Dozens of parents and concerned citizens gathered outside the office of the Vermont Department for Children and Families in Rutland Monday. They want answers from the child protection agency after two-year-old Dezirae Sheldon was allegedly murdered by her stepfather, 31-year-old Dennis Duby.
"The signs were there. Pay attention to them. This little one could have been alive," said Lindsay Miller, who took part in the protest.
Those signs include a child abuse investigation last year into Dezirae's mother -- Sandra Eastman. In July she was convicted of breaking the baby's leg and then waiting at least a week to seek medical care. A full body scan revealed older injuries too. Eastman never went to prison for the crime. Instead she was placed on probation. Family members tell WCAX News that 2.5 months later, she got her daughter back. A decision they say that cost the toddler her life.
"I just opened the door and I look at Dezirae and her whole face was bruised. And I looked at Sandy and said what happened? And she said Dennis dropped her into the pack and play. And I said that's not from a pack and play fall. Her whole face is bruised," said Michelle Brown, a family friend.
Brown claims they begged the court and DCF to terminate Eastman's parental rights, but say their allegations of abuse were ignored. "I said she's going to kill her... She is going to die. I said I'm never going to see her again. I know it. I knew it in my heart this was going to happen. But nobody listened," said Lisa Eastman, Dezirae's aunt.
DCF Commissioner Dave Yacovone invited Dezirae's family inside to speak with him privately. "I want to meet face-to-face with the family members. I want to listen to them. I want to share with them that my very full intent is to make sure that a very thorough review is done of this," he said.
Yacovone cannot publicly discuss the details of the case but says he's deeply sorry for the family's pain."I don't think there's any way that I can properly convey the sorrow I feel," he said.
The commissioner says DCF gets about 16,000 calls alleging child abuse every year. Ultimately, custody is decided by a judge, after input from DCF caseworkers and the state's attorney's office. "It's important for Vermonters to know there is a checks and balance. This is not individual state employees making a decision about what's right or what's wrong.There's an extensive review process to make sure," Yacovone said.
A review process Dezirae's family says failed. In their minds, Eastman is just as guilty as the man accused of squeezing the toddler's head until it cracked. "She covered for him this whole time. She's just as guilty as he is. She had every right to protect her baby and she didn't do it," Michelle Brown said.
Dezirae is not the first child Eastman has lost custody of. In 2008 -- she spent 5 months behind bars -- for molesting a 15 year-old boy -- and getting pregnant with his child. She's not allowed to have contact with the child. And her family tells us -- she has a one months old daughter -- who is also in state custody.
It's still unclear why Dezirae Sheldon was returned to her mother when she doesn't have custody of her other kids. DCF officials say they can't talk about the case and Police say their investigation is still ongoing. It's even difficult to verify how many children Eastman and Duby have and their custody arraignments. Family court tells WCAX News it does not release records involving juveniles, even if they have died.
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