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Kathy Hochul, Governor
Suzanne Miles-Gustave, Esq., Acting Commissioner
September 2020 — Vol. 5, No. 8

Commissioner's Message

It’s hard to believe that the summer is winding down and the harvest season with it. In this month’s newsletter, you’ll read about a very special harvest at Industry Residential Center’s agricultural program. The story is one of entrepreneurship, creativity, devotion and a sincere desire to help the youth in our care grow through learning how to plant seeds and raise vegetables.

The story is a microcosm of what we do at OCFS. Through care, nurturing, guidance, feeding and nourishing, we help children, families, vulnerable adults, blind citizens and others flourish and thrive. By placing the right supports in the right places, we witness the unsteady becoming strong and productive. As parents, child care workers, kinship caregivers, counselors for youth and adults, teachers and foster parents, you have helped to sow the seeds that lead to successful and fulfilling lives. Warmth and caring can be transformative.

As we slowly return to normalcy, our work at OCFS is needed more than ever. Parents need quality child care so they can go to work on the days their children are in the classroom. Families need to be connected to services to help them overcome the challenges this pandemic has brought. Business Enterprise Program managers need support to maintain their independence until their customers return. New York State citizens need answers to their many questions for the agencies our Human Services Call Center covers. Traditionally underrepresented communities need racial equity and social justice. Youth returning to their communities need purpose and determination.

As you read about Industry’s agricultural program and the creativity that helped establish a farm stand at the facility, I hope you will reflect upon the ways that your creativity and innovation have enabled you to serve the people of New York State despite recent changes and challenges. Recognize the value of your commitment and how it has kept the people we serve moving forward to success. Please take the time to nurture and care for yourselves as well.

And please, stay healthy!

Sheila J. Poole


Harriet Tubman Residential Center Celebrates Four Graduations

Harriet Tubman Residential Center celebrated four high school graduations on August 6.

Family members, Community Multi-Services Offices and facility staff gathered to watch these determined young women accept their diplomas from youth education coordinator Joann Carlson (left). Congratulations to the new alumnae!

Joann addressed her final group of OCFS grads as she prepares for retirement after more than 20 years of agency service, which we thank her for. She will be greatly missed.

CARES Funding Recipient Sends Heartfelt Letter of Thanks

“We would not have been able help our children without the CARES grant.”

In June, New York State announced $65 million in federal Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding for the New York Forward Child Care Expansion Incentive program. OCFS is administering the grants, which are supporting up to 43,000 child care slots statewide.

Below is a letter from a very grateful CARES Act funding recipient and parent that reminds us just how much child care can change families’ lives, especially during the pandemic.

We wanted to take a moment and thank you and your staff for all of their hard work in facilitating the Cares Act Grant.

Both my husband and I are essential workers and needed to continue to report to work during this pandemic. We have two wonderful school-age children and when school closed, we did not know what to do. My husband works the night shift, and I work the day shift, so we thought everything would be OK. As the long work hours and stressful days continued to add up, I saw a change in my children and husband. [He] is a combat veteran who has proudly served our county.

However, with the mounting lack of sleep and stressors of this pandemic, my husband started to trigger back into military survival mode, which confused and scared our children. My heart was breaking for my husband and our children, and I was torn with work responsibilities and the need to be there for my family.

I needed to find emergency child care for our children, but was riddled with guilt that I could not afford this unexpected cost of child care. I felt that I had failed my family and could not help them. When I was told about the CARES grant, I started to cry as I was so overwhelmed with relief knowing that our children could now be able to go to an emergency program! My husband would now be able to get the rest he needed during the day instead of triggering when he was watching the children. My husband, too, was riddled with guilt that he could not help these unexpected triggers, [which] we know…are the results of the sacrifice he made for his country and are not his fault.

Our son thanks me every day in the morning when I drop them off and at night when I pick them up. He says, “Mommy, thank you so much for taking us to the emergency program.” I send a prayer of thanks every time I hear him say this! We would not have been able help our children without the CARES grant. Please let your staff know that their long hours and hard work has truly helped a military family. A family that is still healing from the sacrifice made from OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom). There are no words that can truly express our gratitude. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you all for making this possible!”

Truly Blessed,

A family that proudly served our county during wartime and served our nation during the COVID pandemic as essential workers.

Planting Seeds at Industry Residential Center Leads to a Flourishing Program and New Farm Stand

From planting seeds to transplanting seedlings, pruning and grafting, trellising, weeding and harvesting, students of Industry Residential Center’s agriculture program have done it all. And they even created a produce stand to boot.

Industry’s agriculture program previously raised money through an employee-based, community-supported agriculture share program. But this year, the program worked toward a more fiscally responsible approach while reducing facility operational costs.

Youth at Industry grew more than 677 pounds of produce, all of which the facility used. But over time, there were more fresh vegetables than Industry needed, so the residents and vocational department took the literal fruits of the residents’ labor to the public.

The residents wanted to sell the produce at an Industry farm stand, so nearly every department collaborated to make it happen. Building trades instructor Jospeh Guiliano and plant science instructor Jacob Ballard created a vocational incentive program for residents to build the stand. And with the board of visitors’ help, Industry obtained enough materials to finish the project.

“The saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ could not be any truer during this process,” said Nate Wester, vocational specialist 1. “It was amazing to see all of the different entities that wanted to assist in making these young men’s dreams come to fruition.”

With supervision, residents operate the stand daily and sell the harvested vegetables (all while masked and gloved to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines). To date, they have sold 300 pounds of produce.

After seeing the outpouring of community support, residents wanted to give back. At the end of each week, any excess produce that can’t be used at the facility or sold is donated to Rush-Henrietta Area Food Terminal, which distributes the fresh vegetables to local families in need, totaling more than 166 pounds this year.

Human Services Call Center Reaches Six Millionth Calls

On July 28, the OCFS Human Services Call Center handled its six millionth call!

A fine accomplishment on its own, it’s even more significant given that it took only nine months to reach this marker since the five millionth call last October. Kristina Steinborn (left) had the honors.

The center handled its very first call on May 13, 2013, and now averages 100,000 calls per month for 10 state agencies. Thank you to all call center staff for helping achieve this milestone.

Please Complete The Census – New York State Depends on You

New York State continues to lag behind in its census response rate at 59 percent participation vs. the national average of more than 63.5 percent. You can still respond online, over the phone or by mail — all without having to meet a census taker.

Census results determine how much money the federal government sends to New York State for education, healthcare, mass transit and housing, among other categories. It also determines how many representatives New York has in Congress. In 2010, we lost two seats.

The Census Bureau is sending another mailing, including a paper questionnaire, in late August to early September to the lowest-responding census tracts.

Some commonly asked questions:

Does the 2020 Census ask about citizenship status?
Are non-citizens counted in the census?
Can answers be shared with law enforcement or used against me?

Commission for the Blind Success Story: Carmine’s Sense of Purpose

It’s said that if you lose one of your five senses, the brain adapts by heightening the other four – a rewiring, if you will.

Carmine Cataldo (below), blind for more than 50 years, adapted and even added a “sixth sense.” He used that to connect with a woman who would become his wife, but also to determine the right time to retire from his position as New York State Commission for the Blind Business Enterprise Program (BEP) manager.

Now 63, Carmine retired in 2019. Licensed in 1983, he opened his first store at the Brooklyn Motor Vehicle Building where he sold newspapers and candy, plus had vending machines for coffee and other snacks. A year later, he opened a store in Manhattan at the New York County (Supreme) Courthouse. In 1996, he transferred back to Brooklyn, opening a store at the Kings County Supreme Courthouse. At each stop, he had attracted a steady core of customers, and state leaders took notice.

“If you’re reliable, dependable, you’re there all the time…they knew at the end of the day I was going to be there [for that] three o’clock sugar high,” Carmine said with a laugh. “It was a pleasant atmosphere.

Family Business

Carmine’s father, two uncles and a cousin were all BEP managers and had the same eye disorder that Carmine was born with – aniridia, where there is a complete or partial absence of the iris. Carmine developed glaucoma when he was three and was blind by the time he was 12.

Carmine’s father ran a store at the federal courthouse and was able to help guide his son. Eventually, he found his way.

While at the store at the Brooklyn Courthouse, Carmine talked on the phone with his milk distributor, a woman named Mary, over the course of five years. In 1996, Mary invited Carmine to a religious retreat. The rest is history. They married in 1999.

In July 2019, much to the chagrin of his customers, Carmine retired, and on his last day, they threw him a party. Carmine knew his customers well just from making change for someone who had to use the pay phone, to bigger events, life’s milestones – first days at work, customers having kids who are now college graduates and countless cups of coffee.

“It became like a family,” Carmine said, adding that his wife reminded him, “I had all the women crying…it became a community.”

OCFS Participates in National Activating Youth Engagement Summit

A team from New York State took part in the 2020 National Activating Youth Engagement Summit held virtually August 26-27, which coalesced youth voices throughout all areas of child welfare. (See above for the opening slide of the summit.)

Sponsored by Annie E. Casey, the summit offered “…deep learning opportunities as well as expert guidance and support,” according to Dr. Nina Aledort, deputy commissioner of OCFS’s Division of Youth Development and Partnerships for Success (YDAPS). The summit’s objective was for all participants to acknowledge and work to eliminate current racial and ethnic disparities by intentionally centering equity and inclusion in all aspects of work at the summit, including planning, partnerships, engagement and accountability.

The New York State team included:

  • Young Adult Leaders: Four members from the OCFS Youth Advisory Board (YAB);
  • OCFS: Nina Aledort, deputy commissioner for Youth Development and Partnership for Success (YDAPS); Matt Beck, director of bureau of youth development (YDAPS); and Heather Babcock, youth development coordinator (YDAPS) and
  • New York State Partners: Jessica Grimm, director of Bravehearts Services, Children’s Village; and Honorable Edwina Mendelson, deputy chief administrative judge, New York State Unified Court System.

YAB’s work since 2017 highlighted OCFS’s discussion. Members recently had a roundtable with Jerry Milner, associate commissioner at the Children's Bureau, to voice young adults’ most pressing needs.

The summit allowed young leaders to share experiences, discuss how they are working with the state team to respond to the needs of other young people and engage in dialogue with Associate Commissioner Milner.

Child Welfare Parent Advisory Board Digs Into Agenda

With support from Casey Family Programs, the Division of Child Welfare and Community Service’s Parent Advisory Board (PAB) met for the second time on August 15.

Sheila Poole, OCFS commissioner, greeted the board, and OCFS staff offered departmental overviews. The board, including Hope Newton (right), discussed the State of the State address and important issues for the upcoming legislative session, including

  • programs and training grounded in trauma-informed care,
  • better supports to help families achieve stability,
  • better training for foster parents caring for LGBTQ youth
  • better health care supports
  • facilitating access to legal representation for families and
  • access to data and statistics.

The board also explored the Host Family Homes Program that OCFS is currently considering, which would allow a parent/guardian to request that their children be cared for by a safe host family on a voluntary basis for a short period of time. More discussion will ensue on this topic.

A huge thanks to the parents and OCFS staff who contributed to a successful and informative day.

New Parent Portal App Offers Resources

Did you know that the Council on Children and Families has a parent portal (www.nysparenting.org) that houses four websites to help parents and caregivers? And did you know that the portal is now a mobile app ready for download in the App Store and Google Play Store?

Parents, caregivers and social service professionals can help build a culture of positive parenting and make families aware of this resource, which includes child care options, helpful hints to navigate concerns about developmental delays, community parenting support and COVID-19 information.

The four websites in the portal are:

  • The NYS Child Care, After-School and Home Visiting Programs Locator Tool website allows parents to type their home or work address to locate nearby child care programs.
  • The Parent Guide website was built for pregnant women, new parents and caregivers and is a guide to the parenting journey. This website has helpful hints and numerous resource pages geared for the first five years of a child’s life.
  • Every Student Present helps parents learn how to boost a child’s confidence, keep their child on track with schoolwork, protect their child from bullies and keep their child healthy. There is also a special section for teachers and administrators.
  • The Multiple Systems Navigator website was built for youth, parents, family members and caregivers who rely on supports from multiple child and family-serving systems. Parents of children with disabilities or delays can access helpful health, education, human service and disability information on one user-friendly website.

Don’t miss out. Download the app for helpful parenting tips today.

The NYS Parent Portal (www.nysparenting.org) was created as a part of the Maximizing Parent Choice and Knowledge activity of the NYSB5 initial grant awarded to the NYS Council on Children and Families. This project was made possible by grant number 90TP0059.