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Kathy Hochul, Governor
Suzanne Miles-Gustave, Esq., Acting Commissioner
December 2020 — Vol. 5, No. 12

Commissioner's Message

As we approach the end of what has undoubtedly been one of the most challenging years in our lifetime, it is my sincere wish that each of you can still experience some measure of the joy and peace associated with the holiday season. Traditionally, December is also a month when we experience the “in between” of wrapping up projects and initiatives we set forth as personal and professional goals at the beginning of the year while looking forward to the hope and anticipation that a new year brings.

The recent news of a COVID 19 vaccine coupled with a new presidential administration being installed in late January fills me with tremendous hope and excitement for 2021.

You have all shown great courage and ingenuity in responding to the COVID pandemic and its many related challenges these past nine months. As I reflect on the past year, I am filled with pride and admiration for all that we have accomplished in the face of adversity and how we continue to support the children and families we serve. Our innovation has led to new and better ways to reach those who need our help.

We have applied technology to create more avenues for victims of domestic violence to get the support they need to escape a dangerous situation. We have learned what truly essential workers are, and we have supported them so they can keep the wheels of our economy turning. We have reached children and families even when we could not walk through their front doors.

We have seized upon the opportunity presented through national civil unrest to give voice to issues we have long fought to bring to the fore. Our work to achieve racial and social equity is moving forward with a spotlight on child welfare and juvenile justice. The systems with which children and families interact before they come to us are being dissected, analyzed and reconstructed with a mandate to rebuild in a way that serves all New Yorkers justly.

In the coming months, as we reach critical mass with vaccinations, we will slowly return to normalcy. We will rebuild in a better way, applying the lessons we have learned. We will again be able to gather for celebrations, retirement parties, cultural events, awards and so much more. We have so much to look forward to, and I so look forward to visiting facilities and regional offices and getting back to face-to-face meetings with our many partners and stakeholders.

Thank you for all your hard work, resourcefulness and inventiveness this past year and always. It has been an honor to lead this agency that is so rich with remarkable professionals. I wish you all a very happy holiday season with hearts full of gratitude for all your blessings and a happy, hopeful new year.

Sheila J. Poole


Creative National Adoption Month Event Draws 100 Potential Adoptive Families

Six Children Received Inquiries From Potential Adoptive Parents

To kick off National Adoption Month, members of the Buffalo and Rochester Regional Permanency Exchange Planning Committee (RPEPC) and the Western New York Heart Gallery (WNYHG) organized creative virtual events on November 12 to help match kids waiting for forever homes with potential adoptive families.

These initiatives featured nine children from the Western New York Region ranging in age from nine to 19.

Approximately 100 approved foster/adoptive families as well as child welfare professionals from across New York attended to learn more about these nine amazing children. The hope was that every child would find their forever home.

Erie County Family Court Judge Sharon LoVallo offered an inspirational welcome. The RPEPC, featuring Pat Heaman, OCFS permanency specialist, and Kara Marong-Houlahan, OCFS children and family services specialist 2, along with staff from sister agencies created an eventful morning presentation, which included interviews with each child’s team, ensuring each youth had a professional, updated photo and a strengths-based narrative to share. The committee provided five strategies to caseworkers to equip them with additional tools to expand their thinking around planning and searching for homes for the children.

During the afternoon session, which the WNYHG committee planned, including OCFS’s Kara Marong-Houlahan, presented the children virtually to prospective foster/adoptive families from across the state. Each introduction included a facilitated interview with the caseworker while displaying the child’s photo, along with a videotaped interview. Each child described themselves in their own words and explained what they desired in a family.

The Buffalo Regional Office and Home Office have been following up with caseworkers about requests they received after the event. Six of the nine children presented received one or more inquiries – a terrific outcome!

Child Care Staff Present Webinars to Help Support Children During COVID-19

More than 3,000 Attend

More than 3,200 participants partook in English and Spanish webinars that OCFS’s Division of Child Care Services (DCCS) hosted on how to support children during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the extended pandemic has been challenging for many parents and adults, it has also been trying for children, and especially younger children, in various ways.

The virtual trainings, for licensed/registered child care programs, provided strategies to support kids, including how to:

  • Identify signs of stress or trauma in children
  • Implement strategies to help children and families experiencing stress or trauma
  • Recognize differences in program operations and how they can affect children and families
  • Effectively communicate with and respond to children and families

OCFS offered the webinar twice in English and twice in Spanish in the afternoon and the evening to accommodate varying schedules.

Two of our child care licensors – Antonia Medrano-Bouldin, Buffalo Regional Office, and Cely Esquivel Sherwood, Rochester Regional Office – along with two Home Office staff – Mark DeCicco (far left) and Jose Vega – facilitated the webinar, translated the scripts and curriculum, and provided the audio voiceover for the video interviews. Cassandra Becker (left), a senior education specialist with Rockefeller College, also presented.

DCCS received overwhelmingly positive feedback on these initiatives. OCFS is so grateful to our team members who generously shared their talents and to the child care provider community for remaining dedicated to taking such good care of the children in their programs.

Columbia Residents Honor Veterans and Support Our Furry Friends

After teaching service, sacrifice and the importance of honoring veterans, the Columbia Girls Secure Center made a grand gesture on Veterans Day. Residents created cards for veterans.

“It was a good lesson on how they can overcome their own trials and tribulations in their lives through sacrifice,” said Dominic J. Bucci, Columbia’s assistant director of program.

The letters were sent to the Veterans of Foreign Wars-Columbia County Post in Hudson, NY, for the men and women who have served our nation.

Dominic explained that the girls also wanted to build relationships with local organizations and offer support for community projects. In partnership with the Columbia Greene Humane Society/SPCA – an organization chosen for its reputation of protection, humane treatment and caring for the well-being of animals – a group of residents created no-sew dog and cat beds and treats for animals in the humane society’s care.

Under the guidance of Education Coordinator Matthew Sikora, the residents planned and carried out each step of the process: choosing fabric, cutting it with frilled edges and weaving the edges around a memory foam pad. Five cozy and comfortable animal beds resulted.

And in the culinary arts program, the residents made homemade dog biscuits baked with a special recipe: flour, cheese and water, with some love thrown in as well.

Dominic feels that these efforts taught the girls positivity and teamwork. The residents said they were happy about helping animals in need and had fun working together.

“We will keep reaching out to organizations in hopes of continued community support and relationships,” Dominic said.

Be Social This Season and Give Us a “Like”

As we head into the heart of the holiday season, OCFS is looking for some love – or at least some “likes.”

OCFS posts daily on Facebook and on both of our Twitter accounts, NYS OCFS on Twitter and NYS OCFS en Español on Twitter. We’re always trying to spread the word about the agency’s and our employees’ good work. OCFS also has an Instagram page and a YouTube channel where we frequently post important state events and share inspiring stories.

We encourage you to follow OCFS’s social media accounts, and to like and share our posts, tweets and stories to help us spread the word of all OCFS’s accomplishments and meaningful work.

OCFS’s Transgender Day of Remembrance Webinar Draws Hundreds of State Employees

presenters included Nathanial Gray, Sheila Poole, Kristen Rouse, Owen Gilbo, Priya Nair, Ro'ee Meyer
Presenters at OCFS’s Transgender Day of Remembrance offered deeply personal and poignant stories, and offered guidance to the non-trans community.

OCFS, in partnership with the Department of Civil Service, virtually presented a Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) event that drew a statewide audience of more than 550 people. Commissioner Poole opened with remarks on the somber remembrance and renewed a call to action to support the transgender, gender nonconforming and nonbinary (TGNC) community.

TDOR honors transgender and gender nonconforming people, particularly trans people of color, who have been murdered due to hate-related violence. Already in 2020, at least 38 trans and gender nonconforming people have been killed in the United States alone, the majority of whom were Black or Latina trans women.

The event featured New York State employees who identify as TGNC, and they discussed the importance of a safe and affirming environment for everyone and provided strategies for creating a supportive environment in the workplace.

Event emcee Owen Gilbo, a Department of Civil Service diversity and inclusion specialist who is transgender, stressed: “It is never, ever ok to out someone. We never know where anyone is in their life.” He emphasized that it is up to the individual to decide when or if they are ready to reveal more about themselves.

Other presenters included:

  • Kristen Rouse, Division of Veteran’s Services deputy director for diversity, equity & inclusion
  • Priya Nair, Executive Chamber, diversity & inclusion Empire fellow
  • Robbi Mecus, Department of Environmental Conservation, forest ranger
  • Ro'ee Meyer, Office of Mental Health, psychologist intern
  • Addison L. Peyton-Colon, Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, capacity management staff

Of the six speakers, three are United States veterans. Robbi serves as the first openly transgender Parks law enforcement officer. Kristen, who served three tours overseas, said she felt safer with her identity in a combat zone where, for example, she was never told she was in the wrong restroom, than back in New York where she didn’t feel protected from being harassed while facing a “civilian public.” Still, she sees progress. “I am so proud to live in a state where we are working to change the culture,” she said.

Priya Nair (they/them pronouns) of the Governor's Diversity Office also spoke to the fatigue that TGNC can people feel. They identified that even responding to an obvious question like, "Why is a safe and affirming workplace important to you?" can take a toll. They stressed that these events are important, but also that "…it is hard to fight for your own humanity in a system that wasn't designed for you."

All presenters reminded participants of the importance of using the name and pronouns that someone has identified. Deadnaming (calling a trans person by a name they no longer use) and misgendering (intentionally, consistently using the wrong pronoun for someone) may trigger a trans person and can have a negative impact on their mental health. Instead, they ask that we honor their chosen name because, as Addison said, “It is who I am; it’s how I identify.”

NYS Commission for the Blind Fills a Need and Creates Vision Rehabilitation Assistant Program

When the NYS Commission for the Blind (NYSCB) realized that a serious shortage of certified vision rehabilitation therapists (CVRTs) and certified orientation and mobility specialists (COMSs) existed, they sprang into action.

These positions provide crucial training services that legally blind participants need, like daily living skills and how to travel safely and purposefully in various environments.

Collaborating with partner agencies and SUNY Empire State College, NYSCB is creating a program for rehabilitation assistants to help provide defined and limited services that CVRTs and COMSs currently provide. This one-year certificate program will produce vision rehabilitation therapist assistants (VRTAs) and orientation and mobility assistants (OMAs), paraprofessionals whom NYSCB will recognize as qualified staff. This will give the CVRTs and COMSs, who have master’s degrees, more time and flexibility to provide more advanced services.

NYSCB anticipates that this one-year certification program will be available in the summer of 2021. In the meantime, NYSCB is also developing two- and four-year undergraduate degree programs for both of these professions that will be available in the future. Stay tuned!

Council on Children and Families Receives Renewal Grant Under “Preschool Development Grant Birth Through Five” Program

In 2019, the New York State Council on Children and Families (CCF), hosted by OCFS, received a three-year renewal grant under the “Preschool Development Grant Birth Through Five” program to the tune of $13.4 million each year from 2020-2022.

Issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, the grant’s vision speaks for itself: “All young children are healthy, learning and thriving in families that are supported by a full complement of services and resources essential for successful development.”

Grant activities strive to provide equity for vulnerable children who are

  • members of minority/ethnic groups,
  • immigrants or refugees,
  • homeless,
  • living in multi-language households,
  • living in low-income households,
  • living in rural communities and
  • receiving early intervention or special education services.

CCF, the Early Childhood Advisory Council, OCFS, the NYS Education Department, the NYS Office of Mental Health and other child-serving stakeholders will continue to partner with parents and providers for the remainder of the grant to enhance coordination among existing early care programs and services and more efficiently provide equitable access to high-quality programs. Some of the exciting initiatives include:

  • Strengthening kindergarten transitions in communities by creating local teams of cross-sector partners.
  • Increasing parents’ choices and knowledge of the early services system by distributing “Welcome Baby Bundles” to new parents (including birth, adoptive and foster parents).
  • Enhancing the NYS Parent Portal (www.nysparenting.org) to add push notifications; future enhancements will include adding notifications to parents about information based on their child(ren)’s age and interest areas.
  • Expanding the multilingual statewide “Talking is Teaching” media campaign to support early brain development by adding more creative content, including animals and eye-catching artwork.

Youth Development and Partnerships for Success Held Focus Groups to Better Understand LGBTQ+ Experience in Foster Care

LGBTQ+ youth often look for silent cues that someone is safe for them to talk to about their LGBTQ+ identity. One youth in a recent OCFS focus group described seeing a rainbow flag in someone's office as "a spark of happiness, a sense of safety, relief."

The Division of Youth Development and Partnerships for Success (YDAPS), along with the Division of Child Welfare and Community Services, recently held virtual regional focus groups with youth in foster care who identify as LGBTQ+.

“We held listening sessions with LGBTQ+ youth in foster care to better understand their experiences in care, identify areas for practice and policy improvement, and understand the impact of environments that are affirming or not affirming of their identity,” said Nina Aledort, deputy commissioner of YDAPS.

Research estimates that 20 percent of youth in foster care identify as LGBTQ+, meaning that one in five of the youth we serve need LGBTQ+-affirming homes and environments.

Some important themes emerged from the focus groups:

  • LGBTQ+ youth show signs of resilience and self-advocacy, which appears to be a double-edged sword as many were not comfortable advocating for themselves, but felt they had to, or no one else would.
  • LGBTQ+ youth are negatively affected by adults who convey to them that being LGBTQ+ "is a sin; means you're going to hell; is a choice."
  • Role models and community connection are critical.

“Many youth appreciated being able to participate in this project,” noted Nina, “and we are incredibly grateful for their courage and honesty in speaking to us about the LGBTQ+ youth experience in care.”

Attending to the needs of LGBTQ+ youth in foster care remains a high priority for YDAPS staff who continue to work on increasing recruitment and retention of LGBTQ+-identified foster parents, provide training for improving practice with LGBTQ+ youth and increase youth voice.

Diversity Office Hosts Jam-Packed Native American Heritage Month Webinar

On November 19, OCFS recognized Native American Heritage Month with an engrossing webinar on the culture and history of New York’s Native Americans and some of the challenges those communities face. It also celebrated the rich and diverse cultures, traditions and histories of our indigenous nations and acknowledged their important contributions.

Guest speaker Michael Martin (right) is the Executive Director of Native American Community Services of Erie and Niagara Counties, Inc. and Faith Keeper for the Onondaga Beaver Clan. He was born and raised in Buffalo.

Participants learned about the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving address, which is a greeting to the Natural World that acknowledges people, earth, waters, plants, animals, birds, bushes, trees, winds, sun, moon and stars, as well as the unseen spiritual forces.

“There’s a powerful ripple among all of us,” Michael said. “It’s a creation story and defines the relationship between human beings and the natural world.”

He also explained that he works to educate people not to demean or misuse words like “tipis” and “pow-wows” and phrases like “low man on the totem pole” or “going off the reservation.” He included the phrase “circle the wagons,” which is used repeatedly in sports references, but conjures up a war-like and attack mentality towards indigenous people.

Among other topics, Michael discussed the Indian Child Welfare Act, enacted in 1978 to protect American Indian and Alaska Native children from being unfairly separated from their parents and extended families by state child welfare and private adoption agencies. And he impressed upon webinar attendees that Native Americans are working to transform from surviving to thriving for generations to come.

Enthusiastic attendees were already asking for Michael to return for a second round before the webinar ended.

Giving Thanks

A foundation of the Good Mind
Humbles us and grounds us in a perspective of Gratitude & Abundance
Living in Balance and Harmony with All.

Gratitude is a Pathway to Happiness.

Abundance is a Pathway to Peace.

Appreciation is a Pathway to Respect & Honor.

We give thanks to the things we want to continue.

Remember to Sign Up for NY-Alert

Don’t Miss Important Closing Notices

If you haven’t already, please sign up for OCFS NY-Alert, which is OCFS’s primary way to communicate with employees when there is an urgent message to staff, work-related emergency or offices are closed due to bad weather.

OCFS NY-Alert will contact you at the numbers and emails you provided and will try to contact you in this order: text, work email, other email, work phone, cell phone and then home phone. There is a delay of up to two minutes between notifications, and the system will continue to contact you until you reply. Once you confirm receipt, the system will stop sending further notifications.

Please verify that you have signed up for OCFS NY-Alert and that your contact information is updated at hs.ocfs.ny.gov/ocfs-ny-alert. Questions or issues with OCFS NY-Alert? Contact ocfsnyalert@ocfs.ny.gov.

Youth Art Contest Draws Inspiring Artwork

More than 30 youth participated in “The Future We Want” art contest in November. The top 12 winners’ artwork will be featured in a special edition of the OCFS greeting card pack and be displayed in Home Office.

After much deliberation, discussion and passionate advocacy, the seven judges chose the 12 winners, with two honorable mentions. Twelve images will become part of the pack printed by the youth vocational program at Brookwood Print Shop.

A resident from Taberg won first place with a stunning image (left) that she said depicts her challenging past and her bright path for the future. She feels strongly that her past does not define her future and has seen positive changes in herself during her time with OCFS.

Residents from Brentwood, Brookwood, Columbia, Goshen, Highland, Red Hook and Taberg participated and submitted creative and inspired images. Choosing just one winner was challenging.

Judges were Felicia Reid, acting deputy commissioner for the Division of Juvenile Justice and Opportunities for Youth (DJJOY); Rob MacGiffert, DJJOY’S director of youth services quality assurance; Josephine Kamya, DJJOY’s assistant director for academics; Christina Hernandez, DJJOY’s associate commissioner for community partnerships; Tim Bromirski, DJJOY’S director of the Bureau of Education and Transition Services; and Monica Mahaffey, assistant commissioner for communications.

A big thank you to the youth for submitting such insightful and hopeful pieces, and to the facilities and their teams for their support.