HARTFORD – Department of Children and Families Commissioner Vanessa Dorantes announced Wednesday that she plans to step down from her position at the end of the year to take a job with the national child welfare organization Casey Family Programs.
Deputy Commissioner Jodi Hill-Lilly, who has worked in child protective services for over 30 years, including 14 years as a national consultant, was named her successor.
Both Gov. Ned Lamont and Lt. Governor Susan Bysiewicz praised Dorantes’ work as commissioner.
Bysiewicz noted that during Dorantes’ five-year tenure, over 7,200 children in Connecticut found permanent housing, including about 2,300 who were adopted, about 3,100 who were reunited with their birth families and 1,800 transfers of guardianship.
Lamont mentioned a drop in the number of children removed from their families during her tenure.
“One of the things I love is the fact that many more of the kids were able to stay with family. If not immediate family, extended family. And [the] dramatic difference that that was able to make,” said Lamont.
He also praised the formation of the Kids Cabinet — a working group of state agency officials tasked with working together on children’s issues, including health, safety, and education. Lamont said the cabinet came out of a conversation with Dorantes, when she explained DCF’s work as addressing the challenges of poverty rather than confronting parental failures.
“I remember like yesterday, that Vanessa was saying, ‘DCF is not about bad parents, it’s more likely about poverty, and the tough times that single parents go through and what we can do to make sure that there’s more wraparound support for these moms and dads to do everything we can to keep them whole and keep that family whole,’” said Lamont.
Hill-Lilly echoed that philosophy.
“We should not be removing children because of poverty. When [people] think about DCF, they think about broken bones … and murders and those types of things. But that does not represent the overwhelming amount of families that come to our attention. So we have to do something different. And I think systemically we have to align our departments to make sure that we are addressing the concrete needs that families have,” said Hill-Lilly.
Hill-Lilly said she has already begun the process of enlisting technical assistance to conduct a review of the department’s strengths and weaknesses and do strategic planning for the department’s future. She also said she wanted to increase partnerships with the community.
“Take your children back and help us protect, serve and nurture them,” said Hill-Lilly. “That’s what I plan to do.”
Dorantes thanked her employees and fellow commissioners at the department for their work, and praised the selection of Hill-Lilly as her successor.
“To make it here, we have to have diversity of perspective and attention to equity and access intentionally. It is with that intention that I stood proudly and recognizing that as DCF’s first black commissioner, that I would not be the last,” said Dorantes.
In response to criticism sparked by a few high-profile cases, including the death of a two-year-old in Stamford and the alleged sexual assaults of children in a DCF-funded group home in Harwinton, Dorantes rebutted the idea that DCF might have failed in its oversight duty.
“There is no lack of oversight,” Dorantes insisted. “I think the work is so much more complex than a headline.”
Hill-Lilly raised the ongoing challenges faced by families, and the necessity for the department to remain ready to support people in need.
“We have ourselves a crisis … we’ve seen a surge in mental health. We’ve seen a surge in substance use. We have a homeless issue. We have food insecurity, violence and hopelessness. However, through our work and through this calling of ours, we have a hope. We have the obligation to instill hope in the hopelessness,” said Hill-Lilly.