Lamont nominates Vannessa Dorantes, a DCF administrator, to lead the department
Hartford Courant - 1/7/2019
Jan. 07--Vannessa Dorantes, having just been nominated Monday as commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, pointed and strode over to a woman who had pressed through the cluster of DCF workers and other well wishers.
The two women embraced, Dorantes, the new chief of the state's $800 million-a-year child protection agency, and Kanisha Malloy, who works with autistic children and was Dorantes' first client in 1992. She was a foster kid. Dorantes was a brand new DCF social worker. Both came away from Monday's embrace with wet eyes.
"She was driven by passion, so it couldn't have been just a job for her," said Malloy, now an education assistant at Ben Haven school in Wallingford. "She talked me off the ledge several times. She made sure that I was properly placed with a family. There were home visits ... At 13, she gave me what I needed most -- a person who was there for me."
Twenty-six years later, Gov.- Elect Ned Lamont cited Dorantes' "heart and experience" as two of the main reasons he nominated Dorantes to lead the most-scrutinized department in state government. If confirmed, she would succeed Joette Katz,, a former state Supreme Court justice and department outsider, who was picked by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in 2011.
Lamont went in the other direction, calling on a woman who had worked her way up to administrator of a 44-town DCF region that includes Danbury, Waterbury, and Torrington.
Lamont called it a fresh start for an agency that has been rocked by high-profile child fatality cases. He said he was going to "let her have the room to run, to lead," and Dorantes said one of her first tasks was to build bridges with other public and private agencies and people in the field and to foster trust inside and outside the sprawling DCF.
She said the caseworkers at the agency's child-abuse hotline got 108,000 calls last year. The people who respond to those calls and the families that are involved need to know they can trust the administration, Dorantes said.
She said she also knew "this job is running into the fire ... "
Tragedy, she added, is inevitable.
The key is to be prepared every day, to unflinchingly review every serious case for lessons learned, and to have those collaborations in place, with police, with private agencies, with schools, with other state departments, said Dorantes, a longtime lecturer in social work at Central Connecticut State University.
Colleagues said she's a problem solver who will inspire everyone in the workforce who is committed to going all out.
State Child Advocate Sarah Eagan, whose office did searing case studies on several preventable child deaths during Katz's tenure, said she always viewed Dorantes as a thoughtful DCF executive whose first instinct was collaboration.
Lt. Gov.-Elect Susan Bysiewicz said Dorantes, 49, has been a mentor to others at DCF even as the agency was grinding through another difficult passage.
Lamont said his aides did a national search but that he found the person he wanted right here.
Dorantes has been active in the department's efforts to address the disproportionately high number of minority children in the department's care.
Most of the children are black or Latino, yet those groups make up a minority of the state's population, and child protection issues cut across racial and economic lines.
She recently led training sessions for senior DCF executives about themes and commonalities in child fatality cases and other critical incidents statewide.
It is those cases that keep the department in the spotlight, as well as the enormity of the mission.
Her annual salary will be $172,000, which was what Katz earned last year.
Katz was well regarded nationally but her relationship with child protection advocates and some legislators broke down in the face of several preventable deaths of children in DCF care. Also controversial was Katz's zealous backing of a new multimillion-dollar locked unit for girls that had a short, stormy run before it was shut down, and her handling of a transgender girl whom Katz claimed was the most difficult teenager in DCF's custody.
Katz's decision to send the teen to an adult jail without new criminal charges was intensely opposed in the state and nationally and she was soon pulled from the adult jail and placed in her own small section of the Connecticut Juvenile Training School -- a combined school and juvenile jail run by DCF that Malloy ordered closed over its staggering cost, the overuse of restraints and seclusion, and inconsistent mental health treatment for the youth in the facility.
Dorantes said her emphasis on partnerships will strengthen DCF's work at every level.
Josh Kovner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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