New DCF commissioner strives for more than mere compliance

Editor's note: This version corrects the number of children in the care of the Department of Children and Families.


Hartford — Department of Children and Families Commissioner Vannessa L. Dorantes says she wants the state child welfare agency to do more than just "check the boxes" to prove compliant oversight of approximately 4,200 children in its care.

The new occupant of the 10th floor corner office in the DCF building at 505 Hudson St. started with the agency 27 years ago as a social worker. After working under six commissioners, she is in charge of the agency that has 3,200 employees, a budget approaching $800 million and a mission — protecting abused and neglected children — that sometimes seems impossible.

Dorantes succeeds Joette Katz, a former state Supreme Court justice who served as the DCF commissioner during the Malloy administration. Her annual salary is $172,000.

On her way to the commissioner's office, the 49-year-old Bristol resident held every position on the social work continuum: social worker, investigator, supervisor, program manager and regional administrator. She has a master's degree in social work and has taught social work at Central Connecticut State University since 2004.

She has firm ideas about what's needed to ensure the best outcomes for the vulnerable children and families involved with DCF. She said during an interview this past week that it's also important for her to be a role model for her 17-year-old twin daughters.

The agency's first African-American commissioner, she's committed to eliminating racial disparities in the department, which has a disproportionate number of African-American and Hispanic children in its care.

"When we talk about racial justice, I want to make sure it's not the message of white people doing bad things to people of color," said Dorantes, who chairs the Statewide Racial Justice workgroup. "We are a diverse child welfare agency, and a lot of the decisions are being made by people of color, too. If we know our client base is disproportionally people of color, we have to look at it. We have to look at each of our decision-making points and recognize if race is a factor."

She has tweaked the agency's organizational structure, and said one of the first memos she sent to employees had to do with reinforcing the supervision message so that social workers, supervisors and managers are not making decisions on their own.

Dorantes was one of the first social workers hired after the state entered into a consent decree in 1991 with the federal government in a class-action lawsuit known as Juan F. The lawsuit charged that the agency failed to provide necessary services for children who were neglected and abused.

The DCF's staffing levels and protocols still are under federal oversight, though in recent years the agency has moved closer to meeting the outcome requirements in place under an exit plan.

Strong partnerships

Dorantes said that sometimes oversight of families can evolve into mere compliance.

"You get really good at checking the boxes, and move away from the social work that brought us into this field in the first place. I know it's a cliché, but it's about putting the human back into human services, building a Connecticut that families can feel safe in and thrive in. It's driven who I am over the years."

She cited a case study she read recently about the issue of "safe sleep," which is a leading cause of death for infants. In it, the social worker didn't just "check the box" by giving a new mother a pamphlet about the importance of putting a baby to sleep alone and on its back and keeping the crib clear of items. The worker talked to the mother about safe sleep, and when visiting the home looked at the baby's crib and removed stuffed animals or bumpers that could pose a risk.

During the next visit, the worker had a conversation with a resistant grandparent who said she raised her children with certain sleep habits that are now considered unhealthy. The next visit, the crib had been moved to make way for a Christmas tree, and another safety discussion ensued.

"If that case were to result in a safe sleep fatality, you saw all the building blocks for really trying to prevent that outcome. And if it still happened, you can feel comfortable that negative outcomes happen but we set up a structure that was less compliance-driven and more focused on how to try and avoid the things we all don't want to see happen," she said.

When there are fatalities and other bad outcomes, how the agency responds is important, Dorantes said. Her approach, she said, would be to learn from negative outcomes and develop a system where workers can do a good job.

"Sometimes you messed up," she said. "Sometimes systemic problems got in the way. Sometimes, even with the best intentions, there are bad outcomes."

Her vision for DCF includes strong partnerships with law enforcement, schools, mental health service providers and communities who "lean in" to help. As the daughter of teen parents, she said she and her parents were able to thrive because of grandparents and others who were willing to step in while her mother went to college and her father served in the Navy.

The DCF is embarking on a $900,000 Fatherhood Initiative geared toward getting fathers and paternal relatives more involved with treatment planning of children, training fathers to become effective advocates for their children and providing counseling and education to make them more effective parents.

"I've always approached this work from, children do well in resilient families and those families do well with communities who wrap around them," she said. "My childhood felt like one big community."

Her most recent position as regional administrator for 43 towns in the Danbury-Torrington-Waterbury area, which has both urban and rural communities, gave her insight into the economic diversity of the state's families. She also worked to create connections that improve outcomes for kids such as involving DCF early if a drug bust is about to happen in a home where children are involved. She said she recently met with police chiefs from across the state and is looking to create strong outposts for social workers in police departments, hospitals and clinics.

"Then you are really part of a larger network," she said. "It's important to nurture the partnerships ahead of time. If the building is on fire, people are less likely to want to run in with you. If you cultivate those ahead of time, people are more likely to help."

Criticism is inevitable

Dorantes knows that an onslaught of criticism is inevitable in her role and spoke of DCF employees who don't admit what they do publicly because of the negative publicity.

"I think it comes with what we do every day," she said. Even on the worst day, she said she loves what she does. When Gov. Ned Lamont announced her nomination, Dorantes was touched to see that one of her first clients on the job, a young woman struggling with her sexual identity, was standing in the back of the room. The woman, now married and raising a family with her wife, had come out to Dorantes during a time when the agency didn't have protocols for LGBTQ youth. Dorantes said they figured it out together and checked in with each other over the years.

"For me, that is what propels us to do this work," she said. "Not what we do for our kids and families, but what they do for us."

Beresford Wilson, executive director of the parent advocate organization and DCF contractor known as FAVOR, was the parent of a DCF-involved child, himself. FAVOR operates a simulation lab in which social workers and trainees respond to true-to-life scenarios enacted by parents.

Wilson said by phone that he's seen DCF commissioners break down and cry at committee meetings and that the agency's work can be emotional and heart-wrenching. He said he has known Dorantes for years.

"I feel for her, but I have her back because of the person she is, the way she makes decisions," Wilson said in a phone interview. "She doesn't do them in isolation. She gathers as much information as she can. That's why I believe in her and I believe in this administration."



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