DCF commissioner responds to criticisms in child death case
By Brent Curtis
staff writer | June 19,2014
Legislative voices are calling for personnel changes in the Rutland office of the Department for Children and Families.
But the agency’s commissioner said this week he’s not ready yet to bring any disciplinary action five months after the death of 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon.
A 40-page Vermont State Police report released late last week documented a number of mistakes and failures in communication that preceded the death of Desirae, who prosecutors say was killed by her stepfather.
Dennis Duby, 31, has pleaded innocent to second-degree murder.
Attorney General William Sorrell announced last week that no criminal charges will be brought against any DCF employees, prosecutors, private attorneys or other professionals involved in the case after Dezirae was removed from her mother’s care because of physical abuse a year before she was killed.
But while the police investigation found no evidence of criminal conduct, Sorrell wrote last week in a letter to DCF Commissioner David Yacovone that swift action was required to fix mistakes identified by the police investigator.
“There is no doubt that the state must work immediately to improve its system for protection of our most vulnerable Vermonters,” the attorney general wrote.
Yacovone said this week that his office has taken steps to improve communication and oversight — two of the most deficient areas cited by Sorrell and state police Detective Lt. James Cruise.
But two members of a legislative committee charged with looking for ways to prevent future deaths of children under state supervision said the commissioner has taken too long to look at personnel issues in his agency, especially those employees who handled Dezirae’s case.
“I don’t want people to lose their jobs necessarily, but I want proper training and I want someone in charge in the Rutland office who will never let this happen again,” said Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, who serves on the special committee.
“I do think the manager of that office has to go,” he said.
Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, co-chairman of the Committee on Child Protection, said Wednesday he saw mistakes committed “across the board” by everyone involved in Dezirae’s case — including the lawyers, prosecutor and police investigator involved.
But he said holding DCF workers in Dezirae’s case accountable was one of his priorities.
“I think some people may have to lose their jobs and others need to change the way they do business,” Sears said, adding that he wasn’t thinking of disciplinary action against any particular employee.
Pointing to the five months that have passed since Dezirae was taken to the hospital with fractures to her skull that police later said were caused by Duby, Mullin said he’s frustrated with a lack of accountability within DCF that he said stemmed from Yacovone’s unwillingness to take the initiative.
“If Yacovone is not willing to make changes, he needs to go,” the senator said.
But in an interview this week, Yacovone said his hands have been tied while his agency has waited for police investigations and an independent citizens advisory board to complete its work on the case.
“I don’t control the state police, the attorney general’s office or the advisory board, but I need to wait for them to finish before finishing my work,” the commissioner said.
That doesn’t mean a DCF internal investigation hasn’t proceeded, he said. A preliminary internal report — which Yacovone said arrived at “pretty similar” conclusions to those in the state police investigation — has been completed and delivered to the advisory board.
However, the final report, and any decisions concerning disciplinary actions involving DCF workers won’t be taken until the advisory board, which met for the first time last week, finishes its work.
In response to Mullin’s complaints, the commissioner also said he must proceed deliberately to avoid treading on due-process rights afforded employees through the Constitution and union contracts.
“He may never have worked in a union setting before,” Yacovone said of Mullin. “There is much due process that needs to be covered. My job is to be fair and thoughtful but to move swiftly. There’s a balance that has to be had and I haven’t concluded yet if there was misconduct.”
In response, Mullin said the state couldn’t afford to delay improvements to the system at the cost of safety to children.
“The union shouldn’t be running state government,” he said.
The commissioner said improving safety has been his priority too.
“I’m not fixated on finding blame. I want solutions,” Yacovone said.
As part of that aim, the commissioner said he is promoting a “culture of support” within his agency.
That support is being provided in the form of additional training, a requirement that workers in cases of physical child abuse must consult with the main office and a planned upgrade to 30-year-old technology in DCF.
Yacovone said that technology has proved to be “not very nimble” at keeping staff members informed of details in cases.
Technological glitches were cited in the state police report as a contributing factor to communication breakdowns that prevented information from reaching all parties involved in Dezirae’s case.
Perhaps the most glaring lapse in communication was knowledge obtained by some DCF workers that Duby was involved in providing care to the toddler when she was brought to the hospital with two broken legs a year before her death.
A Rutland police detective who investigated the injuries interviewed the girl’s mother, Sandra Eastman, but never met Duby, her boyfriend at the time, or learned about his role in the girl’s life.
Eastman was eventually convicted of child abuse for neglecting to seek medical treatment about a week after her daughter’s legs were broken. Dezirae was removed from the home and placed with family members for seven months.
She was returned to her mother’s care after Eastman “participated and made progress in counseling, gained parenting skills and maintained visitation with (Dezirae),” Sorrell wrote in his letter.
Exactly who broke the girl’s legs was never determined, but Eastman later claimed to DCF that it was Duby who had hurt the girl.
DCF workers also later learned that Duby and Eastman had married and Eastman was pregnant with his child before Dezirae was returned to her mother’s care.
None of the information gathered about Duby was delivered to the state’s attorney who prosecuted the child abuse case or to the attorney who represented the child in family court.
“It appears that I was the only person that had the ability to have access to all the materials developed in the court of this case and investigation,” Cruise wrote after completing his review.
Yacovone said he wants to strengthen the lines of communication and then test them by hiring an independent agency to conduct a “stress test” on his agency’s systems and procedures.