Senate committee charge: Protecting Vt. children
By JOSH O’GORMAN
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | March 13,2014
MONTPELIER — A Senate panel will review state laws surrounding the protection of children following the alleged murder of a 2-year-old from Poultney.
Word of Dezirae Sheldon’s death last month — allegedly at the hands of her stepfather, 31-year old Dennis Duby, who’s facing a second-degree murder charge — shocked many across the state. But shock quickly turned to outrage when it was learned the girl’s mother, 31-year-old Sandra Eastman, had been convicted of abusing the child in 2013, and the state Department for Children and Families had returned Sheldon to the home shortly before her death.
In response, Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, appointed a group of senators to a panel to look at how the state keeps children safe.
“We’d love to say this will never happen again, but I don’t think that’s the reality,” Campbell said Wednesday to the panel, which was convening for the first time. “But, I think we can create policy where we can work to ensure the safety of every child.”
The Sheldon case itself is being reviewed and Campbell told the panel its responsibility was not to look at this specific case, but to use it as a jumping-off point to review state policy.
The panel includes Rutland County’s senate delegation — Republicans Peg Flory and Kevin Mullin, and Democrat Eldred French — as well as Democratic Sens. Ann Cummings, of Washington County, and Jane Kitchel, of Caledonia County. The panel is co-chaired by Democratic Sen. Richard Sears, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Democratic Sen. Claire Ayer, chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, who Campbell said has done a “tremendous amount of work” on the topic of child abuse.
In a brief statement before the panel, Douglas Racine, secretary of the Agency of Human Services, which includes the Department for Children and Families, appeared to welcome the review.
“There is no function of government that couldn’t use more resources, but also, there’s no function more important than to provide for the safety of children,” Racine said.
Campbell suggested several lines of inquiry, such as learning more about the qualifications needed to be a caseworker for DCF, as well as looking at the high turnover rate of these caseworkers.
Campbell also raised the question of consistency in the way cases are investigated by DCF.
“Very similar cases might be treated differently from one office to another,” Campbell said.
For Sears, the panel’s charge echoes one given just a few years ago in the aftermath of the kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Brooke Bennett, of Brookfield, in 2008. In that case, the Senate panel traveled the state taking testimony from residents before proposing what became Act 1 of 2009, with a stated purpose to “increase child sexual abuse prevention efforts, enhance investigations and prosecutions of child sexual abuse, provide sentencing courts with the information necessary to devise appropriate sentences for sex offenders, and improve supervision of sex offenders.”
The panel will meet Wednesdays through the end of the legislative session, with this first meeting laying out the groundwork and raising questions for future meetings.
Sears said he would like to discuss the different ways DCF reacts to physical abuse versus sexual abuse. Flory raised the question of confidentiality, and if it impedes the DCF’s ability to work with other interested parties, such as schools.
Mullin said he would like to discuss who is allowed to give testimony before a judge during a hearing to determine if a child should be removed from a home.
“I’ve heard a lot of complaints from grandparents who say their voices aren’t being heard,” he said.