The First 365Days
I still remember "the call" like it was yesterday …The phone rang while driving to pick up my daughter. It was a December afternoon and the number on my phone was one I did not recognize. I picked it up anyway. The voice on the other end said, "…Hey Vannessa, it's Ned Lamont…."
Whoa… I need to pull over for this.
The offer for the opportunity to serve as the CT DCF Commissioner.
The first African American Commissioner of the Department of Children and Families.
A year later, I am standing on the chamber floor of the House of Representatives. Listening to Governor Lamont give his State of the State address and around me were the leaders of the state. Legislators, my colleagues from sister state agencies, the media and local elected officials filled the room to capacity.
The pride I felt representing this Department was palpable.
"…..And there’s Vannessa Dorantes, our Commissioner over at the Department of Children and Families; who rose through the ranks, has dedicated her entire career to our state’s children and she is working to guide DCF out from under the Juan F. decree…" I heard the Governor say.
The first 365 days leading the Department has taught me a lot about state government and about myself. I have gained an even greater appreciation for the complexities of our work.
What was that first 365 days like?
What did we accomplish?
Let me take a few moments to tell you our journey so far…
Right away I was tasked with assembling an Executive Team with each member bringing a unique set of talents and perspectives. We took inventory across DCF through domain mapping and focus groups. We began re-aligning agency priorities and centralizing certain functions in order to maximize our productivity and effectiveness.
Immediately, I established the expectation of supervision as the foundation for the support of ALL staff within the Dept. This included shifting case specific supervision to occur at least every 30 days rather than 90 days. We made other changes as a result of critical review of our vision, mission and values.
The early stages of this tenure benefitted greatly by the creation of an External Advisory Team made up of 7 individuals with an array of diverse experiences. They still serve as informal advisors and mentors.
The first year saw thousands of miles put on the state vehicle as my team and I traversed the state hearing from our partners. We visited agencies and met their staff. In total, over 300 different meetings and listening sessions resulted in groups providing input to the Department's direction over this past year.
We deliberately used the term partners when speaking about stakeholders in communities with whom we interact. These partnerships were strengthened as we experienced the Statewide Advisory Council playing a more active role with the Department and organizing a motivating retreat over the summer.
Consistent with the message of Governor Lamont and his administration to be transparent and collaborate across state systems, we saw our Sister state agencies provide input into the development of our federal Child and Family Services Plan including them actually providing letters of support included in the plan.
We are proud of the momentum growing with our community partners. The enthusiasm continued as we commenced our Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) work with over 200 partners participating in 5 workgroups influencing the development of Connecticut's Prevention Plan.
A point of particular emphasis this past year was to build upon existing relationships with our legislators. We want to establish a more open and transparent partnership with them. They have been invited to our office listening tours and events in communities. Legislators came in bipartisan fashion. The end result was a very successful initial legislative session but most importantly, the developing trust.
Speaking of listening tours……………..
Visits began in our Regional Office and Facilities. These have been the highlight of my year!
Talking with staff,
hearing their stories,
celebrating successes and
understanding the struggles…
We also gave space for staff to highlight the positive achievements of each other. The commitment of our workforce is unprecedented.
In an effort to fully inform the public of our work, we also took a more proactive approach with the media and began publishing a "Spotlight on What's Right" monthly newsletter. This newsletter highlights positive stories and accomplishments. To increase our public value we must own our narrative and tell our stories.
My first year saw the Careline receive over 100,000 phones calls including 60,000 new reports of child abuse and neglect. Careline established on-line reporting portals for non-emergency school, family relations and daycare reports as well for notifications of substance exposed infants to meet Federal requirements. These changes, along with the hiring of additional Careline staff, has resulted in a dramatic reduction in call wait times to the public.
Protecting children by empowering and strengthening families remains the primary focus of our work. We emphasize by correctly assessing risk and implementing community based services, children can remain safely at home. The Structured Decision Making screening, safety and risk assessments tools used daily by our staff were updated with national experts.
Our data shows 91.5% of the families the Department became involved with were strengthened by the services offered to them, by remaining intact so children can be raised by their own families.
Focused efforts over the past year has resulted in a reduction of the number of children in out of home care by 9% since 2/1/19. If children have to be removed, 45% of youth, were placed with family and kin.
Legal Permanency is a priority in our administration. Timely permanency for those children who needed to find their "forever home". In 2019, we completed approximately 900 adoptions and transfers of guardianships!
The Foster Care Division was centralized and we experienced a reduction in the time a family waited to be licensed by 50% thru an enhanced licensing model entitled, "Weekend for a Lifetime." As the result of a joint partnerships between the Department and the provider community, a new model of Therapeutic Foster Care has been identified.
Services to families received much attention in my first year.
We improved identification of needs and matching families to appropriate services thru the Enhanced Service Coordination model piloted in two DCF regions and now scaled up through the rest of the state.
We also developed a new process to help families thru community services without requiring a finding of abuse or neglect. This Intensive Family Care and Support (IFCS) program will address the risk factors are identified without the Department having to maintain an open case.
Beacon Health Services, as the administrative services organization, will now work to connect families who are seeking intensive behavioral health services for their children eliminating the need to contact the Department for this assistance.
For the first time since Federal Court oversight began in 1991, the Department achieved pre-certification of social worker caseloads. Our sincere thanks to Governor Lamont, the Office of Policy and Management and the Connecticut legislature for providing the Department the support needed to sustain this important outcome for children and families.
In response to our partners in education, we began development of the Education Professional Investigations Unit to respond to and investigate reports on personnel of a Connecticut K-12 school.
The Centralized Transportation Unit, which will serve to transport families and youth in a more efficient manner and reduce costs, began initial planning.
The deployment of tablets and continued development of CT-KIND will enable improved documentation and data collection efforts through technology.
Our work is not done….
In early January, the DCF Executive team held a statewide summit for our leadership teams from all 14 area offices, facilities and central office divisions to clearly focus the department's vision for 2020.
The department's executive team is honored to work in this capacity and grateful to the DCF staff for the efforts they put forth on a daily basis as well as our community partners who have walked with us in this journey during our first year.