Protesters say state agency accountable for toddler’s killingBy Brent Curtis
staff writer | February 25,2014Anthony Edwards / Staff Photo
Child abuse advocate Adrienne Cole speaks face to face with Vermont Department for Children and Families Commissioner Dave Yacovone, foreground, about the department’s decision to place 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon with her birth mother Sandra Eastman prior to the child’s death last week.Phyllis Sheldon has no doubt that her granddaughter would still be alive if she had been kept away from the mother who abused her.
“She was safe living with (her aunt),” Sheldon said Monday. “(The state Department for Children and Family Services) needs to be held accountable for putting her back in a home with monsters.”
Sandra Eastman, the mother of 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon, isn’t charged with killing her daughter. Police say it was her husband, Dezirae’s stepfather, Dennis Duby, 31, who fractured the toddler’s skull, causing her death.
But Phyllis Sheldon and a large group of family members, friends and other concerned citizens said Monday that the state agency was too quick to return the helpless child to an environment where she’d been abused in the past.
Carrying signs with slogans such as “Who is protecting the children?” dozens of protesters lined the sidewalk outside the Rutland office building that houses the local branch of DCF.
“The message we want to get out is ‘Do your job. Protect these kids,’” Phyllis Sheldon said. “Don’t give kids back to abusive parents. Don’t put them back in that environment.”
In Dezirae’s case, she was removed from her mother’s custody in March 2013 after the 11-month-old child was brought to the hospital with fractures to both legs. Eastman pleaded guilty in July to a misdemeanor offense of child abuse and was sentenced to two years of probation and mandatory violence counseling for anger management.
Soon after Eastman was charged, Dezirae was placed in the custody of her aunt, Patricia Holden, who cared for her during the next seven months.
But before the start of the new year, the child was returned to her mother over the objections of both her biological father’s family and her mother’s family. One of Eastman’s sisters, Lisa Eastman, of Albany, N.Y., posted on Facebook and a fundraising site for Dezirae that she petitioned DCF last year not to return her niece to Sandra Eastman.
DCF Commissioner Dave Yacovone came to the protest Monday because he said he wanted to look the family in the face while offering his condolences.
He said he couldn’t discuss the details of Dezirae’s case due to confidentiality restrictions, although he did say that his agency would conduct both an internal and external investigation into the handling of her case.
“I want an external investigation too because at the end of the day, I don’t want it to come down to Dave reviewing his own actions,” he said.
While he declined to give an opinion on how her case was handled, Yacovone did talk about the difficulties his limited staff have handling the 700 children in foster care in Vermont every year and the 16,000 reports of child abuse his staff reviews annually. Only about a quarter of those complaints are substantiated, he added.
Yacovone found little sympathy for his agency’s hardships from Dezirae’s family and supporters.
“DCF allowed this to happen,” one woman shouted at Yacovone.
“That passion and anger is what drives us to look at things thoroughly,” the commissioner told reporters after the woman spoke.
Yacovone also said the decision to return a child to its parents in abuse cases wasn’t a decision his staff made alone.
“No one person decides,” he said. “There’s a process and the courts are involved.”
In Dezirae’s case, her family maintains that the system failed despite numerous warnings.
Holden said she told her niece’s DCF caseworker that Eastman was unstable and her home was a dangerous environment.
“We told them we knew she was going to get hurt,” Holden said. “Three months after her daughter was taken away (Eastman) was pregnant and getting married. She wasn’t focusing on her daughter at all.”
When Holden returned her niece to her mother, Eastman had neither a car seat nor a crib for her to sleep in.
Three days before Dezirae was fatally injured, Holden said she attended her niece’s birthday party and was disturbed by her behavior.
“She held on to me so tight and I kept saying ‘This doesn’t feel right’... She was just holding on to me so tight and she was crying and I could tell something was wrong,” she said.
But when Holden said she talked to Dezirae’s DCF caseworker about her doubts the next day, she was dismissed.
“She said ‘Oh, all kids do that,’ and that was it,” she said.
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