- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 12, 2014

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - The state has generally done a very good job in looking out for children’s welfare, Agency of Human Services Secretary Doug Racine told a state Senate panel looking into child abuse issues in the wake of a Rutland County toddler’s death last month.

Racine told lawmakers his agency would cooperate fully with their investigation, which grew out of the death of 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon, whose stepfather is charged with murder in her death.

“Bad things do happen, and if there’s something that can be done and we can learn out of this, and that you can learn out of this, where we could do even better, then I would welcome that,” Racine said.

Senate President Pro-Tem John Campbell, a Quechee Democrat, introduced the panel by outlining topics for the senators to tackle in their investigation, including county differences in procedure, caseworker qualifications, funding impacts, how custody decisions are made and defining existing legal child protections.

State senators, including the entire Rutland County delegation - Sens. Peg Flory, Eldred French and Kevin Mullin - are reviewing possible revisions to statutory practices involving child abuse matters, not specific cases. Sens. Dick Sears and Claire Ayer are co-chairs, and Sens. Ann Cummings and Jane Kitchel also are on the panel.

Dezirae, of Poultney, died in February after suffering severe head trauma. Her stepfather, Dennis Duby, has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder. Records show Dezirae had a history of child abuse injuries and her mother was convicted last year of cruelty to a child.

Campbell said in his statement Dezirae had, for a time, been removed from her home by the Department for Children and Families.

Flory, a Republican from Pittsford, said the committee isn’t meant to point fingers.

“We’re looking at where did the system fail, is it a systemic failure, if so, how do we best fix it,” Flory said.

Flory said the committee will look beyond DCF at the issues in a broad scope and be careful not to impede the police investigation into Dezirae’s death.

“I think (the panel) is an important part of the process as we examine Vermont’s response to physical abuse of children,” Sen. Dick Sears, co-chair of the panel, said after the meeting.

Sears, a Bennington Democrat, invoked the case of Brooke Bennett, a 12-year-old sexually assaulted and killed by her sex-offender uncle, as another that had a significant influence on public policy. Brooke’s 2008 death prompted the state Legislature to strengthen sex offender laws.

“The experience after the Brooke Bennett murder certainly changed Vermont’s response to child sexual abuse, and perhaps this panel can help, if needed, change Vermont’s response to child physical abuse,” Sears said.

The Senate panel will meet again March 19 at the statehouse.

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