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Andrew M. Cuomo, Governor
Sheila J. Poole, Commissioner
May 2020 — Vol. 5, No. 4

Commissioner's Message

Spring is a time of renewal. As we fight the pandemic and cope with the loss and suffering it has caused – we need all the things that spring brings: renewal, rebirth and hope.

We hope the worst of the coronavirus is now behind us, that we can avoid a second wave and that we can look forward to our new normal. We must rethink, reimagine and redesign our work and our agency.

I am so proud of how you have continued to move our work forward even though we have not been able to occupy our traditional workspace. I’ve never seen staff work as hard as you have since the pandemic started – and most go above and beyond on a normal day. Every office stepped up and embraced the changes that the pandemic imposed on us and has worked far beyond what has been asked of them. OCFS is a resilient agency that diligently serves New York’s children and families regardless of any obstacles that may arise.

As we move ahead, we will need to call on that resilience once again. I have assigned a team to begin planning our return to work, even though there remains a great deal of uncertainty about when that will occur and what it will look like. We will look at innovative ways to use technology, consider better workplace design and rethink our approaches to working with stakeholders. We welcome your ideas of how we can worker better, smarter and more efficiently.

I look forward to seeing you all again soon, and I implore you to stay safe and healthy. Enjoy all that spring brings and know that what we are learning through this crisis will make us better in the future. This will eventually pass, and we will embrace our new normal and be better for it.

I also hope that all mothers out there – including OCFS staff, foster parents, kinship parents and those in the process of adopting a foster child – had a wonderful, blessed and happy Mother’s Day. Thank you for all you do.

Sincerely,
Sheila J. Poole
Commissioner

Articles

Services Available for Psychological Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic

The world has changed dramatically in the last several months, and we are continuing to recognize that COVID-19 is not only a physical virus but also a psychological virus. The traumatic and anxiety provoking aspects of this pandemic will be felt for years to come. The Mental Health Association of New York State (MHANYS) and its affiliates are responding daily to the impact of COVID-19. MHANYS has created a series of webinars on three topics:

  • Alone Time: Isolation Versus Solitude
  • Collective Grief: A Human Connection to Trauma
  • Collective Trauma: A Shared Human Experience

All three are available at www.mhanys.org. There are also many other valuable resources available on their web page in response to trauma. Please stay safe.

Bureau of Training and Development Sets Virtual Milestone

Since “non-essential” state employees started working from home, many have been praised for their successful transition. But Sarah Ciesinski and Brittney Beliveau of OCFS’ Bureau of Training and Development set the bar pretty high.

Sarah Ciesinski leads the first virtual CPS training from home.

“I was really excited to deliver the first virtual Child Protective Services training,” Ciesinski said.

On March 30, the pair led the online training, and it went off without a hitch as teachers and students dialed in from home. They focused on what a new CPS worker needs to know to do this work under the watchful guidance of their supervisor. Ciesinski, along with colleagues and former CPS workers Scott Corbett and Jen Kelly, had about a week to develop the training.

“It was exciting, yet nerve-wracking,” Ciesinski said. “Our goal was for participants to be able to respond to reports of suspected abuse and/or maltreatment in a thorough way, while at the same time being as interactive as possible via a virtual classroom.”

Brittney Beliveau helps with first virtual CPS training.

Folks from OCFS’ Bureau of Training and Development’s Instructional Design Department and Distance Learning Department gave Sarah and Brittney a crash course in WebEx. They quickly learned how to do mock interviews, safety assessments and case determinations.

For years, many who needed the training had to travel from around the state to Rensselaer. But to keep a workforce moving and filled, an online option became a necessity. Now, the districts can get staff members on the job only one day after the training.

Comments about the training came rolling in on social media:

“A BIG thank you…for making this happen so quickly!”

“I hope this continues after the pandemic to ease the burden on staff who are being asked to be away from home for such long periods of time.”

“…This was so exciting!!! Thank you so much for being accommodating and allowing us to complete our trainings online. My county and family thanks you!”

So What? Sew What You Can to Help Others
Masks made for non-patient care teams

While driving to the hospital with supplies, Amy Kretser’s phone rang. The executive director of the North Country Association for the Visually Impaired (NCAVI) in Plattsburgh, who had supplies including homemade masks made by people on her street for a hospital’s non-patient care teams, answered.

United Way was calling, looking to help a blind woman who is not part of NCAVI. She needed a ride to a doctor’s appointment, and due to other physical limitations, she couldn’t climb into Amy’s pick-up truck. So, Amy, pictured left, called the Community Action Agency.

“They arranged transportation for her without hesitation,” she said regarding Lisa Goodrow, the community outreach associate director at the Joint Council for Economic Opportunity (JCEO). JCEO serves Clinton & Franklin counties.

“Lisa is the angel who dropped everything to make an arrangement for her to get a ride to a doctor's appointment with less than 24 hours’ notice,” Amy said. “One of many stories on makin' it work here in the North Country.”

Making Masks

When Amy Kretser’s mom gave her a sewing machine for her wedding back in 2006, Amy thought it was a dated, gender-stereotyped relic from a bygone era. Little did she know that more than a decade later, it would be worth its weight in gold.

Amy – wearing her “mom” hat – became a seamstress. Her daughter Kiley, 10, wanted a mask to match her bicycle helmet. Several people on her street brought sewing machines to a heated garage down the block to make masks.

Lisa Goodrow is the Community Outreach Associate Director at the Joint Council for Economic Opportunity (JCEO) in Clinton/Franklin Counties

In addition to hundreds of good citizens and employees donating their time and talent to make masks, OCFS’ Nathaniel Gray, an LGBTQ policy and practice fellow, asked several of his drag queen friends if they’d be willing to do so.

“These are some of the hardest working people I know,” said Nate, a former New York City drag queen. “Because drag in New York City has always had an element of community support and activism, I had a feeling they would come together to help out with sewing masks and spreading joy.”

The group has made approximately 150 masks for the Coalition for Homeless Youth to disperse across New York City shelters, and another 50 are on the way to a shelter in Rochester.

A huge thank you to everyone donating their time and talent to help support others and keep them safe.

In Very Capable and Clean Hands

During an early March press briefing at the Capitol, Governor Cuomo revealed hundreds of gallons of NYS Clean hand sanitizer.

Mike Cahill

On that day, Westchester had 98 cases of COVID-19 and the state had 142 overall. That was a long time ago. The Governor said that Corcraft would produce up to 100,000 gallons of alcohol-based hand sanitizer per week in 1.7 ounce, seven ounce and gallon bottles, which would be distributed (for free) to the most impacted and high-risk communities and state agencies, including OCFS.

Since then, essential workers from the Office of Management Services, volunteers and the regional offices sprang into action. They either set up a distribution chain in their own backyard parking lots or drove from one end of the state to the other with other Child Care Resource and Referral programs to drop off and distribute the sanitizer.

Among its Child Welfare and Community Service division, its Youth Development and Partnerships for Success division and its Child Care Services division, OCFS has provided more than 1,300 gallons of hand sanitizer and 11,500 1.7 ounce bottles to hundreds of provider programs and counties across the state.

Alyssa Hogan normally supervises the OCFS Home Office mail room.

The “rock star” list below highlights just a few of the selfless deeds of OCFS employees:

  • Mike Cahill volunteered to deliver hand sanitizer to caseworkers in local districts downstate and on Long Island – for various reasons. First, after hearing that two caseworkers he deals with regularly got sick and another older caseworker in one of his districts died, he stepped up. “They needed the sanitizer, and I knew I could get it there quick,” Cahill said. Second, he felt that if he made the drive himself, it would send a strong message that OCFS is standing with them. He brought 80 gallons of sanitizer with him.
  • Alyssa Hogan, who supervises the OCFS Home Office mail room, helped manage the distribution of thousands of gallons of sanitizer.
  • Others drove, delivered and unloaded: Ken Greene, Jamie DeNoyer, Scott Burdick, Nancy Nicsevic, Kate Roberts, Kayla Bartlett, Darrin Culver, Joe Hildenbrand, Cassie Annis, Amy Grandy, Jim Pettinato, Anne O’Neil, Sarah Beyer-Ellis, Amy Powell, Keeley Weiss and Erika Lenz. The team is hearing “thank yous” plus they are “praying for us and wishing us well,” said Beyer-Ellis. “All staff pitched in with coordination and phone calls, and the councils all either took delivery or met us for drop off along the way.”
  • Said Rachael Rivera from ACCESS Support Services in Middletown, NY: “We just wanted to give a huge thank you to OCFS!!! This hand sanitizer is truly a blessing.”
  • In Syracuse, Jeff Grimsley, a fitter/plumber, and Jan Finch, a general mechanic, delivered 20 tables and 50 folding chairs to Allegany County to be used in surge tents for hospitals.
  • In Buffalo, John Rothrock, the fire safety representative, is also the NYS Clean hand sanitizer distribution organizer. He was assisted by licensors Tracey Banks, Frances Olivero-Booker, Nick Warren, Antonia Medrano-Bouldin and Patrick Louis.
  • In Westchester, Kelly Pennebaker, a volunteer in the Emergency Operations Center deployed to New Rochelle to drive nurses, was tapped for another job. DHSES was so impressed with her, she went from driver to dispatcher to food unit leader for the Incident Management Team (IMT).
  • In Rochester, team members pitching in include David Cuevas, assistant director, Adult Protective Services, Suffolk County DSS, with APS staff: Diane McPartland, community services worker; Arthur Byrns, Adult Protective Services caseworker; Joanne McQueen, senior community services worker; Susan Burns, APS office staff; Sarah Smith, Adult Protective Services administrator, Nassau County DSS; and Kym Megna, manager 1, Adult Protective Services, Westchester County DSS.

The list goes on and on and on.

David Cuevas, assistant director, Adult Protective Services, Suffolk County DSS (lower left), with APS staff Diane McPartland, community services worker, and Arthur Byrns, Adult Protective services caseworker
Sarah Smith, Adult Protective Services administrator, Nassau County DSS

Happy Provider Appreciation Day - May 8, 2020

Happy Provider Appreciation Day, May 8, 2020: Thank you local child care provider for making a difference in the lives of young children

As Always, SCR Answers the Call

The break room is empty. Face-to-face communication is at a premium. However, even during the pandemic, they answer the call – literally.

The employees at the Statewide Central Register (SCR) of Child Abuse and Maltreatment are essential to OCFS’ core mission. As essential employees, they have reported to work since the start of the pandemic, but their location may have changed. To comply with social distancing, SCR staff have spread out in three locations. These dedicated professionals have not let the pandemic disrupt their unwavering devotion to protecting New York State’s children.

We surveyed some of them about this unique approach to their critical work – taking calls and assisting people during uncertain, COVID-19 times. Here are some responses to give an idea of how they are coping and caring. For privacy, we have not used names.

1. How has the SCR approached the job in this climate?

One employee said that the SCR has “managed to stay calm and move forward with professionalism and continues to work with integrity and structure. Even though there were and still are so many unknowns and this is unchartered territory, the SCR created changes to maintain a safe environment.” Additionally, employees were kept informed about changes and policies related to OCFS and the Department of Health. “The SCR has remained focused on the health, safety and protection of children.”

Another pointed out that he realizes the criteria have not changed. “I am consistently aware of the lack of community oversight of children, and I appreciate that gathering information to meet our criteria for reporting is more difficult for our reporters in this climate than usual.” While many of the calls contain the same content, a few are related to COVID-19, as expected. Said another employee: “The administration helped alleviate some stress for me…I was given a shift change on a temporary basis to help with my child care hardship.”

“Diligent” is a word another employee used, adding, “the approach has been…smooth despite the crisis.”

2. How does it feel to be answering the call at this time?

Most agreed that the job remains the same. However, one expressed a fear that many share: “Right now, it’s easier than ever for child abusers to get away with their misdeeds, so I am glad for anyone to be able to monitor children’s safety.”

Although COVID-19 is a new topic, the professional approach is consistent. “I use the interviewing skills I have learned in reference to child abuse and maltreatment and the nerves settle.”

And the suspicion and worry remain: “Every caller is still interviewed thoroughly to assess any risk of harm, imminent danger and/or harm to a child. We have the knowledge and training on how to register reports, and with or without the virus, are still able to follow policy and procedure. Staff know that there are eight basic elements in registering a report, and those guidelines remain the same.”

3. What kinds of calls and questions are you getting?

Besides COVID-19, some calls deal with law enforcement and general concerns. And there are joint custody issues. Said one employee: “One parent stated that the other parent allows the teenage child to socialize with friends and that the child is supposed to be social distancing, and then the teenager has visits with the other parent and the other parent was nervous. I received another call from a relative who wondered if the child could be removed from the aunt’s house because family members in the home tested positive for COVID-19.”

Some calls relate to custody concerns, says one worker. “Sometimes they try and blurt out ‘it’s because of the coronavirus.’ But our staff know how to interview to determine if something is or is not reportable. There are guidelines now in place for any and all COVID-19-related calls.”

4. What are your thoughts on social distancing considering you are usually close together and relying on each other?

The SCR split staff up with two official sites and others working from home, but they still rely on each other while keeping their distance. “Social distancing is difficult for me, and it was a big change. However, the SCR implemented a plan to complete all our tasks online via the phone and email, which makes social distancing easier, and we are safer,” said one employee.

Bluntly put by another: “In these times, the social distancing is safety first; there are still other avenues of support for calls,” while someone else said, “…it is necessary now to reduce the spread of the virus.”

And the human element also has changed: “Personally, I prefer to consult with supervision and management face-to-face because of the nature of the work that we perform; however, electronic communication and consultation has been a simple transition.”

OCFS is proud to have such dedicated, hard-working employees, and all of New York State owes them a debt of gratitude. From OCFS to you: a hearty THANK YOU and stay safe!

TOP WORKPLACES OF 2020

The Human Services Call Center has been awarded a Top Workplaces 2020 honor by The Times Union. The list is based solely on reader feedback gathered anonymously. The survey uniquely measures 15 drivers of engaged cultures that are critical to the success of any organization: including alignment, execution and connection, just to name a few.

This is the fifth consecutive win for the HSCC!

Kathryn Shelton, associate commissioner for OCFS’ Child Welfare and Community Services division, said, “As the HSCC has grown from a small staff of five call representatives in 2013 to more than 100 in 2020, we’ve managed to cultivate a family atmosphere while keeping a strong commitment to excellence in customer service.

“Everyone at every level is supportive and willing to dive in and help in any way they can,” she noted. “Staff recognize how important each call is to the person reaching out to us. We know that callers are really our neighbors, members of our community, friends and family members that just need help. Answering each call with a focus on this perspective is what sets us apart.”

In addition to handling 1.2 million calls per year, HSCC staff consistently go above and beyond. Regularly showing extraordinary generosity, they support every donation drive and actively donate their time to help our community partners. As the COVID-19 pandemic impacted and interrupted our daily lives, the HSCC continued to serve our fellow New Yorkers by scheduling test appointments and reaching out to 70,000 healthcare volunteers to match them with hospitals in need. The staff pivoted to these new initiatives without hesitation.

“Congratulations and thank you to each and every one of you who make the HSCC a Top Workplace!” said Kathryn. “I am so very proud to be part of an organization that has such a strong commitment to serving New Yorkers.”

OCFS Staff Mark Child Abuse Prevention Month Despite Pandemic

  • Tuesday, April 7 was our annual pinwheel planting. For more than a decade, the pinwheel has been the symbol for preventing child abuse. Pinwheels are all about whimsy and childlike notions, and they’ve come to serve as a reminder of great childhoods. OCFS public information superstar Jackie Jensen, below, braved the weather and planted pinwheels at Huyck Memorial Park in Rensselaer, outside the OCFS Home Office.
  • Wear Blue Day, which was April 3, made OCFS staff support for preventing child abuse obvious to all.

Enacted Budget Legislative Update

Governor Cuomo signed the Budget for State Fiscal Year 2020-21 into law on April 3, 2020. This year’s budget contains some significant legislative changes, including:

  • Reforms to the Statewide Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment to update child protective services practices and reduce the potential detrimental impact an indicated report of child maltreatment may have on employability, in appropriate instances. These reforms, which will take effect on January 1, 2022, include:
    • Changing the evidentiary standard to indicate suspected cases of child abuse or maltreatment from “some credible evidence” to “a fair preponderance of the evidence” for investigations conducted on or after January 1, 2022;
    • Mandating that OCFS stay any request to amend indicated SCR allegations, if those same allegations are at issue in a pending child abuse or neglect proceeding pursuant to Article 10 of the Family Court Act, until the disposition of such an action.
    • Creating an irrebuttable presumption in fair hearings that an allegation has or has not been proven by a fair preponderance of the evidence where a Family Court has made a finding in an Article 10 proceeding involving the same allegations of child abuse or maltreatment that are contained in an indicated report of child abuse or maltreatment.
  • Providing for the transfer of adolescent offenders from the custody of the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to OCFS by October 1, 2020. These youth will be housed in OCFS secure facilities, where they will be provided with comprehensive services including education, employment training, recreation, counseling, medical and mental health services.
  • Expanding the Foster Youth College Success Initiative to allow colleges and universities to expend funds on providing housing for students during intersession and summer breaks, and for medical expenses that are not otherwise covered by the student’s health plan, including primary care, behavioral health, vision and dental care.
  • Legalizing gestational surrogacy in New York to help LGBTQ couples and those struggling with infertility. The legislation establishes criteria for surrogacy contracts that provide the strongest protections in the nation for parents and surrogates, and creates a Surrogates' Bill of Rights to ensure the unfettered right of surrogates to make their own healthcare decisions and have access to comprehensive health insurance and independent legal counsel of their choosing, all paid for by the intended parents. The legislation also creates a streamlined process for establishing parenthood when one of the individuals is a non-biological parent, a process known as "second parent adoption."
  • Updating the 2019 bail reform law to include 15 new categories to the list of crimes in which judges are allowed to set bail on a defendant or remand them to jail, including various sex offenses involving children, and domestic violence offenses including criminal obstruction of breathing or blood circulation, strangulation or unlawful imprisonment. These updates also allow judges to impose new conditions on defendants awaiting trial who aren’t jailed, such as requiring the surrender of their passport, mandating that they refrain from contact with certain victims or witnesses, or referring them for mandatory treatment or counseling.