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Vt. to Review State Child Abuse Policies

Montpelier — Vermont has generally done a very good job in looking out for children’s welfare, state Agency of Human Services Secretary Doug Racine told a state Senate panel looking into child abuse issues in the wake of a Rutland County toddler’s death last month.

Racine told lawmakers his agency would cooperate fully with their investigation, which grew out of the death of 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon, whose stepfather is charged with second-degree murder in her death.

“Bad things do happen, and if there’s something that can be done and we can learn out of this, and that you can learn out of this, where we could do even better, then I would welcome that,” Racine said.

Senate President Pro-Tem John Campbell, D-Quechee, introduced the panel by outlining topics for the panel to tackle in their investigation, including county differences in procedure, caseworker qualifications, funding impacts, how custody decisions are made and defining existing legal child protections.

State senators, including the entire Rutland County delegation — Sen. Peg Flory, Sen. Eldred French and Sen. Kevin Mullin — are reviewing possible revisions to statutory practices involving child abuse matters, not specific cases. Sen. Dick Sears and Sen. Claire Ayer are co-chairs and Sen. Ann Cummings and Sen. Jane Kitchel are also on the panel.

Dezirae, of Poultney, died in February after suffering severe head trauma. Her stepfather, Dennis Duby, has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder in her death. Records show that Dezirae had a history of child abuse injuries and her mother Sandra Eastman was convicted last year of cruelty to a child.

Campbell said in his statement Dezirae had, for a time, been removed from her home by Department for Children and Families.

Flory, R-Pittsford, said the committee isn’t meant to point fingers.

“We’re looking at where did the system fail, is it a systemic failure, if so, how do we best fix it,” Flory said.

Flory said the committee will look beyond DCF at the issues in a broad scope and be careful not to impede the police investigation into Dezirae’s death.

During the meeting, panel co-chair Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington wondered if the child welfare system’s propensity to keep children in their homes was influenced by statue or a result of personal judgment.

“I think (the panel) is an important part of the process as we examine Vermont’s response to physical abuse of children,” Sears said after the meeting.

Sears invoked the case of Brooke Bennett, a 12-year-old murdered and sexually assaulted by her sex-offender uncle in Randolph, as another case that had a significant influence on public policy. Bennett’s 2008 death prompted the Vermont Legislature to strengthen the state’s sex offender laws.

“The experience after the Brooke Bennett murder certainly changed Vermont’s response to child sexual abuse, and perhaps this panel can help, if needed, change Vermont’s response to child physical abuse,” Sears said.

The Senate panel will meet again next Wednesday at the statehouse.