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Kathy Hochul, Governor
Sheila J. Poole, Commissioner
December 2021 — Vol. 6, No. 12

Commissioner's Message

During this season of giving, I thank all of you who have generously donated to our agency’s philanthropic efforts throughout the year and to those of you who have donated your time to help people in need in your own community. As a human services agency, our mission is to help. I admire how many of us carry that mission in our personal lives and support our neighbors.

I am excited about the possibilities the new year will bring and bolstered by the strong support Governor Hochul has shown for our work, including child care, combatting child poverty, preventing domestic violence, stopping gun violence and upholding the rights of women and LGBTQ+ people and more. I look forward to learning what OCFS initiatives and priorities will be included in the Governor’s State of the State address in January.

There is also positive news on the federal level, with the House of Representatives passing the Build Back Better Act. That legislation includes federal investments in child care and universal pre-K for three- and four-year-olds. We will keep a watchful eye on it as it continues through the legislative process. As we know, child care is essential to the success of the economy and the individual success of many American families. If enacted, this legislation would benefit nearly 300,000 children in New York State and will help to bring quality, reliable, affordable child care within reach for parents as they return to work. Build Back Better would also extend the child tax credit for one year, bringing another 12 months of needed relief to families.

We at OCFS see firsthand the importance and impact of supporting families. I commend each of you for your efforts, which positively affect people statewide, and I am very thankful to work with a team that does so much important work to improve the lives of others. I hope that you see how you truly make a difference. I know that I do, and I feel privileged to lead an agency of such dedicated human services professionals.

As we close out 2021, I want you to know how much I appreciate your determined efforts to fulfill our mission for the people we serve. I wish you all a peaceful and joyous holiday season and look forward to a wonderful 2022.

Sincerely,
Sheila J. Poole
Commissioner

Articles

Deputy Commissioner Molnar in the National Spotlight with Pilot Program to Improve Child Care Equity and Access

Division of Child Care Services Deputy Commissioner Janice Molnar

OCFS, with support from the Robin Hood Foundation, is working to improve child care equity and access via a pilot project using the Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation (ECMHC) evidence-based model.

Division of Child Care Services Deputy Commissioner Janice Molnar recently shared the pilot’s success with a national audience at the American Public Health Association’s virtual conference, Creating the Healthiest Nation, in Denver.

Young children of color are disproportionately suspended or expelled from child care. ECMHC reduces the impact of implicit bias by giving child care providers the tools to understand and empathize with the children in their care to support their emotional development. These tools also help them manage difficult behaviors with positive approaches that improve the preschool environment and build students’ own self-regulation abilities and self-esteem.

“How we are treated when we are very young shapes whether we feel valued or not, which deeply shapes who we become as we grow,” said Janice. “The ECMDC approach focuses on the critical importance of positive, nurturing relationships in the early years of a child’s development.”

The program can improve teachers’ attitudes toward their students, help them develop and use appropriate, evidence-informed tools and strategies to decrease challenging behaviors, and ultimately reduce their stress levels to keep children learning and parents working. The model’s effect of reducing suspensions and expulsions improves equitable access to care.

With funding from Robin Hood, Youth Research, Inc. is providing project management for the pilot, data tracking, expert review and training resources to inform larger statewide strategies. OCFS will showcase best practices to support a strong non-profit/state agency partnership to leverage private funding to make large-scale changes that benefit youth and families.

Virtual Adoption Exchange Features 10 Children Looking for Forever Homes

OCFS’s regional offices celebrated National Adoption Month with a virtual adoption exchange on November 18. Coordinated by the offices’ permanency specialists, the event featured 10 children from different regions.

The children met with a private audience of 40 families approved for adoption and caseworkers from local departments of social services, voluntary agencies and adoption agencies.

Each child’s video presentation included a description of themselves and what they are looking for in a forever family, and a discussion with the child’s caseworker, a Wendy’s Wonderful Kids worker from the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption and an agency staff member.

During the event, interested families could connect with a caseworker to pursue adoption and then begin the process of visitations, matches and home studies. OCFS thanks everyone involved in this important event to place children with loving, permanent homes.

After the program, organizers sent packets to the prospective adoptive families that contained summaries of the children’s information and links to learn about other children awaiting adoption. Interested parents were invited to connect with caseworkers to pursue adoption.

Tonya Boniface Named Associate Commissioner for Human Resources

Associate Commissioner for Human Resources Tonya Boniface

Congratulations to Tonya Boniface, who was recently named associate commissioner for human resources. She is responsible for the direction, coordination and integration of all the agency’s human resources programs, including personnel; labor relations; training and development; special investigations; employee health and safety; diversity, equity and inclusion; and agency emergency preparedness.

“I am extremely excited about this new adventure,” said Tonya. “I look forward to working with the talented staff at OCFS to meet the many changing needs of our workforce.”

Tonya brings more than 18 years of experience with New York State, including 15 at OCFS in the Bureau of Personnel. She has an extensive background in human resources systems, laws, rules and regulations. Since 2019, Tonya served as the associate director of human resources.

She has established strong relationships with all divisions and bureaus throughout the agency. Tonya has a bachelor’s degree in education from the College of Saint Rose in Albany.

Division of Youth Development and Partnerships for Success Staff Featured at Federal Roundtable on Law Enforcement Engagement with Child Sex Trafficking Survivors

When the U.S. Department of Justice and the federal Office for Victims of Crime recently convened a virtual roundtable of national experts to discuss the harm caused by the practice of arresting youth victims of sex trafficking and strategies to end the practice, two OCFS employees recognized as leaders in the field were invited to participate.

OCFS’s Division of Youth Development and Partnerships for Success (YDAPS) Deputy Commissioner Dr. Nina Aledort and Bureau of Health and Well-being Director Madeline Hehir offered input for the participants to consider as they develop future policies, services and funding strategies.

Approximately 80 participants representing government, law enforcement, social and victim services providers, and young survivors were assigned to discipline-specific breakout sessions. OCFS participated in the session for state and federal government officials and focused on trauma-informed, youth-centered responses to young victims of sex trafficking.

“The arrest of youth on prostitution-related charges is uncommon in New York, and our Safe Harbour law has helped New York respond to child survivors,” said Madeline. “However, we remain very concerned about the lack of sufficient resources and alternatives that leave youth vulnerable to trafficking or arrest on other charges.”

A conversational theme was the importance of low-barrier services like those provided by Runaway and Homeless Youth (RHY) programs, which have long met youths’ needs from a risk-tolerant and harm reduction framework and offered alternatives to other system interventions. However, RHY programs and services nationally are chronically underfunded.

Nina explained that “child welfare systems have taken the challenge head on but cannot do the work alone. We need partnerships with community-based providers, crime victim organizations, law enforcement, health and other partners to best meet the needs of this diverse population. It is imperative that youth who have been the victims of sexual abuse, rape and exploitation are treated as such and not as perpetrators of crimes.”

Commission for the Blind Celebrates National Disability Employment Awareness Month

Elizabeth Bunday, NYSCB vocational rehabilitation counselor, with Michael Pringle

America observes National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) each October by paying tribute to the accomplishments of people with disabilities whose work helps keep the nation's economy strong. We recognize businesses that support this effort by reaffirming their commitment to ensure equal opportunity for all citizens.

This year’s NDEAM theme was “America’s Recovery: Powered by Inclusion,” which reflects the importance of ensuring that people with disabilities have full access to employment and community involvement during the national recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

The Capital Region Employment Alliance held a virtual business recognition event in late October that honored one of New York State Commission for the Blind’s (NYSCB) participants, Michael Pringle, a Business Enterprise Program (BEP) licensed manager.

 

Visually impaired since birth, Michael did not receive vision rehabilitation services or adaptive equipment in school.

He entered NYSCB’s vocational rehabilitation services as an adult and overcame barriers through mentoring and training. He successfully completed the BEP licensing training and is now a sole proprietor with two BEP stores in Albany. Michael credits much of his success to the NYSCB BEP and his vocational rehabilitation counselor, Elizabeth Bunday.

Transgender Day of Remembrance Event Pays Tribute to Those Who Lost Their Lives to Violence

OCFS marked Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) with an event on November 16 that featured a panel of New York State staff who identify as transgender, gender nonconforming or nonbinary (TGNB). The group discussed their experiences and educated participants about gender identity and difficult situations for the TGNB community. They also emphasized the need for a safe and affirming work environment.

At the end, the host read the names of TGNB people who lost their lives to violence in 2021, a somber ceremony that calls each of us to action. The event was sponsored by OCFS and the Department of Civil Service and was available to other state agencies.

TDOR was founded in 1999 by transgender advocate Gwendolyn Ann Smith who held a candlelight vigil to honor the memory of Rita Hester, a transgender woman killed in 1998. The vigil commemorated all transgender people lost to violence since Rita’s death and began an important tradition. Events are now held in 185 cities across 20 countries.

Over the past decade, more and more reports of anti-transgender hate crimes emerge. Studies show that transgender women of color, experience violence at higher rates than others.

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) tracks these numbers and, until now, 2020 had the highest rate yet – 44 transgender people murdered. So far in 2021, HRC has tracked 46 deaths. And many more, studies show, go unreported.

For resources and a list of LGBTQ+ organizations across New York State, visit OCFS’s LGBTQ+ webpage: ocfs.ny.gov/programs/youth/lgbtq/.

Facility Updates

COVID Didn’t Slow Down Industry Residential Center Activities

Residents and Staff Love the New Bubble Balls

Industry residents get ready to bounce around in their new bubble balls.

Residents, staff and the advisory board at Industry Residential Center have been busy, busy, busy while being careful to abide by COVID health guidance.

During COVID lockdowns, Industry’s advisory board donated funds and reached out to community partners who graciously gave to the facility and provided residents with new experiences to help them learn and grow.

New video equipment is available to Industry residents.

Industry had its 50’ alpine tower high ropes course inspected, added a new weight room/fitness/video game area and purchased other recreational equipment. Their new bubble balls are a favorite, where each person climbs inside a giant ball and bounces off other players for fun and physical fitness. Residents and staff alike enjoy this safe way to “mosh.”

The facility also identified numerous employment and vocational/educational opportunities for its residents, many of which carry certifications and/or class credit. They’re building greenhouses and gaining agriculture/farming experiences, including aquaponics/fish farming and animal husbandry.

Industry has established the IRC College Program, an extension of Monroe Community College.

Brookwood Youth Division Aide 4 Gabriel Opuana knows his way around the Olympics, coaching at four of the games. Here he is in Tokyo in 2021.
Olympic Coach Transfers Skills to Help Brookwood Secure Center for Youth Residents Succeed

Former Nigerian discus champion and current Olympic and international coach Gabriel Opuana, who is a youth division aide 4 at Brookwood Secure Center for Youth, feels passionate about talking to youth.

“I cherish it and love doing it,” he explained. “Some kids aren’t used to having discussion or being heard and advised, but with time, they come around, and we move from there.”

And Gabriel certainly knows how to move things along. Growing up in Nigeria, he set a junior national record for the discus throw, which led to him earning scholarships to finish high school and complete college. He has since coached Nigerian teams in four Olympics and continues to cultivate athletes for the Olympics and other international events.

Brookwood Youth Division Aide 4 Gabriel Opuana

Gabriel came to the United States in 2010 to “live the American dream.” He has been with OCFS since 2017 and has extensive experience working with youth both in athletics and with various organizations.

“Instead of fighting on the streets,” said Gabriel, “I tell youth to put that energy into sports, and you will excel.”

He supervises gym activities for his Brookwood unit, is a certified coach for strength and conditioning and advises residents on how to become better people.

“I like being on the floor with the young ones,” Gabriel said. “It’s my passion – talking to the young ones. Mostly I’m on the talking side. I feel like a motivational speaker.”

Gabriel says that he always uses himself as an example. “I have gone through a lot in life, but am stable now, and I tell them that this is a starting point for launching their future. A lot of them like it when I talk with them. I talk about my mistakes in life, how they slowed down my growth, but that things picked up and sports helped me. Sports were a turning point for me.”

His coaching skills come in handy at Brookwood.

“If I can work with boys on the street, I can talk to anyone. I have to develop relationships first with our youth for them to believe in me. My role is to advise and talk; I mostly try to advise. I tell them people make mistakes, but they have another chance. This is a place to help you correct whatever brought you here.”

New York State Receives $26 Million to Support Domestic Violence Survivors

New York recently received $26 million for domestic violence and sexual assault programs to fund supportive services for survivors under the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA), part of the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus American Rescue Plan (ARP) that President Biden signed in March.

According to national studies, the number of domestic violence and sexual assault victims increased during the pandemic. At the same time, service providers are facing the same staffing challenges as many other industries.

“The infusion of federal funding will support the continuity of vital services for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault,” said Jara Traina, director of the OCFS Bureau for the Prevention of Domestic Violence and Victim Support. “It also allows for our programs to move beyond crisis services by providing increased prevention and mental health services to victims in their communities. By reducing the barriers to accessing these services, we will make it easier for victims and children to begin healing.”

New York State received $18 million to support 90 domestic violence programs across the state to provide access to COVID vaccination, testing, preventive or behavioral health, and mobile health units. Domestic violence programs will be able to establish or maintain contracts with existing mobile health units operated by hospitals, medical clinics, health centers and public health nonprofit organizations to make regular visits to various locations, including shelters, community programs, transitional housing sites or tribal locations.

New York State also received $8 million to support rape crisis centers/sexual violence programs with the transition to virtual/remote services and to support the increased emergency needs of sexual assault survivors because of the pandemic.

New York’s Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe also received a direct FVPSA grant for $584,495 to provide access to COVID vaccinations, testing and mobile health units, and an additional $162,428 in funding for their sexual assault program.

Native American Heritage Month Event Features Heart Wrenching Documentary About the Removal of Indigenous Children from Families

OCFS observed Native American Heritage Month in November with a viewing and discussion of Dawnland, a 2018 documentary that follows an historic truth and reconciliation commission in Maine and its investigation into the removal of Native American children from their Indigenous Wabanaki families to be placed in foster care.

The film documents the long history of state-sanctioned removals of Native American children from their families, including to Native American boarding schools, and when those were closed in the 20th century, to foster care. Throughout this painful history, Indigenous families have been torn apart and their children forced to abandon their history, language and customs. The children suffered mental, sexual and physical abuse, the wounds of which are borne across generations.

The documentary was followed by a panel discussion that included people from the Wabanaki community who were featured in the film. While the film centered on a community in Maine, panelists made clear that its message is relevant here in New York where Native American families suffered the same abuses. They discussed the importance for Native American people to be connected to their community and heritage. They advised that people listen more, step back and give Native families the respect of determining how best to care for their children’s emotional, social and cultural needs.

The presentation, along with many others, is available on our YouTube channel at youtu.be/4XTRHEDM2yo.

Council on Children and Families Hosting Parent Focus Groups on Child Care, Head Start, Home Visiting and Early Childhood Programs

The New York State Council on Children and Families (CCF) and SUNY Albany’s Center for Human Services Research are partnering to offer virtual focus groups in December to hear from people about their experiences with child care, Head Start, home visiting and early childhood programs and services.

New York State parents and caregivers of newborns through five-year-old children, including mothers, fathers, foster parents, grandparents and other relatives, are eligible to participate. Each participant will receive a $25 Target gift card.

To confirm dates and details, see the CCF NYSB5 page. To learn more about Preschool Development Birth through Five grant activities, see the NYSB5 Renewal Projects 2020-2022 Reference Guide. If you have questions, please contact Erin Berical at eberical@albany.edu or 518-591-8615. We appreciate your support!

OCFS Speaks Your Language…and Many Others

 

 

 

 

  

OCFS is committed to serving every family in New York State in the language they know and understand. In just the past federal fiscal year, OCFS – including the Statewide Central Register and the Human Services Call Center – assisted more than 8,500 limited English proficient (LEP) individuals over the phone in a whopping 42 languages and invested more than $400,000 in providing the services.

OCFS’s Public Information Office reports annually to the Governor on the language assistance services we provide, including over-the-phone interpretation, in-person interpretation assistance, video-remote interpretation, American Sign Language (ASL) and written translations.

Most LEP calls were in the top 10 languages: Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Haitian Creole, Italian, Korean, Polish, Russian, Spanish and Yiddish, but others were in Albanian, Bosnian, Burmese, Cherokee, Chin Hakka, Dari, Farsi, French, Fulani, Hindi, Hmong, Japanese, Maay, Malayalam, Nepali, Pashto, Portuguese, Serbian, Somali, Swahili, Tagalog, Tamil, Thai, Tigrigna, Turkish, Twi, Ukrainian, Urdu, Uzbek, Vietnamese, Wolof and Yoruba.

OCFS staff had 34 in-person meetings with LEP clients, 64 meetings via video-remote interpretation and more than 30 requiring ASL. Close to 1,000 documents were translated into the top 10 languages and others, including Cambodian, Dari, French, Fulani, Gujarati and Pashto. Out of these documents, 190 were translated in-house.