A panel of seven senators will attempt to discern whether policy changes could help prevent child deaths like that of 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon in Poultney last week, Senate Pro Tempore John Campbell said Wednesday.
The legislative investigation will be in addition to a criminal investigation, an internal Department for Children and Families investigation and an external investigation ordered by Gov. Peter Shumlin.
Dezirae’s stepfather Dennis Duby, 31, is charged with second-degree murder after allegedly crushing the toddler’s skull with his hand.
News reports have said the girl’s mother, Sandra Eastman Duby, pleaded guilty last year to a criminal charge of cruelty to a child after breaking Dezirae’s leg.
While police and DCF investigate the specifics of Dezirae’s case, the team of lawmakers will take the “30,000-foot view,” to determine what questions need to be asked and what, if anything, the Legislature can do, Campbell said.
“It was like setting off the alarm into any human being with emotion in their body,” Campbell said of the killing. “The sad part is that it happens every day across this country.”
It is important that the criminal investigation play out and prosecutors be allowed to do their job first, Campbell said. He also called on all Vermonters to report child abuse.
The panel will include Rutland Sens. Eldred French, Kevin Mullin and Peg Flory, as well as Ann Cummings, D-Washington, and Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia. Sens. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, and Dick Sears, D-Bennington, will co-chair the group, which will convene after the Legislature’s Town Meeting Day break.
The group will then decide whether the Judiciary and Health and Welfare committees should take action on based on what the panel might determine is necessary, or whether to conduct an independent investigation using the subpoena power of the Senate, Campbell said.
Meanwhile, Shumlin has asked an independent group, the Vermont Citizen’s Advisory Board, to conduct an external investigation into Dezirae’s death.
The Vermont Department of Children and Families has begun a separate internal review of the case that should be done in “weeks, not months,” DCF Commissioner David Yacovone said Wednesday.
Since Dezirae’s death, dozens of parents and others have protested outside the DCF office in Rutland demanding to know why the child was allowed to be reunited with her abusive mother.
Yacovone said it is natural for people to ask questions about DCF’s practices after cases like Dezirae’s.
“When traumatic stories get the light of day it opens the eyes of many Vermonters who say, ‘How do we protect kids?’” he said.
And it is healthy to have a debate about whether it is in a children’s best interest to be reunited with parents, Yacovone said.
In 2012, he said, 41 percent of children under age 6 who had been removed from their natural parents and were in DCF custody were reunited with parents.
DCF has decreased the caseload of social workers from a ratio of 1 to 20 to 1 to 15 by hiring 27 new social workers over the past three years and has a total of 150, Yacovone said. The national best practice ratio is a 1 to 12, he said.
“I feel really good we have been able to make such progress,” Yacovone said, adding that “I’ll always argue caseload should be less.”
Five years ago, only 17 percent of children were visited once a month by a social worker; now 90 percent are visited monthly, he said.
Shumlin on Wednesday held meetings in his ceremonial Statehouse office, first with senators, then representatives, from Rutland, as well as DCF officials and others.
“We’re on the same page as the administration,” French said after the meeting.
Lawmakers don’t know whether this was a case in which the state’s policies were inadequate or if policies were not followed properly, Mullin said.
“Based on what I read I don’t see any way this baby should have been in the home,” Mullin said. “We do not want to see this situation repeat itself.”
Flory said she wants the legislative panel to examine whether the criteria for reuniting children with their parents are set appropriately.
“We have the unification goal, which isn’t always the appropriate goal,” Flory said.
She said the panel will also look at what causes people to distrust the DCF system. One factor is that DCF records are confidential, something she said the panel could explore changing.
“There won’t be a quick answer and there shouldn’t be a quick answer,” Flory said.
The DCF internal investigation will look at the Poultney case specifically.
That investigation will examine whether decisions made in that case were consistent with policies and rules, said Doug Racine, secretary of the Agency of Human Services, which oversees DCF.
The external investigation will be done to ensure the public that someone is looking over DCF’s shoulder, Racine said.
“It’s just the perception that you’re investigating yourself. There’s a natural tendency to think that that perception could be there,” Racine said.
The external investigation will be conducted by the Vermont Citizen’s Advisory Board, a body convened under federal law, and will include at least 12 people, including foster parents, kinship care advocates, anti-child abuse advocates, anti-domestic violence advocates and others.
“I have reassured Secretary Racine’s office that we are experienced with these high level case reviews and that our empanelment as a Child Protection Team enables us to study this case in depth,” wrote physician and board president Joseph Hagan Wednesday in an email to board members.
Shumlin asked three state employees who normally serve on that committee to recuse themselves, Campbell said. He said there will likely be three additional members appointed to the group.
County-based special police investigation units that respond to calls of child abuse investigated 1,134 cases in fiscal year 2013, according to a report filed last month with the Legislature. The vast majority, 945, were cases of sexual abuse, according to the report.
In 2013, 29 percent of all allegations of child abuse or neglect were judged valid, according to DCF.
In fiscal year 2012, DCF received 13,092 calls to its child abuse reporting hotline.
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