing reports are credible.
OCFS’ policies also can be inconsistent: It has also provided copies of reports to the Times Union this year containing incredibly sensitive information about surviving siblings.
The agency refused to answer questions about whether it could simply redact sensitive information about siblings from a given report, while leaving in portions concerning CPS officials, which are of far greater public interest.
After the 2016 murder of 3-year-old Brook Stagles in Rochester, her maternal grandfather, John Geer, filed a negligence lawsuit against Monroe County CPS. In that instance as well, OCFS suppressed the review in the "best interest" of Brook's siblings and at the recommendation of county officials.
Criticism of the exemption's use is longstanding: A 2008 report issued by the Children's Advocacy Institute, an arm of University of San Diego Law School, called the exemption a "severely restrictive, substantive limitation" of the law, and suggested the lack of transparency hindered reforms that could save lives.
The number of suppressed reviews have actually been declining somewhat in recent years: They peaked 106 in 2012. In 2019, there were 27 instances of suppressed reports, according to the state’s open records response.
It’s difficult to say much more about the data: OCFS did not provide the names of the dead children themselves, only the case numbers of suppressed reports.
OCFS declined to answer questions for this article. But in September a spokeswoman, Monica Mahaffey, said determinations about releasing reports are “based solely on an assessment of the potential for further trauma and public humiliation for surviving siblings."
"Pending litigation or criminal investigations are not part of the best interest determination,” she said. “When OCFS disagrees with the best interest determination conducted at the county level, the agency publicly releases the report."
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