Bristol resident Vannessa Dorantes was recently appointed by Governor Ned Lamont to serve as the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families.
Dorantes began her career in social work at the age of 22, and has been with the Department of Children and Families for the past 27 years.
At that time, Dorantes said, the department had just undergone the Juan F. Consent Decree (filed in 1989, settled in 1991), a federal oversight that said the department needed to change the ways services were delivered. DCF is still under the federal oversight.
The commissioner said that her change of role, from a DCF social worker to the commissioner of the department, has allowed her to examine the “big picture and public policy,” as well as ways to “adjust the framework of the department to meet the goals that we are mandated to provide.”
“One of the first things that I’m doing with this administration is an organizational assessment in which we bring in some external stakeholders to really help us understand what are the things that are working well with the department, and what are the things that we can do to align better with our goals,” said Dorantes.
DCF has pulled together a team to begin working through possible infrastructures, including members of Casey Family Programs, national experts in child welfare, the Harvard Government Performance Lab, and consultation from the McKinsey Group.
Dorantes, who teaches social work at Central Connecticut State University as well, said she was trained to view her work through the lens of social work – to see people as a piece of their environment, the relationship of how people influence their environment, and how the environment influences the people. On any given day, she said, DCF’s 3,200 employees can be involved with 14,500 families.
“I’ve always viewed social work, and particularly DCF social work, as the child in the context of their family, in the context of the community,” said Dorantes. “If I can help design a system that is responsive to that community, the community can then lift up the families to make them stronger, to have children that are more resilient in overcoming the crisis situations that sometimes our families find themselves in.”
She plans to examine ways to strengthen her own community by working with the Bristol delegation – state representatives Whit Betts (R-78), Cara Pavalock-D’Amato (R-77), and Chris Ziogas (D-79), and state Senator Henri Martin (R-31) – to discuss the needs of Bristol’s children and families.
“A lot of times when we approach this work you think of it from a professional way. But, I’m a mom first,” said Dorantes. “You want to make sure that the cities that have kids are functioning well, and I know that from the experiences I’ve had raising my own kids in Bristol.”
Dorantes moved to Bristol when her children were four months old. They attend the preschool program through Bristol Eastern High School, South Side Elementary School, Chippens Hill Middle School, and are involved with programs through the Boys and Girls Club of Bristol Family Center.
“Like other cities, Bristol is struggling with the opioid epidemic, so Bristol has an Opioid Task Force,” the commissioner said. “I’d want to know how DCF can play a part in that – if we already are, great, how do we bolster those local efforts? And, how does that connect to some of the larger initiatives that are going on across the country, across the state, related to that issue?”
Last year, the Family First Prevention Services Act was adopted federally, and Dorantes described it as “an opportunity for federal finance reform for states and jurisdictions to think about prevention in a more broad sense.”
Dorantes said she believes “community efforts in conjunction with public partnerships” will bolster the strength of communities, and that “kids do best when they have a community around them.”
In her efforts to strengthen communities, Dorantes said the department will be re-engaging with the advocacy community in order to gain better perspective of the public’s criticisms of DCF, but also to learn about what the department is doing correctly. They will also be working closely with the medical community, the behavioral health community, law enforcement, the courts system, and the legislature.
“Gov. Lamont appointed me to this role, one because of my longevity with the department, but also my care for what happens to kids and families in this state,” said Dorantes. “He wants people to want to raise their kids here, and to want kids to have safe spaces in Connecticut. My role now is working really closely with the legislature to make sure we develop public policy to help that happen. I see myself in the responsibility of the public policy that can help shape the direction.”
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