It is encouraging that a special Senate panel investigating the death of 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon is taking an aggressive approach to its duties.
Dezirae was the Poultney girl who died last month from injuries allegedly inflicted by her stepfather. Her death set off a cry of outrage from people who thought that the state Department for Children and Families was wrong in returning Dezirae to the custody of her mother, Sandra Eastman, after Eastman had been convicted of physically abusing the girl. Now it appears that the story may be more complicated than simple incompetence by DCF, and the Senate committee plans to issue subpoenas to try to discover the full story.
The panel received new information last weekend on Eastman’s earlier criminal conviction. In 2008, when she was 24 years old, she was charged with sexual assault for having sexual relations with a 15-year-old boy. It was the disposition of that case, and the records of the case, that may have created a trail of misinformation that led to ill-advised decisions by social workers six years later, leading to Dezirae’s death.
Back in 2008 Eastman pleaded guilty to lewd and lascivious conduct with a child, a charge of less severity than the original charge of sexual assault. It was a typical sort of plea agreement; more than 90 percent of criminal cases are settled in a similar manner.
But there were problems with what followed. Eastman received a sentence of 18 months to seven years, all of it suspended, which did not meet the statutory minimum. More seriously, the wrong code was applied to the papers documenting the plea agreement, making it appear to anyone checking the record that she had been convicted of a lesser crime. In addition, documents from her case indicate she should have been entered on the state’s sexual offender registry, but she never was.
Sen. Richard Sears, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and co-chairman of the special investigative panel, was concerned enough by these revelations that he thought the committee should look more deeply into the matter. Thus, he believes the panel should be ready to issue subpoenas in order to obtain the information needed to explore the issue further.
Of immediate concern is the question of how often court documents contain erroneous information. If a social worker in 2013 is trying to make a determination about the fitness of a parent, the parent’s full criminal history must be evident. It was already clear from her abuse conviction that Sandra Eastman was not a model parent. What would DCF personnel have concluded if they had known she had also previously been charged with sexual assault on a teenager and that the charges had been reduced? For that matter, how much did DCF workers know in the Eastman case?
One of the fears of anyone facing the prospect of intervention by DCF is that the family will be entangled in the state bureaucracy. In fact, DCF is a bureaucracy, and it has to be. It deals with hundreds of complaints, and it tries to do so fairly and compassionately. Further, the complaints it handles often involve serious crime and pathology. A state office dealing with hundreds of complex cases can’t improvise on the fly. It needs procedures.
But those procedures have to be carried out with exactitude. Sears and the special panel are charged with determining where things went wrong in the Dezirae Sheldon case, and that means looking at the trail of information that allowed a little girl to remain in a household where she had already been abused and where, in the end, her stepfather now stands charged with her murder.
An aggressive and thorough examination of this case could help reveal flaws in the system, allowing for changes that could make the bureaucracy work more smoothly and with greater accuracy. That is the hope. The senators should not allow rules of confidentiality to create walls of stone preventing them from getting the full story.
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