It is a horror to contemplate: a 2-year-old girl brutally beaten to death by someone charged with loving and protecting her.
And yet that is the allegation lodged against a 31-year-old Poultney man, Dennis Duby, who is alleged to have murdered his stepdaughter, Dezirae Sheldon.
It was not the first betrayal suffered by Dezirae. Last year, the girl’s mother was convicted of misdemeanor charges of child abuse after her daughter arrived at the Rutland Regional Medical Center with both legs broken.
It is the ultimate violation of all that is human, and emotions surrounding the case are running high. How could they not be? Dezirae had been in the custody of an aunt for seven months after the girl was taken from her mother. Later, the mother, Sandra Eastman, regained custody. The question is how state officials reached the decision to return the girl to the mother who had brutalized her.
Questions ripple out from the case, encompassing decisions by caseworkers and the ability of the Department for Children and Families to protect vulnerable children. The case of Dezirae Sheldon is the nightmare scenario haunting all social workers, bureaucrats and politicians who make decisions about the welfare of others. Now those decisions must come under the closest scrutiny.
Ultimate responsibility rests with the person who committed the crime. The court will settle that question. But responsibility for the protection of children is widely shared. The child’s mother had a responsibility for making sure that those who were minding the child could be trusted. It is plain she failed on that count, and her previous record suggests she had failed before.
That the child had previously come to the attention of child welfare officials and then been returned to her mother raises serious questions that cannot be avoided and which reach to the highest levels of state government. The train of decisions must be followed from the lowest level to the highest.
Dezirae was removed from her mother’s custody in March, and in July Eastman, the mother, pleaded guilty to child abuse. She received two years of probation and mandatory anger management counseling. In December she regained custody of her child.
Her relatives say they warned state officials not to give the girl back to her mother. Concerned relatives included the girl’s grandmother, her biological father and two aunts. One aunt told a disturbing story about attending her niece’s birthday party just last week, the girl clinging to her and crying. The aunt said she told the state caseworker what she had seen and the caseworker had said, “Oh, all kids do that.”
We don’t know the details of the relatives’ interactions with state officials, and it would be easy to vilify a hard-pressed social worker. But it is important to know what happened. To his credit the commissioner of children and families, David Yacovone, came to Rutland on Monday to talk with protesters gathered in front of the state office building. He said there would be an internal investigation by his department and another investigation by an outside party. It is vital that all investigations are thorough and unsparing.
Yacovone alluded to the difficulty his limited staff has in keeping up with the caseload of 700 children in foster care and 16,000 reported cases of abuse. Those difficulties suggest the state’s investigation must reach far higher than the specifics of the case of Dezirae Sheldon.
It is no secret that budget cuts reaching back into the last decade have taken a serious toll on staffing at the Agency of Human Services, and problems have arisen in a variety of programs. Whenever budget cuts inhibit the ability of human service agencies to do their jobs, warnings are often heard that the state is playing with fire — that we are one horrific crime away from regretting our budget austerities.
We have had that crime. The case of Dezirae Sheldon requires the attention of Gov. Peter Shumlin, Human Services Secretary Douglas Racine and the entire human services bureaucracy. The haunting question remains: How many other Deziraes are out there living in danger?
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