MONTPELIER — The Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations is investigating the death of a second child in Vermont within the past few months, raising ire among some lawmakers about the lack of information shared with them by state officials.
Sen. Dick Sears, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and co-chairman of the special Senate Review Panel on Child Protection, learned Wednesday through the media of the death of a 14-month-old boy in Winooski on or around April 4.
The special Senate panel was created after 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon, of Poultney, died in February from severe head trauma, allegedly at the hands of her stepfather, Dennis Duby, who has pleaded innocent to a second-degree murder charge.
Public outrage erupted after it was revealed that Dezirae was returned to her mother, Sandra Eastman, 31, also of Poultney, despite a 2013 conviction for cruelty to a child for not immediately seeking treatment for the girl’s two broken legs. Despite the conviction, the Department for Children and Families returned Dezirae to live with Eastman shortly before the girl’s death.
Lawmakers have received no official word from the Agency of Human Services about the death of the boy, however, and there has been no direct or public link to child abuse at this point. Additionally, it remains unclear whether the boy was under the care or supervision of DCF.
The panel, named by Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, is looking into the state’s laws and policies to ascertain if changes are needed in how abuse cases are handled in the state.
The panel is already in the process of seeking subpoena power to compel witness testimony and give it access to DCF case files. However, DCF Commissioner David Yacovone, citing state and federal statutes, has somewhat preempted that effort by writing a memo to the panel declaring that DCF will only release aggregate data, not specific case files.
Both Sears and Campbell said Thursday their frustration is growing as the potential second case emerged and no information has been forthcoming by DCF. There are some indications that DCF may have been involved in the care of the boy, Sears said, but he was unable to confirm that Thursday.
“A child is dead. We don’t know the circumstances. Nobody will say anything,” Sears said.
AHS Secretary Doug Racine said Thursday that he “cannot confirm or deny” whether the boy was under the care or supervision of DCF.
“It’s an active investigation by the Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations,” Racine said. “So there are no public reports on autopsy results. They are investigating as they do with an untimely death without a pre-existing condition. There’s no conclusion that I’m aware of.”
CUSI Director Sgt. Michael Warren, a member of the Burlington Police Department, said an initial autopsy report was completed the day after the child’s death, but more analysis must be finished before it is complete and a cause of death is determined.
“In this case, it doesn’t mean anything is suspicious or not suspicious because it doesn’t give us anything,” Warren said.
Racine said he has no information about whether or not the death of the boy is related to child abuse or neglect. “The thing is … I don’t know. If it’s natural causes, then whether a family was ever involved with state government is irrelevant,” he said.
Meanwhile, the state’s confidentiality laws prevent officials from releasing any information about DCF cases, Racine said. “Those are the laws and that’s what I abide by,” he said.
Upon learning of the boy’s death on Wednesday, Sears said he sought additional information from Yacovone.
“I got back a note saying, ‘The case is under investigation, can’t discuss the details,’” Sears said.
The special Senate panel may now look to change state law to allow more information to be released, Sears said.
“That is one of the laws that I want to look at, the confidentiality,” Sears said. “A child’s death should mean something and if you can’t make the changes in policy because you can’t even get the information that went wrong it’s really sad.”
The Senate panel will not be able to complete its charge if information is not released by DCF, Sears said.
“I’m always optimistic, but as long as the veil of secrecy is there and we can’t get at what really went wrong, then you don’t make sweeping changes. That’s a huge hurdle,” Sears said. “As long as there’s the veil of secrecy it’s going to be difficult to come up with what went wrong.”
Campbell said he is prepared to push for the records needed by the panel to complete its review of the state’s child abuse laws and processes. That could mean challenging DCF’s refusal of records after any and all related criminal investigations are complete, he said.
“I understood and was willing to accept the fact that … we would not interfere with a criminal investigation. However, once that investigation is concluded, I would expect that the (Department for Children and Families) would and should provide us with all documentation regarding this incident.”
The recent dearth of information provided by DCF regarding the death of the baby boy in Winooski appears to be hardening the resolve of senators to access records.
“We are separate branches of government, but we are the government. We’re charged with protecting the health and safety of our children and I’ll be damned if we’re going to have roadblocks put in our way. I don’t want one other child to have to suffer the fate that Dezirae did. That’s why I, and I think Sen. Sears agrees, we’re going to look under every rock,” Campbell said.
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