HARTFORD, CT — It’s rare that a group of advocates and frontline workers would gather to support the nomination of a Department of Children and Families Commissioner, but that’s what happened Monday.
Colleagues and advocates whose work intersects with the Department of Children and Families came to support Vannessa Dorantes at a press conference where Gov.-elect Ned Lamont nominated her to the position.
After a national search, Lamont said “some of the best and the brightest are already on the frontlines already doing the work.”
Dorantes, 49, said she was offering the search committee information she thought would help inform their decision about who best to choose to lead the department. She didn’t necessarily go into this looking to apply for the job.
Connecticut’s children “need us rowing in the same direction regardless of our different roles,” Dorantes said. “Professional relationships are not always easy, they’re not always agreeable, but they’re built upon mutual respect. We have common goals and child well-being is one of them.”
She said as head of the agency she believes children thrive in nurturing and supportive families and to that end the department will continue to focus on “community-based, culturally responsive, trauma informed services.” She said she’s also committed to improved data collection services so “we all evolve to meet children where they are.”
She said Connecticut’s children want stakeholders to work together. She said collaboration will pay dividends for children and families.
Dorantes, who was hired 27 years ago as a social worker in the department, said it was the a year after the Juan F. federal court order went into effect. The same consent decree the department is still under to this day.
The Juan F. complaint filed in 1989 and settled in 1991 alleged that the department failed to provide adequate child protective services, failed to make reasonable efforts to keep families together and failed to provide minimally adequate staffing and appropriate care for children.
“I’m not going to commit to an end date because no one has been able to successfully get there,” Dorantes said. “But we’ve gone from 22 outcome measures down to the last five and the last five are practice related and that’s where my skill set is.”
She said they will get there by making sure the agency maintains strong ties to the community and community organizations.
Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, a critic of the department’s previous leadership, said she’s thrilled with Dorantes.
“She’s representative of the staff because she rose up from the ranks,” Walker said.
She said she also has credibility within the community because when she’s presented with a concern or a problem she tackles it head on. She said a parent was struggling to get their child, who was under DCF care at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, services and no one in the administration would address the issue, except for Dorantes.
“Vannessa took the case. She met with the young man and his parent and the child is now thriving in a system that’s community and family based,” Walker said.
Dorantes currently serves as a Regional Administrator in the Department of Children and Families, where she is responsible for the leadership and development of 475 professional and support staff members in a 43-town area in northwest Connecticut.
As commissioner she will oversee about 3,200 employees and she will be paid the same as former Commissioner Joette Katz, whose salary was around $172,200 a year.