Vermont judge: Child custody tough to legislate
MONTPELIER -- A month after a toddler suffered severe head trauma and died, state senators ended a second committee meeting Wednesday to review laws protecting children from abuse and heard testimony that changing the laws might not address the problem.
Chief Administrative Judge Amy Davenport said some judges don’t think custody issues in child abuse cases can be solved by legislation. She described for the committee how judges decide temporary care issues and use kinship in making decisions.
Davenport said one judge told her that the current legal standards haven’t impeded him in deciding custody cases but "the concept of making sense when faced with only a choice of troubling alternatives is a problem that cannot be solved by different legislation."
Davenport reported that 83 percent of Vermont’s judges have attended out-of-state educational programs on topics related to juvenile cases, including child custody, and that 29 percent, mostly new judges, have attended an intensive child abuse and neglect institute.
Committee co-chair Democrat Sen. Dick Sears and Republican Sen. Kevin Mullin said that anecdotally they have become aware of possible regional differences in such cases. The Senate Review Panel on Child Protection was specially formed to review child abuse matters after the Rutland County toddler’s death.
Davenport said most child protection cases are driven by parental substance abuse. She said each case can be affected by district offices of the Department for Children and Family and what a state attorney decides. Drug abuse issues also vary from county to county.
Essex County state’s attorney Vince Illuzzi said that DCF is the driving force behind decisions and that behind the "cloak of confidentiality" in child abuse cases tensions among department staff members, the child’s guardians and attorneys can be high. But he said he’s never heard a complaint about state’s attorneys not bringing a case to court.
Illuzzi, who’s been a state attorney for 16 years and served in the Senate for more than three decades, said he hoped that changes to the department’s procedure and oversight could come from the external investigations. He called the senate panel a "welcome review" of a process often closed off to public inquiry.
In February, 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon, of Poultney, died after arriving at a hospital with severe head trauma. Her stepfather, Dennis Duby, has pleaded not guilty to murder.
Records show Dezirae had a history of child abuse injuries, and her mother was convicted last year of cruelty to a child.
Senators hope to hear testimony from social workers and prosecutors next week.
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