3 Things to Know from CEA Meeting With DCF Commissioner
1. DCF Is Dedicated to Improving Relationships with Teachers
Monday night marked the start of a promising new relationship between Connecticut educators and the Department of Children and Families (DCF) as DCF Commissioner Vannessa Dorantes and several of her key staff members joined CEA members at the Sheraton in Rocky Hill for a conversation about teachers’ concerns.
“We’re here and listening, and we’re dedicated to improving our partnership,” Dorantes told teachers.
Dorantes, a social worker and 27-year DCF employee, was appointed commissioner of the department in January of this year by Governor Lamont.
CEA Legal Counsel Adrienne DeLucca told CEA members that she and CEA Legal Counsels Melanie Kolek and Rebecca Mitchell saw Dorantes’ appointment as a new day and new opportunity to open a dialogue with DCF to resolve ongoing issues educators have been experiencing.
“As educators, we are one of DCF’s largest stakeholder groups, and we share concern for Connecticut’s children,” DeLucca said. Commissioner Dorantes immediately responded to CEA’s lawyers’ requests for a conversation earlier this year, and from that meeting came plans for the open dialogue with CEA local leaders that took place Monday.
“Current practices and policies have caused undue stress to children and educators. They have unduly interrupted education in schools and sometimes tarnished the records of outstanding teachers,” said CEA President Jeff Leake. “Thank you to Commissioner Dorantes and her team for being here tonight.”
“There’s a responsibility we all have to the children of Connecticut. It’s important for us to partner together before the house is on fire,” said Dorantes, who came away with several pages of notes on issues from CEA members that she said she would investigate further. “I appreciate the CEA representatives who came to me at the beginning of the administration to begin a partnership.”
2. DCF Is Working to Recalibrate
“One of the areas I’m most concerned about is, what are the factors that determine whether DCF is going to investigate a case or not?” said Hamden Education Association President Diane Marinaro. “I’m also concerned about the length of time investigations take. When a teacher is put on leave for 45 days it really impacts students. In all my years in Hamden, I’ve never had a case against a teacher substantiated, and it affects students big time.”
“There are teachers who are at fault, I’m sure, and I’m the first to say, ‘Get them out of my profession,’ but there are so many cases that are unsubstantiated,” said Hamden Education Association Vice President David Abate. “Mandated reporting is important, but you’ve put everyone on egg shells. If DCF gets so backed up due to overreporting they’re going to miss the serious cases.”
“We understand the fear, we get the fear,” said Dorantes. “Let’s try to recalibrate that. If you deluge the system with cases that don’t meet the statutory definition, we’ll miss the bad stuff.”
“We can bring about more standardization and consistency around the outcomes of investigations,” said DCF Deputy Commissioner of Operations Michael Williams. “The standard in Hartford has to be the same as the standard in Stamford, so we’re going to make sure we narrow the gap in consistency so you will know what to expect and what not to expect.”
“We recognize that people have been afraid,” said Dorantes. “Educators were afraid that if they didn’t report something, they could lose their livelihood.”
One of DCF’s recalibration efforts has been to speed up the process of reporting and allow for DCF workers to more accurately screen reports.
“We have significantly reduced the wait time on calls to 2 minutes and 2 seconds, while answering 97 percent of calls prior to hang up,” Dorantes said.
3. It Takes a Village
“We’re in the process of implementing a new federal law that will help get us into communities and develop partnerships,” said Williams. “If we can get out into communities people won’t image us as the boogieman—that’s not who we are, that’s not who we want to be. Only together are we going to solve this. We’re not going to change much if we stay in silos, isolated from the communities we serve. We have to develop solid community partnerships and relationships.”
Dorantes said that DCF has 3,200 staff members working in communities across the state and urged local association leaders to call their local DCF office to get to know its leadership and have ongoing conversations.
“We can’t do this work without you,” Dorantes said. “The child welfare system is all of us. If we don’t strengthen the network, our kids are going to fail.”
Find out more about the CEA meeting with the DCF Commissioner in the October-November issue of the CEA Advisor. CEA members can watch a video of the entire meeting here.