There is no evidence Rutland social workers improperly handled the case of Dezirae Sheldon, but Vermont’s child welfare system needs substantial reform, Attorney General Bill Sorrell said Wednesday.
The two-year-old died in February after her stepfather allegedly crushed her skull. The state Department for Children and Families has been criticized because Dezirae was returned to her mother’s care after she was found to have two broken legs in February 2013.
Following her death, Vermont State Police conducted a criminal investigation into the circumstances surrounding DCF’s investigation of Dezirae’s situation. The Attorney General’s Office reviewed that report to decide whether to file criminal charges against DCF workers.
“There was no evidence that any of the state or local employees involved in the case were acting in a manner contrary to what they thought was in the best interest of [Dezirae] at the time,” Sorrell said in a news release.
The state police investigation examined two things: the DCF investigative process done in conjunction with the Rutland Police Department and the DCF case planning and review process done in conjunction with the Rutland County State’s Attorney’s office and attorneys for the child and her parents, which was approved by family court in Rutland.
If the workers had been found culpable, it likely would have been a charge of neglect of duty, according to the AG’s office.
While Sorrell’s office reviewed the report, three DCF workers had obtained attorneys, two through Defender General Matthew Valerio’s office and one privately, Valerio said.
State law allows the defender general’s office to represent state employees in cases where there is potential criminal liability, Valerio said. Only once or twice in 13 years have these situations led to actual charges, he said.
Meanwhile, the legislative panel investigating the state’s child protection system says it is unacceptable that DCF cannot give lawmakers more information about St. Johnsbury 22-month-old Mason Keithan, a third child who died in four months this year. The panel is prepared to subpoena members of DCF if necessary. Mason died May 31.
In April, Winooski 14-month-old Peighton Geraw died; his mother is charged with second degree murder in his death. Peighton had been in DCF custody but was returned to his mother after she completed parenting and substance abuse programs.
Sorrell’s review says the state should reform the system for protecting vulnerable children. He said he plans to propose several changes to the law, including relaxing privacy laws that prevent the public from understanding how DCF operates.
“Most immediately, the police, prosecutors, social workers and other agencies must improve their communication and sharing of information,” Sorrell said.
He also recommends strengthening child cruelty laws.
Prosecutors need laws to help them with “all-too-common” cases in which a child is injured at home but it is hard to know which of multiple caregivers inflicted the injury, Sorrell said.
“Time and again we see cases that are not charged because the only adult witnesses to the event blame each other or are steadfast in their silence,” Sorrell said.
Sorrell also plans to suggest revisions to privacy laws about such investigations and court proceedings, the release said. Confidentiality helps protects the identity of child victims but the system would benefit from greater transparency about the scope of child abuse and neglect in Vermont and decision-making in specific cases, the release said.
DCF Commissioner Dave Yacovone said Wednesday he welcomes the AG’s review and agrees that DCF records are too closed.
“I think it can be done and I think we can do it in a way that still protects the rights of children and families,” he said.
As commissioner, Yacovone said, he wants “to share information to prove to people whether we’ve done right or wrong.”
State police are conducting a similar investigation of Peighton’s death, according to Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn.
The legislative panel agrees more transparency is needed. The panel plans to invite DCF officials to its July meeting to ask for information about the St. Johnsbury case, hopefully without having to resort to a subpoena.
“There was some frustration expressed by several members of the committee about the lack of details being provided by DCF about the St. Johnsbury case,” said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, co-leader of the panel.
The panel has said it is not investigating individual deaths but looking for systemic failures, but Sears said it is unacceptable that DCF cannot give basic details.
“Confirming whether or not the child had been in DCF custody or whether or not DCF had involvement with the family or what was the status, … that should be available to a committee like ourselves,” Sears said.
VTDigger reported that the family of the St. Johnsbury toddler had been involved with DCF, based on three separate high-ranking government officials with knowledge of the situation. A neighbor also said Mason Keithan’s sister was in DCF custody.
Sears said he and another panel member heard from a confidential source that the family was involved in some capacity with DCF.
Lawmakers also want to know whether a citizen advisory panel, asked by the governor to investigate DCF, has met yet or made any progress.
That panel met Wednesday and “covered a lot of important ground,” according to spokeswoman for the governor.
“We continue to expect them to be thorough and move as fast as they can, consistent with the criminal investigations,” Sue Allen said.
The legislative panel held nine hearings across the state recently to hear about people’s experiences with DCF and suggestions for improvements. Although anecdotes differed, lawmakers heard several common threads.
“When you hear common threads like the reunify policy, when you hear common threads about the school and people being ignored who are reporting suspected child abuse … then you begin to form a more accurate picture,” Sears said.