MONTPELIER — The recent deaths of two toddlers have spurred several investigations into the state’s laws and policies and have sparked public outrage about how the Department for Children and Families has performed its duties.
But the extent of the challenges faced in Vermont runs even deeper, said Essex County State’s Attorney Vincent Illuzzi, who said many abuse cases don’t involve DCF and the majority never make it to the public domain because “most of them are protected by the cloak of confidentiality.”
The department has been heavily scrutinized and castigated by the public after the deaths of 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon, of Poultney, in February, and 15-month-old Peighton Geraw, of Winooski, in April. Both children were involved with DCF when they died, and both had been returned to their homes after being in the department’s custody.
A third child, 22-month-old Mason Keithan, died in St. Johnsbury on Saturday. Vermont State Police spokeswoman Stephanie Dasaro said in a news release Monday that an autopsy revealed no signs of physical trauma, but the cause and manner of death are pending a final autopsy and toxicology report. There has been no indication the boy was involved with DCF.
There are several ongoing investigations, including criminal proceedings in both the Sheldon and Geraw cases, and an independent review of DCF. A special legislative Committee on Child Protection including members of both the House and Senate kicks off a public hearing tour today. The committee will hear directly from Vermonters in nine locations over three days.
Gov. Peter Shumlin, meanwhile, has called for a series of major changes within DCF. He has asked Human Services Secretary Douglas Racine to deliver a plan to restructure the agency this summer and has pledged to add more caseworkers to help address a growing caseload.
But efforts to protect Vermont’s children must extend beyond the department, Illuzzi said. Child abuse cases that do dribble out into the media and public involve criminal charges or death, Illuzzi said. Many others are never made public.
“A lot of these cases never make it into the press because it has to generate a criminal case,” he said. “You have to prove who did it. You have to figure out when it happens, and you have to figure out who had access to the child. It’s easier said than done.”
Illuzzi said there is an open investigation in Essex County now that involves a brain injury suffered by a baby under the age of 1. Additional information is not public, he said, but he did say DCF is not involved.
“Shaken babies doesn’t sound very traumatic, but it really is,” Illuzzi said. “It can cause a lifetime vegetative state, developmental disorders.”
Similar cases are investigated around the state but because they cannot be proven are never made public, according to Illuzzi.
“A lot of the cases, the kids, the babies, are sustaining serious, traumatic injury and are impacted for the rest of their life,” he said. “But you’re not going to learn about that because there’s no criminal charges and there’s no death.”
“There’s no question that the public is unaware of it because (those involved) are shielded under the confidentiality of family court,” Illuzzi added.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, the co-chairman of the special committee, said lawmakers hope to learn how widespread problems are.
“That’s part of what we’re probably going to hear as we go around the state,” he said.
The special legislative committee will meet in Chester, Manchester and Rutland today, followed by St. Albans, Winooski and Middlebury on Thursday. The committee completes its hearings June 10 in St. Johnsbury, Morrisville and Montpelier.
For details on locations and schedules, go to http://www.leg.state.vt.us and look under Highlights.
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