MONTPELIER -- Gov. Peter Shumlin ordered the Agency of Human Services on Tuesday to conduct an outside investigation into its handling of the case of a 2-year-old Rutland County girl with a history of child abuse injuries who was allegedly killed last week by her stepfather.
And the state Senate announced it is creating a special panel to review child abuse matters.
Records show that social workers recommended that Poultney resident Sandra Eastman's child, Dezirae Sheldon, be placed in state care during the investigation of the girl's hospitalization for broken bones. Eastman was charged and later convicted of misdemeanor cruelty to a child for Dezirae's injuries. Eastman remains on probation for the July conviction.
Public records do not indicate if Dezirae was placed in state custody at any time.
"This situation just breaks my heart," Shumlin said Tuesday. "When I was informed of this tragedy, I asked (Human Services) Secretary (Douglas) Racine to conduct not only the usual internal investigation following such incidents, but also to convene an independent, external investigation immediately."
Racine said that in his more than three years heading the agency that oversees the Department of Children and Families, which investigates abuse cases in Vermont, the agency had not conducted an external review of this nature and he didn't expect it to be a quick investigation.
"I think we owe it to this child and her family to say we're going to take a look at this," Racine said.
Sen. President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, said he had asked a small group of senators with specific background and expertise in the multiple areas of child protection to review the details of the request from the Rutland County delegation. Campbell said the panel would meet Wednesday and that they would most likely begin looking at general policy this session. They would not be analyzing the specific details of Dezirae's case until the administration's investigation ended.
"The death of this poor child is one that has touched all of our hearts, calling forth a wide array of emotions-- anguish, sadness, and disbelief. It is incumbent upon us to determine whether the factors that led to this heartbreaking incident could have been prevented by legislative action," Campbell said.
Dezirae died Friday at the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center two days after her mother took her to the Rutland Regional Medical Center when the girl was unresponsive. On Monday, Eastman's husband and Dezirae's stepfather, Dennis Duby, 31, of Poultney, pleaded not guilty to charge of second-degree murder. Duby is being held for lack of $250,000 bail.
Duby told investigators he saw Dezirae walk into her bedroom and heard a thud, court documents said. In later accounts, Duby said she had fallen in the bathroom first from standing on the toilet but then walked into the bedroom and fell again.
Documents in the Duby case make clear Eastman was not in their Poultney apartment when her daughter was injured. But a state police detective said staff at the Rutland hospital reported Eastman was "inappropriately unemotional" while medical personnel were working on her daughter.
A nurse at the hospital told investigators Eastman was talking on her phone and texting and didn't show any concern until Dezirae's biological father arrived at the emergency room, the affidavit said.
Eastman did not return a message left at a telephone number for her listed on a police affidavit.
In February 2013, Eastman brought Dezirae to the Rutland emergency room with a broken leg that doctors found was several days old and would have caused "significant discomfort." Doctors also noted what appeared to be a different older broken bone. Eastman stated she couldn't get to the hospital sooner because of problems getting a ride.
That incident led to Eastman being charged with cruelty to a child under age 10. She pleaded guilty last July to the misdemeanor charge.
Eastman was placed on probation for two years and ordered to undergo anger management counseling. She was also ordered to abide by requirements of a case plan designed by the Department of Children and Families.
Racine, citing confidentiality laws, would not discuss the specifics of the case, beyond saying that DCF had been involved in Dezirae's case.
But speaking generally, Racine said that while DCF social workers make recommendations about whether a child should be taken into state custody, all such moves have to be approved by a judge.
He said the details of the investigation into the handling of Dezirae's case have not been worked out.
"We are evaluating those options and a decision will be made very soon," Racine said.