The Vermont Supreme Court ruled Friday that a mandated reporter does not have to report something that has already been reported.
The court threw out a lawsuit against Nicholas Ruggiero, an administrative reviewer for the Vermont Department of Children and Families, by Willis Sheldon, the father of the late Dezirae Sheldon.
The lawsuit argued that Ruggiero was negligent in failing to report an abuse allegation that Dezirae’s mother made against the child’s stepfather in 2013. The stepfather, Dennis Duby, would later plead guilty to second-degree murder for causing head injuries that killed Dezirae the following year.
By the time Ruggiero became involved in the case in May of 2013, DCF had already found that Sandra Eastman, the girl’s mother, had committed medical neglect of Dezirae when the 1-year-old’s legs were broken. Ruggiero was assigned to review the caseworker’s findings and either accept them or reject them in favor of further investigation.
Ruggiero interviewed Eastman as part of that process, according to court records, during which she repeated a number of conflicting claims about Dezirae’s injuries that she made in her earlier interview with the caseworker, including that Duby was responsible. Ruggiero upheld the finding against the mother, and his report mentioned the claims regarding Duby, but Willis Sheldon sued Ruggiero arguing that he had not formally reported the claim, which contributed to DCF returning Dezirae to Eastman’s home, where Duby inflicted the fatal injuries.
The court’s 15-page decision said there was no negligence in failing to report something that DCF already knew.
“(T)he allegations added nothing to the existing universe of allegations, and mother’s recitation of the repititious allegations alongside various other inconsistent claims was not sufficient to trigger a duty to report,” the court wrote. “(S)omeone in defendant’s position — an administrative reviewer examining DCF’s substantiation of already-reported and investigated abuse — is not required to rereport the allegations that have already been reported and investigated.”
The court also rejected an argument that a conversation Ruggiero had with the caseworker constituted a separate investigation that was conducted negligently, noting that “nobody — not Dezirae, not plaintiffs, not DCF — could have relied on defendant’s uncommunicated undertaking to their detriment.”
In 2017, Sheldon settled a wrongful death lawsuit with the state for $500,000, saying he had no intention to keep any of the money. The case also triggered a review of how DCF handles child abuse cases and a shake-up of the department’s leadership. Duby was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison, all but 13 suspended.