MONTPELIER — A panel of lawmakers is moving forward with a plan to secure subpoena power in its review of state policies regarding child abuse investigations.
The Senate Review Panel on Child Protection reviewed a proposed resolution Wednesday crafted by Luke Martland, director and chief counsel in the Office of Legislative Council. The resolution would grant the committee power to “compel the attendance of witnesses” as well as obtain records that are not public from courts and the Department for Children and Families.
The resolution would also allow the panel to meet up to 10 times after the Legislature adjourns. Members said Wednesday they wanted to meet around the state to hear from Vermonters.
The special 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.
Panel members are now looking into the state’s laws and policies to ascertain if any changes are needed.
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, DCF returned Dezirae to live with Eastman shortly before the girl’s death.
Last week the panel learned of discrepancies in a previous criminal case involving Eastman. She was charged in 2008 with sexual assault for having sexual relations with a 15-year-old boy, a relationship that resulted in her becoming pregnant. She was 24 at the time.
After pleading guilty to lewd and lascivious conduct with a child, Eastman was given a sentence below the mandatory minimum in state statute. An incorrect charge code appeared on the plea agreement document that led the court and state agencies to believe Eastman was convicted of a different crime.
Michelle Childs with the Office of Legislative Council told the panel Wednesday that a Rutland County judge signed an order Monday to correct Eastman’s record. That information was sent to the Vermont Criminal Information Center, which has already corrected her criminal record and updated the sex offender registry and its Internet site to include Eastman.
Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and co-chairman of the special panel, said it remains unclear if the group will even use the power it is seeking. They want to have that option in place, however.
“We have no idea whether we will use it or not use it, but once the legislative session is over, unless the committee has that power from the full Senate we can’t get it because the Senate has adjourned,” he said.
Because of an ongoing criminal investigation, lawmakers will not seek records or information related specifically to Dezirae Sheldon’s case.
“We can’t because that might interfere with an ongoing investigation. I think it would be unwise, unless the case suddenly got settled tomorrow,” Sears said. “In these hearings, the intent would be to clearly focus on the state’s response to child abuse.”
Instead, the panel will likely review resolved cases in different parts of the state to compare how cases are handled and determine which methods and policies work best.
“We would probably … take three cases in Franklin County, three cases in Rutland County and three in Bennington County and see how are they dealt with differently,” Sears said. “And it may not even be the committee. It may be the staff looking at those.”
The panel took no action on the resolution Wednesday, and will revisit the issue next week.
Meanwhile, Jennifer Poehlmann, executive director of The Vermont Children’s Alliance, provided the panel with recommendations for improving Vermont’s laws and policies in child abuse investigations. Among the recommendations:
Adoption of a child endangerment law that would allow caregivers to be held accountable for serious injuries to a child that are ruled non-accidental but do not require proof of intent beyond a reasonable doubt to convict.
Treatment programming for offenders specific to child abuse.
More time for officials to assess risk before returning a child to a home.
Increased resources for training medical providers in identification of child abuse.
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