A panel of seven senators will attempt to discern whether policy changes could help prevent child deaths like that of 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon in Poultney last week, Senate Pro Tempore John Campbell said Wednesday.
The legislative investigation will be in addition to a criminal investigation, an internal Department for Children and Families investigation and an external investigation ordered by Gov. Peter Shumlin.
Dezirae's stepfather Dennis Duby, 31, is charged with second-degree murder after allegedly crushing the toddler's skull with his hand.
News reports have said the girl's mother,Sandra Eastman Duby, pleaded guilty last year to a criminal charge of cruelty to a child after breaking Dezirae's leg.
While police and DCF investigate the specifics of Dezirae's case, the team of lawmakers will take the "30,000-foot view," to determine what questions need to be asked and what, if anything, the Legislature can do, Campbell said.
It is important that the criminal investigation play out and prosecutors be allowed to do their job first, Campbell said. He also called on all Vermonters to report child abuse.
The panel will include Rutland Sens. Eldred French, Kevin Mullin and Peg Flory, as well as Ann Cummings, D-Washington, and Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia. Sens. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, and Dick Sears, D-Bennington, will co-chair the group, which will convene after the Legislature's Town Meeting Day break.
The group will then decide whether the Judiciary and Health and Welfare committees should take action on based on what the panel might determine is necessary, or whether to conduct an independent investigation using the subpoena power of the Senate, Campbell said.
Meanwhile, Shumlin has asked an independent group, the Vermont Citizen's Advisory Board, to conduct an external investigation into Dezirae's death.
The Vermont Department for Children and Families has begun a separate internal review of the case that should be done in "weeks, not months," DCF Commissioner David Yacovone said Wednesday.
Since Dezirae's death, dozens of parents and others have protested outside the DCF office in Rutland demanding to know why the child was allowed to be reunited with her abusive mother.
Yacovone said it is natural for people to ask questions about DCF's practices after cases like Dezirae's.
"When traumatic stories get the light of day it opens the eyes of many Vermonters who say, 'How do we protect kids?'" he said.
Lawmakers don't know whether this was a case in which the state's policies were inadequate or if policies were not followed properly, Mullin said.
Flory said she wants the legislative panel to examine whether the criteria for reuniting children with their parents are set appropriately.
"We have the unification goal, which isn't always the appropriate goal," Flory said.