Previous custody fight raises questions
By Brent Curtis
staff writer | May 11,2014
A child custody case involving Sandra Eastman’s eldest daughter is shedding light on the interactions of court and state agencies with the mother years before her second child was allegedly killed at the hands of her husband, Dennis Duby.
Two-year-old Dezirae Sheldon died in February from skull fractures that police and prosecutors say were inflicted by Duby, who was alone with the child in the Poultney home he shared with Eastman. Duby has pleaded innocent to a second-degree murder charge and is free on $250,000 bail pending his trial.
Dezirae’s death has incited outrage from the girl’s family members and some state legislators who want to know why the girl was returned to her mother’s care by the Rutland family court and the state Department for Children and Families seven months after Eastman was convicted in July 2013 of abusing her daughter by neglecting to take her to the doctor for treatment of broken bones in both of her legs.
That case wasn’t the first time that DCF participated in a child welfare case involving Eastman. Discussions with an attorney and a review of court documents show that DCF and other state agencies were privy to Eastman’s risky behavior as a parent long before they intervened in Dezirae’s case. What remains unclear is how, or if, that information was considered before Dezirae was returned to her mother’s care.
Less than three years before Dezirae’s death, the agency was involved in a child custody dispute between Eastman and the father of her first daughter, who turned 6-years-old on Friday.
That case also involved a criminal offense involving Eastman, who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting Tylor Brown, who was 15-years-old when Eastman, then 24, became pregnant with their daughter in 2008, according to court records.
The Rutland Herald does not generally identify victims of sexual assault. But in an interview Brown agreed to last month, he said he only obtained full custody of his daughter after a lengthy court battle.
“She had custody for the first two years before I got custody,” Brown said. “It was only after she came after me for child support that I got a lawyer and was even recognized as (his daughter’s) father.”
Rutland lawyer Sigismund Wysolmerski, who represented Brown in family court, said he began working on the case about a year after the birth of Brown and Eastman’s child and would work for about 12 months to gain his client full custody of his child.
He said Brown’s efforts were aided in large part by a deterioration in Eastman’s life from issues with substance abuse, mental health problems, and the loss of her housing.
The issues Wysolmerski cited were also spelled out in a probation violation report brought against Eastman in October 2010.
“Sandra got herself deeper and deeper into aggravating circumstances and her behavior became more erratic and she was less able to care for the child,” Wysolmerski said. “The lack of housing issue was just the final straw.”
Eastman’s homelessness, near the end of the custody dispute, also marked the first time that DCF officials took an interest in the case, Wysolmerski said.
“They got involved when she was homeless and couch surfing,” he said.
For most of the court fight, the lawyer said it was just him and his client facing off against Eastman and a number of advocacy groups she was receiving help from.
“People came in and stood up and said she was doing wonderful,” he said. “Most of the time it was just me and my client that were presenting contrary points of view.”
In June 2011, Brown also applied for and obtained a temporary relief from abuse order against Eastman, whom he accused in an affidavit of sexually abusing his daughter.
“I am just a father who just found out that my 3-year-old daughter has been molested,” Brown wrote in the affidavit. “I am doing this solely to protect my daughter from that woman.”
Wysolmerski said the complaints in the case didn’t actually involve alleged sexual abuse, but he said Rutland Police and DCF investigators conducted an investigation into possible physical abuse that ended with no substantiation that any abuse occurred.
A Rutland family court judge granted a temporary relief from abuse order that required Eastman to stay 300 feet away from her child. But Judge Cortland Corsones indicated that he wouldn’t grant a permanent restraining order until the complaints were proven during a hearing in which police and DCF workers testified.
Such a hearing never occurred, Wysolmerski said, because the restraining order and investigation turned out to be the final leverage he and Brown needed to reach an agreement with Eastman for full custody of the child.
Eastman, reached by phone Friday, didn’t deny that she was dealing with a number of problems in her life while the child custody fight was taking place regarding her eldest daughter.
However, she said her life wasn’t as unstable as Brown and his lawyer made it out to be.
“I’ve never harmed any of them,” she said of her children, including a daughter born earlier this year from her relationship with Duby. That child has been in DCF custody since February.
“He thought things were going on around her that weren’t,” she said of Brown’s complaints in the past. “They were based on lies from someone else. I’m not saying I was innocent but I wasn’t as bad as what he was hearing.”
Eastman said she is also happy that her oldest daughter is in Brown’s care.
“I wouldn’t dream of trying to take her now,” she said. “I know they’re taking good care of her.”
The daughter of Eastman and Brown was never placed in DCF custody during the events that transpired three years ago, but Wysolmerski said DCF representatives did participate in court proceedings and kept a file of the deteriorating state of Eastman’s life at that time.
DCF Commissioner Dave Yacovone said Friday that he couldn’t discuss either the case involving Dezirae or Eastman’s eldest daughter and he said he couldn’t comment on whether DCF officials considered elements from Eastman’s earlier case while deciding whether to return Dezirae to her care.
Representatives with the state Department of Corrections did testify at the hearings about Eastman’s probation violation, Wysolmerski added, but could add only a limited amount of insight into the welfare of the child who was in Eastman’s custody.
Representatives with DOC said Friday that they couldn’t comment on Eastman’s case, which is presently the subject of an internal DCF investigation and external inquiries being conducted by an independent group and by a panel of state legislators.
But generally speaking, probation officers work to report and investigate any information about a child at risk who is living with an offender on probation, according to Rutland Probation and Parole District Manager Keith Tallon.
“We’re absolutely interested in the welfare of the child but we are limited largely to ensuring compliance with court conditions and we generally see the people we supervise in offices, so there is somewhat limited observation,” Tallon said.
“If we feel a child is in danger with anything regarding someone we oversee we report it and we often contact DCF in cases where we put offenders in homes where children are present,” said Dale Crook, the DOC director of field services.
In Wysolmerski’s opinion, Brown’s daughter would most likely have remained in Eastman’s custody if he and the girl’s father hadn’t intervened.
“It’s not that (DCF) are bad people. They’re just understaffed, underfunded and under-trained for what they need to deal with,” he said.
Yacovone said he didn’t disagree with Wysolmerski’s views on understaffing and funding but he doubted whether a place existed where child service protection agencies had everything they needed.
“There’s not a child welfare commissioner in the nation who would not say they don’t need more help,” he said. “Do we need to do more? Sure we do. But we do our darnedest to protect every kid that we can and in truth, we can’t do it all ourselves. This is part of an issue bigger than DCF. It’s about poverty and moms and dads not properly raised to raise a family themselves and mental health and domestic violence. We need different approaches that focus on prevention and treat some of these issues like public health problems.”