Judge: Changing law may not fix child abuse issues
By BETH GARBITELLI
The Associated Press | March 20,2014
MONTPELIER — A month after a Rutland County toddler died from severe head trauma due to alleged abuse, Vermont senators heard testimony Wednesday that changing the laws might not address the problem.
At a second meeting of a special Senate panel reviewing state laws protecting children from abuse, Chief Administrative Judge Amy Davenport said some judges don’t think custody issues in child abuse cases can be solved by legislation.
She described for the committee how judges decide temporary care issues and use kinship in making decisions.
Davenport said one judge told her that the current legal standards haven’t impeded him in deciding custody cases, but “the concept of making sense when faced with only a choice of troubling alternatives is a problem that cannot be solved by different legislation.”
Davenport reported that 83 percent of Vermont’s judges have attended out-of-state educational programs on topics related to juvenile cases, including child custody, and that 29 percent, mostly new judges, have attended an intensive child abuse and neglect institute.
Committee co-chairman Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, and Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, said that anecdotally they have become aware of possible regional differences in such cases.
Davenport said most child protection cases are driven by parental substance abuse. She said each case can be affected by district offices of the Department for Children and Family and what a prosecutor decides. Drug abuse issues also vary from county to county.
Essex County State’s Attorney Vince Illuzzi said DCF is the driving force behind decisions and that behind the “cloak of confidentiality” in child abuse cases, tensions among department staff, the child’s guardians, and attorneys can be high.
But he said he’s never heard a complaint about state’s attorneys not bringing a case to court.
Illuzzi, who’s been a state’s attorney for 16 years and served in the Senate for more than three decades, said he hopes changes to the department’s procedure and oversight will come from the external investigations. He called the Senate panel a “welcome review” of a process often closed off to public inquiry.
In February, 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon of Poultney died after arriving at a hospital with severe head trauma. Her stepfather, Dennis Duby, 31, has pleaded innocent to second-degree murder.
Court records show Dezirae had a history of child abuse injuries, and her mother was convicted last year of cruelty to a child.
Senators hope to hear testimony from social workers and prosecutors next week.