(NECN: Jack Thurston, Montpelier, Vt.) - Democratic Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin and a top cabinet secretary, Doug Racine of the Vermont Agency of Human Services, pledged Tuesday to investigate the case of Dezirae Sheldon fully.
Sheldon was the 2-year-old Poultney girl allegedly murdered last week by her stepfather, when investigators said he was the only adult at home with the girl at the time of her fatal injuries.
"It breaks my heart," Shumlin said. "I can't tell you ... the sadness that I feel."
Dennis Duby, 31, was charged Monday with murdering his stepdaughter just days after her second birthday. According to the police affidavit, an ER doctor initially said it looked like Dezirae's head "was held so tight, her skull was cracked." The medical examiner later blamed "blunt trauma," according to the police document.
The account, written by Vt. State Police Det. Sgt. Albert Abdelnour, said Duby claimed multiple times that Dezirae had fallen, but the investigator noted inconsistencies with his story. In court Monday, Rutland County Deputy State's Attorney Rosemary Kennedy added there was no way such traumatic injuries could have been sustained in an accidental fall.
Duby pleaded not guilty to the second-degree murder charge, which carries a potential punishment of 20 years to life in prison. Vt. Superior Court Judge Theresa DiMauro ordered him held on $250,000 bail.
Demonstrators rallied on the sidewalks and in the streets of Rutland Monday, angry with the Vermont Department for Children and Families. The protesters said Dezirae's mother, 30-year-old Sandra Eastman Duby, never should have custody of the girl. Court records show Duby pled guilty in 2013 to cruelty to a child, after Dezirae was treated for broken bones in her legs. Eastman Duby was serving a suspended sentence for that cruelty conviction, according to court records.
Eastman Duby is not charged in connection with her daughter's death, and was not at home at the time of the girl's injuries, according to police investigators.
"That is not a home any child should ever be returned to. Ever," one demonstrator passionately told Vt. DCF Commissioner Dave Yacovone Monday.
"I'm not allowed to talk about the specifics of this case," Yacovone told reporters Monday. "Until I know the full facts of the case, and until those are reviewed, it's premature for me to comment on what should be changed or should not be changed."
Yacovone pointed out custody decisions are made by many stakeholders, including social workers, advocates, and a judge.
Tuesday, Human Services Secretary Racine confirmed an internal investigation is underway, and explained that it will be looked at by an outside, independent group.
"Sometimes everything goes right until it goes wrong and you can't prevent it. But if this was preventable, we want to see what we could have done differently if that's the case," Racine said.
Linda Johnson, the executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Vermont, praised DCF for handling difficult work and big caseloads well. She did, however, say Dezirae's death raises serious questions about checks and balances.
"No one should be without grief around this," Johnson told New England Cable News. "A great deal of care has to be taken when you're restoring a child who's had broken bones to a family."
Shumlin and Racine offered no indication of how long the DCF probe would take.
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