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Kathy Hochul, Governor
Suzanne Miles-Gustave, Esq., Acting Commissioner
May 2021 — Vol. 6, No. 5

Commissioner's Message


May is National Foster Care Month. We have so much to celebrate, with the numbers of children living in foster care at historic lows and the percentage of children living with relatives/kin at historic highs. In the five-year period between 2015 and 2020, the percentage of foster children living with relatives doubled, going from 21% in 2015 to 43% in 2020! I congratulate OCFS staff, county workers and our voluntary agency partners for working together to achieve these tremendous results. While implementation of the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) continues as we approach the federal deadline, it is worth pausing for a moment to reflect on our mutual accomplishments.

With the implementation of the blind removal process, we anticipate that we will see greater equity in the child welfare system and foster care in particular. We envision a system where parents’ race, socio-economic standing and other variables are not considered when deciding when to remove a child from their home and place them into foster care.

I am also very proud that we have recognized the increased stress the pandemic has placed on an already-vulnerable population – youth aging out of foster care – and responded by enabling them to re-enter foster care or extend their time in foster care to provide needed supports as they lay the foundations for a successful adult life.

This year’s Foster Care Awareness Month theme, "Partnering With Families and Youth to Achieve Permanency," is so fitting. It reminds us that we need to be true partners, to listen to the needs of foster and kinship families and of our foster youth and respond in tangible and meaningful ways. I am so grateful for the voices of our OCFS Youth Advisory Board who advise and inform us of how we can better serve youth living in foster care, and I thank them for their contributions not only to this agency, but also to the foster youth who will benefit from their guidance. Their invaluable input helps us to shape policies and initiatives that are truly responsive to the needs of youth in foster care. Their contributions also help foster families and the court system learn to better meet the needs of foster youth and families.

So, as we celebrate Foster Care Awareness Month, let’s keep these special youth and families at the forefront of our thoughts and energy as we keep charging to cross the FFPSA finish line at the end of September. My sincere thanks and appreciation go to all of you working to improve the lives and well-being of our foster youth and families.

Sheila J. Poole


OCFS Marks Foster Care Awareness Month

Foster Care Awareness Month strikes at the core of our child welfare work at OCFS and is central to what we do to make a positive difference in the lives of some of New York’s most vulnerable children and families.

“Each year during Foster Care Awareness Month, we recognize our current foster parents and look to recruit more,” said Renee Hallock, an associate commissioner in the Division of Child Welfare and Community Services (CWCS).

Since 2010, the number of children and youth in foster care has dramatically declined. This reflects a continuum of work by the child welfare field that includes increased preventive services, increased speed of court hearings and minimizing time children remain in foster care by working with families to provide necessary services. The number of youth living in foster care declined from more than 25,000 in 2010 to fewer than 15,500 at the end of 2019 – a decrease of nearly 40%, with a far greater number of those children residing with relatives and friends than ever before.

“We’re always looking for more foster families, and we encourage any family that is interested to reach out to their county’s department of social services,” Renee said. “We are so appreciative of the adoptive and foster parents who open their hearts and their homes to foster children.”

CWCS has placed great emphasis on growing the number of kinship foster homes, recognizing that taking care of a relative’s child has some “unique challenges,” Hallock said. “We work closely with the counties to look for a relative to keep a child connected to their family and improve outcomes for the child.”

Recent legislation helps children in foster care during the COVID-19 pandemic by stopping them from automatically aging out of foster care at age 21 and allowing some former foster care youth who are older than 21 to re-enter care. OCFS is running a public awareness campaign to alert youth of the ability to re-enter. Please contact chafee@ocfs.ny.gov for more information, and look for messaging on OCFS’s social media platforms.

Please see below for a poignant first-hand account of being in foster care and the child welfare system, submitted by a member of OCFS’s Youth Advisory Board. We thank her for sharing her story to help others!

The Courage to Connect

I entered foster care before I was a year old. I was in and out of foster care several times before the last time I was taken into care at age 14. When I was 13 years old, I moved out of my biological mother’s home because the abusive and neglectful environment was no longer bearable. I was living with a friend for a while until my siblings and I were formally placed into foster care. I lived with my very last set of foster parents until I was 15 years old, which is when I was placed at a residential facility.

When I first arrived at the facility, I hated it. I was used to doing what I wanted, when I wanted, and that was no longer an option. Needless to say, I did not conform to their rules; I didn’t find it necessary. From the first day I arrived there, I listened to nobody, even when it was something I wanted to do. Who they thought I was had been very quickly communicated. I walked into the residential school and one of the first things said to me was, “I heard about you…you like to cause trouble,” and I remember thinking to myself, “she’s not wrong.” The idea that I was “bad” had been drilled into my head for a very long time.

I take responsibility for my negative behavior during that season. In addition to this, though, I have empathy for myself now because the situation that I was in took away my power, my voice, and my autonomy. I was fighting to be heard. I was trying to survive. Fortunately, somebody recognized that I could be more than what I had been made to believe I was, before I did, and let me know. One day, a day that was like many others, I was acting out. This really was not a shock to anybody. At that point, I was counting down the days until I would turn 18 so I could sign out, and I had accepted that I was going to be in trouble until the day I could leave.

I was sitting in the intervention room when one of the staff members approached me. Remembering this, I recognize that my body was full of fear, anticipating what she had to say to me - she was not the softest person in the facility, by far. That day, her wall dropped, though, and she communicated vulnerability with me by taking the time to really see me. She provided me with the words that helped me to begin seeing what my behaviors were really seeking to communicate. She got eye level with me, encouraged eye contact, which is something people rarely did with me, and she pointed at the wall - this was our conversation:

Teacher: “Do you see that wall?”

Me: “And?”

Teacher: “Do you see the crack in the wall?”

Me: “Yea.”

Teacher: “Well, that’s about how much of your life has happened. You have to make your life into what you want it to be. Stop letting other people control you.”

That’s it… that five-line conversation changed a lot of my behavior and my life trajectory. In that moment, I realized that I could stay on my current path - angry and enslaved to the control that others exerted over me, or I could choose to take ownership of my life and write a new story, on my terms.

Shortly after, I applied to college, and four years later I received a bachelor’s degree in Psychology, Education, and Literature to Support Trauma Impacted Youth. I am now working in a special education classroom with children who have experienced so much trauma and adversity. During my time in this role, I have learned so many things that I can’t even begin to explain - one of the most important things being: difficult things happen in this world, and while they may be uncomfortable to hear, giving students the opportunity to be heard can be messy, but it is a worthwhile pursuit. While being in foster care had some difficult times, it ultimately shaped me into the compassionate, caring, and empathetic person that I am today. I meet my students with the same heart that I was met with in the residential facility. That very impactful conversation continues to play back in my mind; not only the conversation, but the way it made me feel. I remember this each time I am met with a student who is struggling.

OCFS Marked Child Abuse Prevention Month in April

OCFS celebrated April as Child Abuse Prevention Month in many ways: wearing blue, planting pinwheels and lighting state landmarks blue from the Empire State Building to Niagara Falls. OCFS also hosted a virtual webinar, “Protective Factors: Proven Strategies to Reduce Child Abuse.”

Commissioner Sheila J. Poole introduced the event, which was co-hosted by Executive Director of Prevent Child Abuse New York Tim Hathaway. The keynote address was provided by Dr. Melissa Merrick, right, president and CEO of Prevent Child Abuse America, who discussed protective factors that are vital to prevent child neglect and maltreatment, including parental resilience, social connections and knowledge of parenting and child development.

The event also highlighted the great work happening around the state, featuring Teen Age Parent Support Services in Rochester, which partnered with a local college sorority to collect essential items for new babies and donated 22 diaper bags full of supplies.

More than 200 people from around OCFS tuned in for the live event.

If you’d like more information, the following links contain helpful child abuse prevention resources to support families:

United Federation of Teachers Honors OCFS Division of Child Care Services Employee for Outstanding Support for Children, Families and Providers

The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) recently surprised and honored Karen Rawlings, left, from OCFS’s Division of Child Care Services (DCCS) with the UFT Partnership Award and will recognize her and DCCS at the 2021 UFT provider appreciation virtual celebration in May, themed “Perseverance Through Unprecedented Times.” Karen and DCCS are being recognized for their support of child care providers, children and families.

For more than 30 years, the UFT has recognized educators, education partners and organizations for their exceptional work in providing members with the support and expertise necessary to prepare children for school and lifelong success.

“Karen is just terrific,” noted Janice Molnar, DCCS’s deputy commissioner. “She is professional and thorough and has continued to maintain a positive attitude throughout this very challenging time with the pandemic. She has a lot on her plate and manages it all with a smile.”

Karen began her OCFS career in 2003 as a youth facility counselor in the Brooklyn aftercare office where she supervised court-adjudicated youth, implementing service plans to mitigate further delinquency. She joined DCCS in 2014 in the New York City Regional Office (NYCRO), where she provided regulatory oversight and technical assistance to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Facilitating enforcement cases for child care programs in New York City, Karen worked closely with the Bureau of Day Care Enforcement and the borough offices.

In 2019, she was promoted to enforcement supervisor, and now supervises NYCRO staff and continues to be a liaison for OCFS with many stakeholders. In the absence of a regional manager, Karen has played an integral role in the seamless continuation of daily operations of regional office.

Congratulations to DCCS and Karen!

Provider Appreciation Day Celebrates a Silver Anniversary

May 7 marks the 25th anniversary of Provider Appreciation Day, a way to thank child care providers, teachers, school-age program staff, child care center directors and staff, and all those who work with children and are responsible for their education and care.

OCFS recognizes and values the work of child care providers every day. Please join OCFS in thanking the dedicated child care providers and educators in New York for their hard work and commitment to New York State's most precious investment – our children.

Deputy Commissioner of Division of Youth Development and Partnerships for Success Moderates Youth Panel

There is little doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult on adolescents, just as it has been on adults. At the New York Association of Training and Employment Professionals annual conference for youth practitioners, this year’s digital learning lab included a panel moderated by Dr. Nina Aledort, left, deputy commissioner of OCFS’s Youth Development and Partnerships for Success Division. Called “Coming Out of the Dark: Youth Dealing with Substance Abuse, Mental Health Issues and Its Impact on Families,” the panel included staff from the Champlain Valley Family Center and the Mental Health Association of New York.

Much of the panel’s dialogue with more than 65 attendees centered on how to create the right space for young people struggling with mental health needs and addiction or substance use to connect and get the support they need. Conversation included the importance of healing environments, self-care for staff and how to support families of young people who are struggling.

Given the COVID pandemic experience and the additional pressures of isolation, uncertainty, anxiety and economic hardship, participants embraced the session.

“Learn the Signs. Act Early.”
Council on Children and Families Hosts Head Start Webinar

During COVID-19, a statewide collaborative, which includes OCFS and Head Start, was formed to promote the CDC’s “Learn the Signs. Act Early.” (LTSAE) campaign to help parents and providers learn the signs of healthy child development. These materials are recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics to

  • help identify children who may need additional supports,
  • help practitioners incorporate developmental surveillance into their practices, and
  • enable families to better understand developmental health and knowledge of local supports and resources.

New York State Head Start and the New York State Council on Children and Families (CCF) are hosting a “Learn the Signs. Act Early.” webinar on May 6 at 11 a.m. for Head Start and Early Head Start programs and other early childhood providers. It will provide guidance and free resources for parents about discussing developmental concerns and will help working parents become better observers of their child’s development and encourage them to act on concerns.

Funding for this initiative, from the Association of University Centers on Disabilities, ends in September 2021, but CCF hopes to extend and expand the program with support from the federal “Early Childhood Comprehensive Systems: Health Integration Prenatal to Three Project” to further strengthen family-centered access to care by training medical providers and encouraging the use and widespread dissemination of the LTSAE materials.

Questions about the webinar? Please contact CCF’s Project Coordinator Ciearra Norwood at ciearra.norwood@ccf.ny.gov.

Columbia Girls Secure Center’s April Projects Help the Community and the Earth

To recognize April as Child Abuse Prevention Month, the residents at Columbia Girls Secure Center took extra steps to help prevent abuse and neglect in the community.

On April 20, staff and residents wore blue to raise awareness for child abuse prevention. They also participated in a walk where staff pledged donations based on how many laps were completed, and all proceeds were donated to the New York State Children’s Alliance.

In vocational classes, students planted their annual vegetable gardens and planted a tree on campus in honor of Kate Sessions, a pioneer who is most well-known for planting trees to create a large park in the city of San Diego in the early 1900s.

On the academic front, the residents celebrated “National Poetry Month,” which was an ongoing and cross-curricular theme throughout all academic classes. Residents wrote poems as well. And to connect the vocational world with the academic world, students explored the theme of “Nurture Against Neglect” – where tending their gardens served as a metaphor for taking care of themselves and their loved ones.

The Sun Rises Every Morning

The sun rises every morning, But not every day does it shine. I wake up and tell myself every day, today’s a new day, But sometimes I get stuck in the rearview mirror. Only I can turn my day around, Only I, no one else can turn it around but me. So, every day the sun will shine, But only if I choose to let it shine. Every day is only what I make it. The choice is mine!

April was also Autism Awareness Month, and several students explored various organizations that assist people living with autism and their families, and how society can become more inclusive.

Wear Your Favorite College Apparel on May 3 for College Signing Month and Submit Photos

Celebrated in the spring, College Signing Month NY celebrates high school seniors who have decided which college to attend in the fall.

This year, OCFS’s Division of Youth Development and Partnerships for Success is encouraging all OCFS staff on May 3 to show off their alma mater’s apparel and swag (hats, shirts, banners, etc.) in honor of this special day to show support for youth in our care who may have college aspirations.

Please consider taking some outdoor, socially distanced group photos to celebrate and submit to john.craig@ocfs.ny.gov for posting on the OCFS intranet.

OCFS is Going Even Greener

On January 1, 2020, New York State’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) was passed, requiring state agencies to create an implementation plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, 85% below 1990 levels by 2050 and an aspirational goal of 100% reduction by 2050.

GreenNY is a consortium of four managing entities assembled to help state agencies navigate CLCPA’s core goals, including New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), New York Power Authority (NYPA), the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the state Office of General Services.

OCFS is currently developing a master plan to meet the December 2021 mandate. The planning team, comprised of key OCFS staff and which will expand as more expertise is needed, is making significant strides in shaping the framework for the OCFS Project Pipeline plan. The team has been focusing on

  • energy use data transmission using FREE, a proprietary software application that OCFS developed to track multiple energy-related items across the agency,
  • electric charging stations for electric and hybrid vehicles at OCFS sites and Division of Juvenile Justice and Opportunities for Youth (DJJOY) facilities,
  • researching funding streams/financing, and
  • developing the OCFS Project Pipeline, which includes the following:
    • Rightsizing facilities to help with energy use reduction
    • Improving DJJOY facilities, including electronic system controls to improve efficiencies in building heating and cooling systems
    • Advancing renewable energy sources to reduce fossil fuel consumption
    • Using LED lighting in facilities
    • Renovating bathrooms, including installing water and energy-saving fixtures and appliances.

“Both the New York Power Authority and its New York Energy Manager program have noted that OCFS is responding ahead of the curve respective to other state agencies in development of our plan,” said Raymond M. Farina, OCFS’s director of facilities planning and development and member of the planning team.

Chemical Safety in the Workplace and at Home

Did you know that even simple consumer products containing chemicals that are not used as intended could affect your and your family’s safety?

To maintain a safe workplace, the Office of Management Services and the Office of Safety and Health procures and manages all toxic and hazardous materials used at all office locations, including copier toner, cleaners, disinfectants, industrial products and consumer-packaged products such as Windex, Clorox wipes, Lysol spray, etc.

OCFS follows OSHA Hazard Communication, NYS State Right to Know and OGS standards for control of chemicals for both state-owned and leased building locations. As a reminder for everyone’s safety, OCFS prohibits employees from bringing into the workplace any toxic or potentially hazardous materials, including household consumer-packaged goods in any form (sprays, liquids, solids).

If you have any questions about OCFS’s chemical control practices, OSHA Hazard Communication or NYS State Right to Know, please contact John Greening, OCFS safety and health director, at john.greening@ocfs.ny.gov, or Irena Glogowski, Office of Management Services, at Irena.glogowski@ocfs.ny.gov.

Working From Home Safely – A Look at Ergonomics

The coronavirus pandemic changed where and how many of us work. While many staff are returning to the office, some are working from home. Below are some ergonomic tips offered by state unions.

In an office or fixed work location, it may be easier to have a proper ergonomic set up at your desk, compared to working from home or alternate remote location. But there are solutions, such as these quick tips to help improve your at-home workstation:

  • Work from a table or desk. Working from a couch can be tempting, but it is important to work from a surface that allows you to build an ergonomically correct workstation. This may be a dining room table, a personal desk or any mid-height table.
  • Use a supportive chair. If you have an adjustable office chair available, take advantage of it and use it. If not, find a chair with a full back and a rounded or soft front edge. You want should sit all the way back in the chair, to fully support your back. Your thighs should rest on the chair evenly from your hip to your knee, feet flat on the ground. Make sure the backs of your knees are not rubbing on a hard front edge. You may wish to use pillows or rolled up towels for a lumbar support, seat cushion or back rest.
  • Working from a laptop. Laptops were created to be portable. It is very convenient to have your computer fold up and go with you. However, many workers are now using them as their primary workstation while working remotely. Laptops tend to be less adjustable and have smaller work surfaces than fixed computer stations.
    If possible, use your laptop as a monitor and raise it up with a laptop stand, box, book or binder to bring the top of the screen parallel with your eyesight. Then use an external keyboard and mouse to complete your workstation (as pictured).

Taken from: PEF, Ergonomics: Working from Home Factsheet