Courts & Corrections

Report details communication breakdown in Dezirae Sheldon case

Widespread, systemic communications failures and a lack of accountability on the part of the Vermont Department for Children and Families and other authorities contributed to circumstances that threatened the life of Poultney 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon, according to a state police investigation into DCF’s handling of the case.

Dezirae died Feb. 21. Her stepfather Dennis Duby is charged with killing the toddler. Duby allegedly crushed her skull.

Dezirae was slain a little more than a year after both her legs were broken in an abuse incident that was never resolved. DCF originally determined that her mother, Sandra Eastman, perpetrated the abuse, but later, in an appeal, she blamed Duby. Eastman was charged with medical negligence because she waited two days to take the toddler to the hospital; no one was charged with the abuse.

The couple married when Eastman became pregnant with Duby’s child, shortly after Dezirae was removed from Eastman’s home in February 2013. Yet DCF officials were unaware of Duby’s presence in the household when they reunified the toddler with her mother in October 2013. Four months later, Dezirae was dead.

The 40-page report, released late afternoon Friday in response to a public records request, details the failure of caseworkers, state’s attorneys, Rutland police and others to communicate effectively about Dezirae’s case. A Vermont State Police investigator found that crucial information was ignored or withheld that would have led workers and attorneys to block the reunification of Dezirae with her mother and stepfather and likely would have prevented the toddler’s death.

The Vermont State Police investigation documents more than a dozen communications breakdowns between officials. Detective Lt. James Cruise, the author of the report, calls into question DCF’s overarching policy to reunite children with their families if at all possible. Social workers and law enforcement have said the policy puts parental rights before child safety.

The purpose of the probe was to determine whether DCF workers could be charged criminally for neglecting their duty as public officials. Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell announced earlier this week that “there is no evidence of criminal misconduct on the part of any individual involved in the investigation and handling of Dezirae’s case and no charges would be filed.”

However, the state police report is a damning examination of how top officials and caseworkers overlooked a gaping hole in a case that has led to a public furor over DCF’s central role in protecting child welfare. Since the death of Dezirae Sheldon, two more toddlers whose families have been involved with child welfare have died in a three-month period: 14-month-old Peighton Geraw of Winooski and 22-month-old Mason Keithan of St. Johnsbury. Police ruled Peighton’s death a homicide and have charged his mother Nytosha Laforce with the crime. Mason’s death is under investigation.

Sorrell issued a letter on June 11 that outlines four major flaws in the way DCF handled the Dezirae Sheldon case. The attorney general urges the department to take immediate steps to change its practices and policies to prevent future child deaths.

Sorrell found that communication between the Rutland Police Department and the DCF investigator assigned to the case was “deficient”; DCF failed to distribute the investigation report to caseworkers, the attorney representing Dezirae Sheldon, or the Rutland County state’s attorneys office; DCF workers failed to communicate and coordinate with each other; and the superior court judge who had the most knowledge of the case did not preside over the final disposition hearing.

“There is no doubt that the State must work immediately to improve its system for the protection of our most vulnerable Vermonters,” Sorrell wrote. “Immediate attention should be directed to improving internal communications and information sharing within DCF.”

Sorrell wrote that he will be seeking changes to the state’s Cruelty to Children statutes. He will propose an amendment, based on H.645 (first proposed in the 2011 session), would criminalize acts of assault or neglect and would also criminalize the failure to intervene before a child dies, is seriously injured or sexually assaulted.

The attorney general also urges the state to “revisit the scope of confidentiality afforded these investigations.” The system as a whole, he argues, would benefit from more public awareness of the scope of child abuse and neglect in Vermont.

Crucial information withheld or ignored

Dezirae was hospitalized on Feb. 14, 2013, when both her legs were broken as a result of alleged abuse. She was a one-year-old baby at the time.

The toddler had been in pain for several days and was unable to crawl, according to the report. Eastman did not take Dezirae to Rutland Regional Medical Center because she said she didn’t have a ride; she didn’t call for an ambulance because she said she thought she get in trouble.

At the hospital, DCF immediately took Dezirae into emergency custody and told Eastman she would not get her daughter back until she explained how the baby’s legs were broken. Eastman gave a series of explanations for the fractures that medical personnel at Rutland Regional rejected as implausible. She insisted that her then boyfriend, Dennis Duby, had never been alone with her daughter.

Duby was briefly at the hospital with Eastman and Dezirae, but DCF officials did not question him or tell the Rutland Police Department about Duby’s presence in the home.

DCF found Eastman responsible for breaking Dezirae’s legs. Later Eastman appealed the decision and blamed Duby for the injuries. Eastman was eventually charged with Cruelty to a Child under the age of 10, for failing to provide medical aid in a timely manner. Duby was never questioned by law enforcement even though he told a DCF investigator that two weeks before Dezirae was hospitalized, he dropped the toddler in a Pack ‘n Play crib, which caused the facial bruising that according to one description spanned an area from her forehead to below her cheekbone.

Eastman’s appeal was sent to two people — an unnamed DCF official and David Yacovone, the commissioner of the Vermont Department for Children and Families. The substantiation appeal report, however, was not passed on to state’s attorneys, law enforcement or DCF social workers. Caseworkers who were responsible for creating a safety plan for the family did not know Duby was present in the home, nor were they aware that Duby posed a potential threat to Dezirae’s welfare.

No one was charged with the abuse. Duby was overlooked by state officials and law enforcement and was never fingered for the crime.

Detective Lt. Cruise, in his investigation, found that DCF and local law enforcement “left the identity of who did this unanswered.” Neither police nor state officials created a timeline to establish who had access to Dezirae during the timeframe in which her legs were broken.

The social workers interviewed by police also appeared not to know Dezirae’s background. They were not aware that she was born addicted to opiates or that Eastman had been convicted in a past crime involving a child.

No one from DCF or the state’s attorneys office questioned the reunification plan, nor were they aware that Eastman and Duby had married, according to the report.

Dezirae was placed with Eastman in October 2013. A judge approved permanent reunification of Dezirae with her mother at a court hearing on Feb. 6, 2014, eight days before the toddler was killed.

A state’s attorney told Cruise that he was never made aware of Duby’s presence in the home, and had he seen Eastman’s appeal and findings of the hearing, he would have taken “a different position on the return of custody.”

“In this case gaps in information availability limited the ability at each step further down the case progression to being a truly informed and fact based decision,” Cruise wrote.

A DCF official told Cruise that there is no check list of “material” that must be considered as part of the reunification process to prevent such gaps in information.

Social workers interviewed for the report talked about the “overwhelming push from the onset of most cases for reunification” and a recent shift away from terminating parental rights, especially in cases involving young children.

While social workers, whose names were all redacted from the report, did not specifically say they were over-worked, one told police she has about 100 open cases. Others mentioned problems with the computer programs.

The social worker also said in some cases children in situations labeled “very high risk” remain in the home.

Lawmakers on a panel investigating child safety in the state have questioned the state’s broad implementation of the policy.

Yacovone Friday night did not return a call seeking comment on this report.

Editor’s note: Anne Galloway contributed to this report. This story was updated at 10 a.m. on Sunday, June 15, with additional information from a letter from Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell to DCF.

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Laura Krantz

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  • Laura Wilson

    Anne, is the 40 page report available to the public at this point? If so, how can one get it?

    • Sam Conant LICSW

      In the 1970’s, I was the VT Coordinator for the New England Resource Center for Protective Services – a program intended to understand the etiology of child abuse/neglect (CA/N) and develop effective service models designe to intervene and prevent CA/N . In addition to helping develop multi-disciplinary/agency, community based integrated teams throughout the state, I led a research project to document which agencies were involved in a child’s case as well what happened or did not happen in the course of decision-making from the case intake to either return to family custody or termination of parental rights. It is angering and frustrating to see that “the system” has become so flawed. If interested, I can share that report and discuss the research modal I led.

  • Wendy wilton

    Where is the leadership in this administration on ensuring policies and procedures provide adequate guidance for the agency to serve the public? It is clear that Sec. Racine and Commissioner Yaccavone are not up to the task. I feel for the caseworkers at the agency and law enforcement who are working in such a dysfunctional system and trying their best to do the job despite the bureaucratic roadblocks.

    Thank you VT Digger for your efforts on this important matter. Your continued work on providing transparency for the public on this issue has been outstanding.

  • June Cook

    Sec. Racine and Com. Yaccavone go on to keep their high-priced jobs while the systemic diysfunction continues. What’s their job? If DCF’s main purpose is to protect “parent rights” despite child’s safety, why have a DCF? Where is our Governor Shumlin with all his investigative commissions and special panels? Is window dressing enough to satisfy us?

  • Dave Bellini

    Changes are sure to take place but the pace will be glacial. The legislative committee examining the problems will hold meetings but they won’t be back in session until 2015. Then, we have to go through the entire legislative process and any changes won’t go into effect until July 1, 2015. That’s 13 months from now. Can Vermont afford to wait that long? I hope legislative leaders and the administration will act more quickly.

  • Fred Woogmaster

    When termites thrive in a foundation, building floor upon floor upon floor is pure folly. The very basic notions underlying the DCF/Family Court operations must be challenged.

    The pendulum swings. We thought the answers would be found in centralization, yet the best answers are local.

    The most brilliant commissioner or agency secretary can not fix ‘the problem’. Good social workers will continue to become victims.

    It’s not just DCF; it’s the whole package. The Court, the lawyers appointed by the court to represent children through the public defender system, the inadequate guardian ad litem program, judges unsuited for Family Court -and more.

    How about getting down to the foundation, neutralize the termites, and build anew. The DCF/Court System is not working as it should. Children and families lose; social workers lose; commissioners lose.

    Lawyers always win – no matter what. What is the responsibility of the legal community? Lawyers, appointed by the court to serve as public defenders of children, derive substantial income from that representation.

    They see the inadequacies of the system ‘close-up’. Are they being held sufficiently accountable? Are they making an effort to reform the system commensurate with the compensation they receive in taxpayer money?

    If Family Court were a free standing entity, in the model of Environmental Court, with a rotating cadre of properly suited and properly trained judges, appointed specifically to serve children and families, might that bring overall improvement?

    Tragedy creates opportunity. Blame serves to negate opportunity and obscures the path to correction. This is the time to look more deeply than ever – to create a fair and just and safe system that Vermonters can be proud of.

  • Candy Moot

    For 30 years I’ve been a mentor, foster parent, Guardian Ad Litem, and adoptive Mom. It’s time for legislative action that the goal for DCF, the courts, and all others involved in these cases to be what’s in the best interest of the child … not reunification. Reunification might be what’s in the child’s best interest, but it might not be. Please.

    • Fred Woogmaster

      Your point about the ‘child’s best interest’ is crucial.

      As you know, the guardian ad litem is the one person involved in the process whose sole responsibility is to determine the best interest of the child and to reflect that to the Court.

      The Vermont guardian ad litem program is underfunded, undervalued and underutilized.
      Well intended volunteers, some with relevant background, most not, do the best they can in a very confusing environment.

      We should consider expanding and strengthening that program; perhaps adding a more professional dimension.