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Andrew M. Cuomo, Governor
Sheila J. Poole, Commissioner
July 2020 — Vol. 5, No. 6

Commissioner's Message

As we greet July and what is normally a mid-summer slowdown, I am struck with just how abnormal this time is for all of us, in good ways and in bad. Looking back at the past four months, it is astounding and devastating to consider the pain, loss and suffering that the pandemic has caused. It has also been shocking to witness the unjust murder of George Floyd, which, as yet another murder of an unarmed black person by the police, became a tipping point as millions of people took to the streets in the United States and around the globe to demand real change for racial justice.

Just a few weeks ago, New York State made history by declaring Juneteenth a state holiday. Juneteenth, short for June Nineteenth, commemorates the end of slavery in the United States, even though that end came two and half years after abolition of slavery for some people who were enslaved in Texas. The declaration, while long overdue, signifies a seismic shift in our state and in our country. It is time that we recognize what we have long overlooked, hear what we have long ignored and resolve to accomplish what we have failed to do for hundreds of years.

We stand at the precipice of a movement toward social and racial justice and an historic period in which government is responding to citizens’ demands for meaningful change in a meaningful way. Examples may be found in the recently passed reforms Governor Cuomo signed into law that are designed to restore trust between the community and law enforcement.

Racial justice reform is not new to us at OCFS. We have examined the issue of race and its role in our work here. We are very aware of the disproportionate representation of black and brown children in our child welfare and juvenile justice systems, and we see the effects of systemic racism and its impact on the children and families we serve.

We Have the Power to Implement Change

As state government professionals, we have the power to implement change. Consider some of the important work already underway. Our agency firmly believes that social and racial bias have no place in the child welfare system and works to eliminate disproportionality. OCFS is making a blind removal process mandatory for all local departments of social services when deciding whether to remove a child from their parents. With blind removals, all demographic information is hidden from decision makers to prevent implicit bias from unintentionally impacting a removal decision and prevent unnecessary and lifelong trauma for children and families.

But we still have a long way to go. This historic moment compels us, as an agency, to also confront our role in perpetuating inequality. We are re-committing ourselves to eradicating racism in our system in ways we had not previously imagined and are committed to taking bold steps to address social injustice/racial inequality and disparities in child welfare, child care and youth justice to improve outcomes for children and families of color.

This is also a time for introspection and an examination of how we promote racial and social justice in our workplace. How do our language, symbols and/or actions reflect our values? How can we work to better promote equity and inclusion? Our Diversity Committee has taken its work to an online platform, now making it available to all OCFS employees in all locations. I urge you to take part in the series of webinars the committee is offering and to rededicate your efforts to educate and challenge yourself with this work and take it further into the community.

Yet in the midst of all of this turmoil, there is reason for joy and celebration, and we cannot lose sight of all that is good in our lives – personal and work. I hope that each of you is able to take some time to stop by a farm stand, dip your toes in a lake or cast a line, drive through this great state of New York to enjoy its summertime scenic beauty, enjoy a July 4th picnic with family (don’t forget your masks!) and remember to cherish what is positive and good in our lives.

Sincerely,
Sheila J. Poole
Commissioner

Articles

OCFS Forward

Welcome back to the many OCFS employees who have returned to the office. We have had great success as we gradually reopen our agency. Employees are diligently following the new health protocols and are adapting well to new practices. We all have a stake in adhering to these requirements to ensure a successful re-opening, and we thank you for abiding by the health and safety procedures.

Employees have returned to offices in Rensselaer, Utica, Binghamton, Syracuse, Buffalo, Watertown, Oneonta and Albany. Nearly 600 non-essential staff are working at least part time in the office to date, and another 700 continue to work from home. Throughout July, we’ll add staff in New Windsor, Westchester, Long Island and all New York City offices.

Please continue to complete work plans as required and monitor and check in on daily temperature screenings. Stay up to date on the latest OCFS Forward information on our intranet guidance page and send questions to info@ocfs.ny.gov.

Felicia Reid Named Acting Head of Division for Juvenile Justice and Opportunities for Youth

Felicia Reid, Esq., is OCFS’ new acting deputy commissioner of the Division of Juvenile Justice and Opportunities for Youth (DJJOY) as of June 10. She succeeds Ines Nieves, who retired after a long and successful career in youth justice.

“I am excited to lead DJJOY and expand upon all the great work that came before,” noted Felicia. “When it comes to juvenile justice, OCFS is often considered the deep end of that system, which means we have that much more work to do to engage, support and serve youth and families. My goal is to move from a ‘do no harm’ perspective to one of ‘doing our best,’ relying on data and evidence to inform decisions and being critical regarding assumptions and practices. Across DJJOY, there are so many folks who are passionate about what they do. That’s the kind of dedication that works to foster a juvenile justice community that never loses sight of the importance of the “O” (for opportunity).”

Felicia’s Robust Experience Serves OCFS

Felicia served as the agency’s assistant commissioner and director of the Office of the Ombudsman since 2018. Through her strong leadership, Felicia established active working relationships with OCFS facilities, detention programs and voluntary agencies.

The author of several helpful resources for youth and families, she has conducted numerous trainings for the New York State Bar Association and Unified Court System. Her energy and commitment have shone through during her work on the Diversity Committee and in facilitating numerous presentations during Black History Month and other cultural events.

Felicia has served as associate counsel for the New York State Assembly, senior counsel for the New York State Legislative Ethics Commission and appellate court attorney for the New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Third Judicial Department. A graduate of Fordham University, Felicia attended New York University Law School.

We are lucky to have Felicia’s talent and passion leading our work on behalf of young people and the staff caring for them in our facilities and aftercare programs.

“Look Before You Lock” Campaign Underway

Don’t Leave Kids in Hot Cars

When a story hits the news of a child dying in a hot car, many people think, “How is that possible?” But it unfortunately happens dozens of times each year.

And now that hot weather is here, OCFS is spearheading a “Look Before You Lock” campaign to remind people who transport an infant or small child to make sure that no child is left behind – literally.

“We know that a disrupted routine is a primary risk factor for accidentally leaving a child in a car,” said OCFS Commissioner Sheila J. Poole. “This year, practically everyone’s routine has been disrupted, making it more important than ever to check the back seat. Put something there that you need: keys, your purse or briefcase, your cell phone, to help you remember to look before you lock. Doing so could save a child’s life.”

Hot Car Reminders

If the outside temperature is 80°, the inside of a car can reach 109° in just 20 minutes; in 40 minutes it can reach 118°; in an hour, it can reach 123°. Anyone who sees a child left alone in a car should call 911 immediately.

On average, 39 children under the age of 15 die each year from heatstroke after being left in a vehicle, according to a study from San Jose State University/NoHeatStroke.org. It can happen either when someone goes into a store “for a quick stop” or when they outright forget the child is in the car. The study says that almost a quarter of the children who die in hot cars were in an employer parking lot with the parent or caregiver at work.

Just two years ago, 52 children in the United States between the ages of seven weeks and five years died after being left in cars. That was the highest number in 20 years. More child heatstroke deaths occur in the month of July than in any other month.

OCFS joined with the New York State Department of Health, the New York State Police, the New York City Administration for Children’s Services and Prevent Child Abuse New York for the campaign.

Please help spread the word. When you see our posts on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, “Like” and “Share.” And above all, “Look Before You Lock.”

Pride Event Focuses on Transgender Women and LGBTQ People of Color

June was LGBTQ Pride Month, and to celebrate, OCFS hosted a virtual Pride event.

This Pride season is unique yet calls to mind the beginning of the queer Civil Rights Movement. OCFS LGBTQ+ Empire Fellow Nathaniel Gray presented the story of the transgender women of color who helped establish the first New York City Pride March in June 1970 and discussed queer people of color (QPOC) who have championed equality movements in America.

Nathaniel was then joined by an expert QPOC panel (see below) to discuss the impact of intersectionality on individuals who identify as LGBTQ and are non-White. In this historic time, we choose to center the voices of people of color, even within the LGBTQ+ community, to meet the social justice movement where it is today.

Panelists

  • Phil Burse – Chief Operating Officer of In Our Own Voices
  • Russell Gregory – Assistant Director of Crisis Housing at the Ali Forney Center
  • Billie Marie Grant – LGBTQ Implicit Bias Trainer
  • Johnathan Gibbs – Host of Queer People of Color (QPOC) podcast

Longstanding Employees Shelly Aubertine-Fiebich and Jara Traina Start New Roles

Shelly Aubertine-Fiebich has become the director of the Bureau of Adult Services, while Jara Traina transitioned into a leadership role within the Bureau of Domestic Violence Prevention and Victim Support.

“I’m looking forward to continuing the outstanding work of my predecessors,” said Shelly. “I will be raising up the importance of the work done by our state and local adult protective services staff and making sure they are linked with public and private partners.”

Shelly has spent 25 years at OCFS, the last four as special assistant to the division of Child Welfare and Community Services’ Associate Commissioner Renee Hallock. Her responsibilities included the Child and Family Services Review Program Improvement Plan, the Home Finders Summit and the development and implementation of rapid permanency reviews. She also supervised the Justice Center work within the division. Earlier in her career, Shelly was a youth counselor in the Division of Rehabilitation Services, now DJJOY, and affirmative action administrator in the previous OCFS Equal Opportunity and Diversity Development (EODD) office.

Jara joined the Child Welfare and Community Services management team in March 2020, assisting with the Bureau of Adult Services while also continuing in her role as senior attorney with the Division of Legal Affairs.

"As an attorney who has worked in the family court providing legal representation for victims of domestic violence, I know firsthand the struggles facing them,” said Jara. “I have been fortunate to work for OCFS providing legal counsel to our domestic violence programs for the last decade. I’m excited to build on that foundation and use my practical, problem-solving skills to tackle the challenges we are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic, when stay-at-home orders have required us to think more creatively about how to provide services."

Over the course of 12 years at OCFS, Jara has provided legal services for the Commission for the Blind, Child Preventive and Protective Services, foster care, domestic violence services, juvenile justice and adult protective services. She has also provided ethics training and guidance for OCFS employees.

Before joining OCFS, Jara was a law guardian for the Children’s Law Center in the Bronx, where she represented children in custody/visitation, child welfare, domestic violence and guardianship cases in family and supreme court matters. Jara began her legal career as a law clerk in New Jersey Supreme Court’s Criminal Division.

Legislative and State of the State Update

This month we have an extended update, given the social and racial unrest that exists across New York State and across the globe. OCFS firmly believes that racial bias has no place in society and its presence in the child welfare system must be eradicated. During these uncertain times one thing is certain: our children and families deserve a fair and equitable child welfare system that keeps children safe and supports families in crisis. This moment in history compels us to re-commit ourselves to addressing social and racial injustice through comprehensive adoption of strategies never before implemented.

State of the State: Blind Removals and Kin-First Firewalls

As announced in the State of the State, our race equity agenda includes working with local districts to implement strategies in case practice, such as the blind removal process, to address disparities and improve outcomes for children and families of color.

Because national data identify African American, Hispanic/Latino and Native American children as being disproportionately reported to child protective services compared to their representation in the population, OCFS is making a blind removal process mandatory for all local departments of social services when deciding whether to remove a child from their parents. With blind removals, all demographic information is hidden from decision makers to prevent implicit bias from unintentionally impacting a removal decision.

When a removal is necessary to keep a child safe, the kin-first firewall is a practice intended to increase safe and appropriate relative (kinship) placements. It requires a higher level of review before a non-kinship placement is made to verify that all possible steps have been taken to identify relatives and significant adults in a child’s life who could care for the child.

Legislation on Police Reforms

Following the tragic murder of George Floyd and the systemic practice of police brutality against communities of color across the nation, the New York State Legislature returned for a Special Session the week of June 8, 2020, to enact the “Say Their Name” Reform Agenda package of legislation. Governor Cuomo signed these landmark policing reforms into law, which will work to reduce inequality in policing and reimagine the state's criminal justice system.

OCFS feels hopeful about these reforms because they require more critical thinking around the use and appropriateness of law enforcement in everyday situations. Many of the communities where the families and children we serve live are disproportionately policed as compared to others. The police more frequently intervene and address allegations of crime differently in communities of color, and particularly when Black people are the subject of those allegations.

  • Chapter 93 of 2020 – Establishes civil penalties for bias-related misuse of 911 or other emergency services when there is no reason to believe a crime or offense, or imminent threat to person or property, is occurring.
  • Chapter 94 of 2020 – Enacts the “Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act” to establish the crime of aggravated strangulation for police officers or peace officers, punishable by up to 15 years in prison, where an officer uses a chokehold or similar restraint and thereby causes serious physical injury or death to another person.
  • Chapter 95 of 2020 – Establishes the Office of Special Investigation within the Office of the Attorney General (AG) with investigative authority and criminal jurisdiction over any incident in which the death of a person is caused by an act or omission of a police officer or certain peace officers, or in which the AG determines there is a question as to whether the death was in fact caused by an act or omission of such police officer or peace officer.
  • Chapter 96 of 2020 – Repeals the special right of privacy under the Civil Rights Law for the personnel records used to evaluate performance toward continued employment or promotion of police officers, correction officers, firefighters/paramedics and peace officers working for DOCCS or local probation departments and subjects these records to disclosure under the state’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).
  • Chapter 100 of 2020 – Enacts the “New Yorker’s Right to Monitor Act” to make clear that a person has the right under the Civil Rights Law to record law enforcement activity and to maintain custody and control of that recording and of any property or instruments used to make the recording.
  • Chapter 101 of 2020 – Requires any state or local law enforcement officer or peace officer who discharges their weapon, while on duty or off duty, under circumstances where a person could be struck by a bullet, to report the incident to their superiors. A verbal report must be made within six hours of the incident, followed by a written report within 48 hours.
  • Chapter 102 of 2020 – Requires the Chief Administrator of the Courts to compile and report data on misdemeanor offenses and violations, broken down by county, including the:
    • Aggregate number of misdemeanors/violations charged;
    • Specific offense/violation charged;
    • Race, ethnicity, age and sex of individual charged;
    • Whether the individual was issued a summons or appearance ticket, was subject to custodial arrest or whether an arraignment was held as a result of the misdemeanor or violation;
    • Zip code or location where the alleged misdemeanor/violation occurred; and
    • Disposition of case including, if the case is dismissed, why it was dismissed, or the sentence imposed, including fines, fees and surcharges.
  • Chapter 103 of 2020 – Imposes a duty upon police/peace officers under the Civil Rights Law to provide attention to the health and mental health needs of any person under arrest or in custody, including obtaining reasonable and good-faith assistance or treatment under the circumstances.
  • Chapter 104 of 2020 – Creates the Law Enforcement Misconduct Investigative Office (“Office”) within the Department of Law with jurisdiction over all local police agencies regarding law enforcement misconduct investigations. The mission of the Office is to review, study, audit and make recommendations relating to the operations, policies, programs and practices, including ongoing partnerships with other law enforcement agencies, of state and local law enforcement agencies with the goal of enhancing the effectiveness of law enforcement, increasing public safety, protecting civil liberties and civil rights, ensuring compliance with constitutional protections and local, state and federal laws, and increasing the public's confidence in law enforcement.
  • Chapter 105 of 2020 – Establishes the New York State Police body-worn cameras program to require the Division of State Police to provide body-worn cameras to be worn by all officers while on patrol in order to provide a record of certain interactions with the public.

Juneteenth Celebrates the End of Slavery and Much More

June 19, 2020, is an historic day. Governor Andrew M. Cuomo declared that Juneteenth is now a holiday in New York State.

Juneteenth, short for June Nineteenth, commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. It is sometimes referred to as "Freedom Day" or "Emancipation Day," and marks the day that Union Army General Gordon Granger delivered an announcement in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865. The announcement informed still-enslaved African Americans that President Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation two years prior in 1863, that the Union had won the Civil War, and that all enslaved people were free.

Recognizing Juneteenth also allows us to recall the achievements of African American soldiers and laborers who were instrumental in helping the Union Army win the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln said, “Were it not for the black freedmen, the war against the South could not have been won.”

The Juneteenth holiday allows us a chance to learn, reflect, and act upon our shared commitment to bringing about a more just and equitable world. As the governor stated, "Juneteenth offers an opportunity to celebrate and honor the extraordinary achievements, perseverance and contributions of African Americans everywhere, while renewing our commitment to fighting for full equity and racial justice for all."

Juneteenth Webinar Educates Staff

Our Diversity Committee presented its Juneteenth webinar led by Serena Joyce White-Lake, an assistant counsel in OCFS’ Employment Law Unit located in the Home Office.

The webinar focused on the contribution of African Americans to winning the Civil War; stressed how Juneteenth is a time for rejoicing, reflection, self-improvement and future planning; and featured Marva Richards, director of community outreach and service learning at Albany Medical College, who spoke about health disparities affecting black and brown communities. She included pointers about how to have conversations about race.

Red Hook Unveils Peace Pole Project, Symbol of Hope and Dreams

On June 25, 2020, Red Hook Residential Center (RHRC) unveiled its peace pole project during the end of the school year report card ceremony. A peace pole is an internationally recognized symbol of the hopes and dreams of the entire human family, standing vigil in silent prayer for peace on earth.

Each pole, hand-painted by youth and staff, is inscribed with messages of peace in languages significant to and chosen by participants. Despite social distancing requirements, the short ceremony went off without a hitch, and the peace poles are now prominently featured on the main entrance walkway.

Special thanks to Assistant Director of Treatment Dr. Lindsey Morelle, Nurse 2 Cindy Brailey and John Roccanova, who was the inspirational force behind the project, despite being unable to visit the facility for more than three months. John worked as RHRC’s Garden and STEAM (Science Tech, Engineering, Art & Math) vendor before the pandemic.