The death of a 2-year-old child has prompted Vermont officials to begin internal and external investigations into the state Department of Children and families and how the state responds to child abuse matters.
The details of the case are still unraveling, but what is known is that 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon died last Friday from a fractured skull. Her stepfather was charged with second-degree murder; he has pleaded not guilty.
It was not the first abuse incident. Court records show her mother was convicted last year of cruelty to a child stemming from an incident when doctors reported two broken legs. Family members had asked that the Department of Children and Families take the toddler away from her mother and stepfather. But if a child is placed in state custody, such a move must get a judge’s approval.
Governor Peter Shumlin has asked the Agency of Human Services to conduct an both an internal investigation and convene an independent external panel to look into the situation.
The Vermont Senate will also review the case. Vermont Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell says the difference is that a 2-year-old has died, and one has to wonder if there are deficiencies in the system.
“The Governor of course is doing the right thing. He’s calling for an independent investigation. One that is outside his administration. At the same time, what I’ve done is asked my senators, a group of them who have had experience in the child protection services area, to take an independent look themselves at the current status of the child protective system in Vermont and to see if there are things we can see from a different vantage point that may need to be changed.”
Prevent Child Abuse Vermont Executive Director Linda Johnson notes that the Department of Children and Families is part of a large administrative system. “They first need to look at this case and how did we fail Dezirae. I think they need to look not just at DCF, but at our judicial system, at family court and any other organization or entity that weighed in on this. But then we need to look more broadly at who needs more training. What kind of policies need to be in place so that we don’t endanger children who had already had severe trauma. A 2-year-old really cannot articulate the danger she’s in.”
Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence Executive Director Karen Tronsgard-Scott says the DCF has a nationally recognized innovative Domestic Violence Investigation division to forestall family and child abuse. Even so, she notes, of the eight homicides in 2013 in the state, seven were related to domestic violence incidents. “The Domestic Violence Fatality Review Commission, which is out of the Attorney General’s office is taking a look at most of those. So there will be this look at what happened in each one of these situations and how the system functioned. With the goal of making the systems more and more and more responsive so we can prevent these kinds of horrendous losses.”
The Senate panel to review child abuse matters will meet for the first time next Wednesday.