Investigations into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dezirae Sheldon are making progress, though a sense of urgency about the need to protect vulnerable children has made legislative leaders impatient about finding solutions.
Vermont State Police looked into the case, and their report did not find grounds for criminal prosecution of state employees who had responsibility for protecting Dezirae, the 2-year-old Poultney girl who was allegedly murdered by her stepfather. But their report did identify failures in communication within the Department for Children and Families that led the department to return custody of the girl to her mother, who had previously been found guilty of negligence.
Legislators and other policymakers are especially worried about systemic problems leading to flawed communication and the potential endangerment of children. It has been five months since Dezirae’s death, yet no one has been held accountable for the decisions that put her in danger.
The man on the spot is David Yacovone, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families. Attorney General William Sorrell has written to Yacovone after release of the state police report, saying that immediate action is necessary to improve communications and fix other problems within DCF.
Yacovone says he has made improvements, but so far no one has been fired, and no visible shake-up at the department has occurred. Legislators are pressing for more immediate action. Sen. Kevin Mullin said, “I want someone in charge in the Rutland office who will never let this happen again. ... I do think the manager of that office has to go.”
Sen. Richard Sears is also pressing for change. “I think some people may have to lose their jobs, and others need to change the way they do business,” he said. And among those whose jobs ought to be on the line, according to Sears, is Yacovone. “If Yacovone is not willing to make changes, he needs to go,” Sears said.
Ultimately, any decision about Yacovone’s job will fall to Gov. Peter Shumlin, along with Human Services Secretary Douglas Racine. Yacovone himself has said that actions on his part have had to wait until the completion of the state police investigation, as well as an investigation by an independent citizens advisory board.
The state police report has been completed only recently, and the advisory board met for the first time only last week. DCF has carried out its own investigation, and its findings parallel those of the state police, according to Yacovone. He has insisted that actions against state employees need to follow a careful process in order to protect workers’ rights.
If Racine and Shumlin decide reforms at DCF require new leadership or that Yacovone is moving too slowly, then he may have to go. But removing a leader who is fully engaged in making the necessary reforms and is working to guide the department through a difficult time might be self-defeating. It is important for legislators to keep the heat on, and action by Yacovone must be decisive and real. But Yacovone himself, and whether he stays, is not the issue.
Dezirae’s case points the way to some of the changes that are required. Yacovone acknowledged that technology problems had prevented his department from keeping everyone informed about details of her case. Apparently, information about the role of Dennis Duby, Dezirae’s stepfather, in the life of the little girl, and the part he may have had in an earlier abuse case, was never communicated by DCF workers to police or others involved in deciding whether Dezirae ought to be returned to her mother. Now Duby stands accused of killing Dezirae.
These are bureaucratic procedures — making sure everyone has critical information about life-and-death decisions involving the welfare of children. Yacovone and those who work for him are accountable for making those procedures work and for ensuring that the welfare of children does not get lost in the process. Racine is also accountable, and so is Shumlin. Legislators must continue to press for answers and for changes that will make a difference.
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