As the horrific details of Thomas Valva’s life are revealed, the death of the 8-year-old with special needs, allegedly caused by the severe neglect of his father and stepmother, has emboldened community members to demand sweeping change in institutions’ handling of children’s welfare. The Specialized Autism Support and Information Group, a leading advocate of children with special needs, organized a “March for Change: In Honor of Thomas Valva” on Saturday, Feb. 8. Attended by elected officials from both major parties, the march had bipartisan support in demanding change to prevent another case like Valva’s from happening again.
“We must fight for systemic change at all levels,” said SASI founder Priscilla Arena. “I have always said, if the world does not accept my child, I would make a world that accepted him.”
With marchers mostly members of SASI’s expansive network (the organization in its fourth month was already representing over 300 families and now has over 4,500), it was particularly important to advocate for the rights of special-needs children being subjected to abuse and the unique challenges faced by the autistic when reporting abuse.
“Autism does not discriminate and no one is above the law,” Arena passionately stated, as she expressed her beliefs on the non-verbal nature of many autistic children, which makes abuse harder to detect.
Thomas’s mother, Justyna Zubko-Valva, was in attendance and visibly moved by the outpouring of grief and culmination of support for her son. Speaking in her soft voice, she addressed the large crowd. “I know Thomas would be happy to see this.”
The Islip Bulletin spoke with marchers about what change they would like to see in honor of Thomas’s tragic story:
Leigh-Anne Bard, Central Islip
“As a mother, especially of two autistic children, the oldest being the same age as Thomas, I can’t imagine doing this to your own child. We need to listen to our community, as Thomas’s community knew what he endured.”
Danielle Brooks, Oceanside
“I am an accidental advocate as the mother of a 22-year-old autistic child. As a special advocate for SASI, I have attended over 400 CSE meetings to help parents get the requisite services for their children. I want to see legislation pass — maybe Tommy’s Law — to prevent this from happening again. ”
Toni Pace, Bay Shore
“This was absolutely disgusting. They had so much proof. There was no reason for this to happen. I hope we can help other kids who are treated the same way.”
Christina lentini, Rocky Point
“I was completely crushed when I heard about this. We need to educate CPS about mental health and autism.”
President Ashpit, Bikers Against Child Abuse (members of B.A.C.A. do not use their real names or disclose personal information)
“Unfortunately, our services are needed, but we are involved in the child’s healing process. We want to empower a child to feel safe in the world they live in. More agencies need to listen.”
Michael Carey, Jonathan Carey Foundation, Delmar, N.Y.
“This was devastating, but authorities were aware of the abuse and neglect, and this doesn’t shock me. There is a system devaluing of the child and we need to have equal protection under the law. Calls of child abuse must go directly to 911 so immediate action can be taken to intervene on the abuse occurring.”
Legis. Anthony Piccirillo (R-8th District)
“This is the worst part of the job. My heart breaks for the family. We are waiting on the findings of ongoing investigations and the Legislature has heard from the DSS commissioner. We will be taking action as soon as we have the findings.”
Angela Conlan, Holbrook
“This case was personal; it hit us hard. I have a 15-year-old daughter with autism. It was important to me to bring my kids to see we’re here to march for change to the system. They understand that this poor kid trusted his parents and are hopefully grateful for the parents they do have.”
Dolores Feliciano, Bohemia
“I had the same situation with CPS where they did not remove my children from the perpetrator, my husband, and his wife was a retired NYPD lieutenant. I want to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Priscilla Arena, Mt. Sinai
“We are working with CPS to have an External Autism Task Force. I will be going up to Albany to meet with the head of CPS to discuss new ideas to prevent this tragedy from happening again.” n