• A time for calm
    February 28,2014

    It is worth taking a moment to pause and collect ourselves following news of the killing of 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon.

    She is the child who died of injuries that, according to police, were inflicted by her stepfather.

    After that terrible event, the rage of some was directed at state social workers who had been involved in the case of Dezirae and her mother. The state had returned the girl to her mother’s custody in December even though the mother previously had been convicted of abusing the girl.

    Now, police are keeping a watchful eye on the state office building in Rutland because some workers have been the target of threatening notes left on the windshields of their cars. The case has called into question decisions by personnel at the Department for Children and Families, which may or may not have a share of responsibility for the chain of events that led to the girl’s death. But it is no time for personal attacks; it is time for calm and reflection.

    Outrage, sorrow, revulsion — all are appropriate responses to a crime as hideous as the one that took place last week. And the crime has not gone unnoticed. Gov. Peter Shumlin has said the Agency of Human Services will undertake a thorough review of the case to determine if and where the system broke down. That is an appropriate channel for the emotions provoked by the crime.

    There will also be a criminal trial for the defendant in the case, Dennis Duby of Poultney. That is where we can expect the facts about what happened to Dezirae to emerge.

    One of the important purposes of the investigation will be to restore confidence in the state’s programs for the protection of children. That confidence has been shattered by this crime, as the anger directed toward the Department for Children and Families has shown. If there was a failure of judgment, a programmatic failure, an organizational failure, a failure of staffing, the people of Vermont need to know.

    One obstacle toward accountability and transparency is the cloak of confidentiality that ordinarily protects proceedings of the Department for Children and Families. Confidentiality is especially important in protecting children, but in this case, the child in question is no longer alive. Protecting her privacy is no longer required. Thus, transparency involving state programs and the life of Dezirae Sheldon would seem to be, not only possible, but mandatory.

    It would not be unprecedented for the Agency of Human Services to go into a protective crouch after this terrible crime. The priority of bureaucracies is often more about escaping blame (and avoiding lawsuits) than it is about revealing their own dysfunction. That’s why an outside investigator of unqualified integrity must examine the case with thoroughness and make known to the public details of his or her findings.

    Those details must examine issues pertaining to the specifics of Dezirae’s case as well as broader questions about the functioning of programs and whether they have the resources they need. And the results of the investigation must be available to the public without redactions caused by specious claims of confidentiality.

    Only through an aggressive look at the case will the public be satisfied that their concerns are being heard. It is through the responsible actions of government that the high emotions surrounding tragic incidents such as this one can be answered without resort to the unseemly vigilantism that appears to have found an outlet in inappropriate threats.

    Court proceedings are tightly scripted by procedures and laws designed to keep emotions in check and to allow a reasoned look at the facts and the law. Now the state’s programs for children are on trial, and the investigation into Dezirae’s case must be conducted with similar fairness, objectivity and thoroughness. The public must be shown it can respect the process and the outcome. That way, the roiling emotions stirred up by this terrible case may lead to a constructive outcome.

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