For years, Justyna Zubko-Valva fought to expose the alleged physical, emotional, and mental abuse she says her sons suffered at the hands of their father and his fiancée. But the mom says her pleas for help fell on deaf ears — and the system’s failure led to the death of her 8-year-old son, Thomas.
“It’s such a tragedy that could have been prevented so many times by so many people,” Zubko-Valva tells PEOPLE.
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On Jan. 17, Thomas died from severe hypothermia after allegedly being forced to spend the previous night in the frigid garage of the Center Moriches, New York, home owned by his father, New York Police Department Transit Officer Michael Valva, 40, and his fiancée, Angela Pollina, 42.
The night prior, Thomas and his older brother, Anthony, who are both on the autism spectrum, were allegedly provided no blankets or pillows, and had to sleep on the ice-cold concrete floor. The next morning, Thomas collapsed and lost consciousness.
Now, Valva and Pollina, who is the mother of three girls who also lived in the home, are both in jail without bond on second-degree murder charges, to which they’ve both entered not guilty pleas.
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Justyna Zubko-Valva addresses the media following her son’s murder
Prior to Thomas’ death, Suffolk County’s Child Protective Services received 17 calls about possible abuse at the Valva home, but Zubko-Valva believes they weren’t taken seriously enough.
“They got the complaint about the children sleeping in the garage,” Zubko-Valva tells PEOPLE. She adds that other complaints — including some from teachers — about the boys “looking for food in the garbageat school” and “coming in with urine-soaked clothing” were also ignored.
“Those allegations should’ve been automatically investigated and the boys should have been removed from that abusive situation,” Zubko-Valva says. “But that never happened. The system’s designed to protect the abusers and fails loving, caring parents.”
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The grieving mother says CPS “failed to protect my children.”
Zubko-Valva continued: “In everybody’s mind is this question: If this was so preventable, why did this happen? I was really begging these people to help me before this happened.”
‘House of Horrors’
Attorneys for Valva and Pollina tell PEOPLE their clients are innocent, but Zubko-Valva doesn’t see it that way.
RELATED: NYPD Officer, Fiancée Allegedly Murdered Son With Autism by Leaving Him Overnight in Frigid Garage
Michael Valva and Angela Pollina
“It was a house of horrors,” she says of the Valva home. (Neighbors have placed mementos, flowers, and candles on the mailbox outside.) “Tommy was brutally tortured … They were monsters who took pleasure in abusing my children and controlling them. It is beyond sick.”
Fortunately, Anthony sustained no physical injuries from that alleged night in the cold garage, and he and Thomas’ younger brother, Andrew, are now in Zubko-Valva’s care.
She tells PEOPLE the boys will likely require “long-term therapy” to cope with the alleged abuse they survived.
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“The healing process has started, but it will take a long time for my children to heal, and who knows if they ever will?” Zubko-Valva says. “I do have in my heart hope that the law is going to change. The system now isn’t working. It is just designed to increase the corruption and punish loving and caring parents and protect the abusers of children.”
Mom: Thomas Didn’t Die in Vain
Zubko-Valva, a corrections officer who immigrated from Poland, says her new mission in life is to make sure her boys recover from their ordeal, and that Thomas’ death did not happen in vain.
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His death, she explains, “is motivating so many people to fight for the rights of all the children and make sure all the children are going to be protected and safe — that nothing bad is going to happen to them.”
She added: “I strongly believe he has already saved Anthony and Andrew, and he saved those three girls in that house. I know for a fact that he has saved so many children already, because people are aware of the situation and are looking at the system that’s supposed to protect children, and how it failed.”
If you suspect child abuse, call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at (800) 4-A-Child or (800) 422-4453, or go to Childhelp.org. All calls are toll-free and confidential. The hotline is available 24/7 in more than 170 languages.