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Kathy Hochul, Governor
Suzanne Miles-Gustave, Esq., Acting Commissioner
February 2022 — Vol. 7, No. 2

Commissioner's Message

February is off and running. The Governor’s Executive Budget proposal is out, our state budget hearing is behind us, and the surge in Omicron infections in New York State seems to be plateauing.

February is also Black History Month, a time to illuminate the lives and historic contributions of Black Americans and to celebrate Black culture. Don’t miss this year’s inspiring event on February 22, “Bringing the Dream to Fruition: A Call to Action,” during which we will be called to use our personal resources to dismantle racism. And keep an eye on the intranet during the weeks leading up to the celebration for trivia questions about Black History Month.

We are currently deeply engaged in advancing new policies and initiatives outlined in the State of the State address and the Executive Budget proposal, which furthers the Governor’s commitment to supporting our agency’s core mission. OCFS’s initiatives continue to build on our work to promote fairness, equity and justice for the youth and families we serve. We are energized by the possibilities before us and anxious to implement these transformative proposals, including those focused on child care, child welfare, juvenile justice and populations at risk of homelessness.

I want to thank all of you who worked so hard to develop the projects that are included in the Executive Budget proposal. The thoughtfulness and thoroughness of these proposals demonstrate your deep commitment to our shared mission of promoting the well-being of New York’s children, families and vulnerable adults.

I look forward to moving these proposals across the finish line with you and to seeing them come to fruition to benefit New Yorkers. I know you will keep up the positive energy and drive that will make it all possible and bring light to those we serve.

Sheila J. Poole


Governor Hochul’s Executive Budget Includes Child Care and Child Welfare Initiatives

Governor Kathy Hochul

OCFS is pleased to report that Governor Kathy Hochul’s first Executive Budget includes proposals near and dear to our agency.

Child welfare and foster care financing, health care for homeless youth, juvenile justice reforms, child care expansion and a cost-of-living adjustment for various programs are just some of these initiatives.

While there has been a strong push by some legislators for universal child care, which the budget didn’t include funding for, the plan includes $1.4 billion in child care subsidies for 400,000 families, demonstrating the Governor’s commitment to children and families. OCFS stands ready to assist.

Mark Your Calendars for 2/22/22 to Celebrate Black History Month

DEI Strategist Antionette Amos

Mark your calendar for OCFS’s Black History Month hour-long event on February 22, 2022, at 11 a.m.

The Buffalo Regional Office Black History Committee and the OCFS Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion will host the celebration, with this year’s theme, “Bringing the Dream to Fruition: A Call to Action.”

Guest speaker Antionette Amos, M.A., is a former OCFS investigator who is now a diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging strategist, international speaker, consultant and author. She holds a master’s degree in social and public policy, a graduate certificate in child and family advocacy, and a bachelor’s in criminal justice/sociology of deviance. Amos has more than 30 years of experience working in human/social services and government.

Amos will explore how far America has come in bringing the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to fruition and will call participants to action to use whatever power, privilege and position afforded them to dismantle racism in America.

The presentation will also showcase contributions from youth in OCFS facilities, including poetry and art.

Also, keep an eye on the intranet during the weeks leading up to the event for weekly trivia questions about Black History Month. During the session, participants can check their scores with an interactive game to test their knowledge.

OCFS Welcomes New General Counsel and Deputy Commissioner Willow Baer

General Counsel and Deputy Commissioner Willow Baer

Willow Baer is an early riser, and we do mean early. Try 4:30 a.m.

OCFS’s new general counsel and deputy commissioner is accustomed to getting things done. In her previous six years with the New York State Office for People With Developmental Disabilities, she steadily climbed the ranks, starting as an associate counsel and ending as general counsel and deputy commissioner.

“OCFS’s mission is subject matter I am so excited to return to,” said Baer, who has extensive professional human services experience, dating back to law school. “This is where I wanted to come. The initiatives that OCFS works on have always felt near and dear to my heart.”

Baer brings expansive human services experience in both county and state government. Prior to joining state service, she was assistant county attorney for the Columbia County Department of Social Services, and she served as the associate general counsel at the New York State Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs. Most recently, she held the position of acting assistant counsel to the Governor for the Human Services and Mental Hygiene Portfolio where she oversaw the work of six state agencies, including OCFS.

At OCFS, Baer oversees close to 90 attorneys and professional support staff in the Division of Legal Affairs to provide legal support agency-wide. She works closely with agency leadership to create and implement regulatory, legislative and policy initiatives, consistent with state and federal law and with the priorities of the Governor. She is also OCFS’s liaison to the Attorney General’s office and Office of the Counsel to the Governor.

Foster care is one of Baer’s areas of interest. Growing up with parents who fostered, she was also a certified foster parent herself at one point. “I’m excited to be returning to my roots,” she said. “I have a deep interest in human services and am thrilled to be a part of advancing the work of child welfare, juvenile justice and child care for New York State.”

Devoted to youth initiatives, Baer has volunteered for Big Brothers Big Sisters, served on the Executive’s Interagency Children’s Services Workgroup, co-founded a youth theater years ago in her town and serves as an elected member of the Bethlehem Central School District’s Board of Education. She also hikes, enjoys reading and spending time with her twins.

Welcome, Willow!

Child Care Desert Grants Help Implement New Child Care Slots in Areas Needing Additional Programs

OCFS will be administering $70 million in grant funding to new licensed, registered or permitted child care programs in areas of the state without sufficient child care slots, known as child care deserts.

The funds are part of a $100 million child care desert initiative approved in the 2021 Enacted Budget and are being made available through the American Rescue Plan Act. Providers interested in opening a new child care program may submit a grant application starting mid-April, 2022, until May 19, 2022, with award announcements.

Four New York State Commissioners Convene to Solve Key Issues Surrounding the Impact of the Pandemic on Children, Families, Schools and Communities

During the recent “Commissioners Cross-Systems Convening” workshop, the most critical concerns around school success for children and youth during the pandemic became clear: improving educational outcomes and affordable, quality mental health services.

COVID has highlighted the complex needs of our children and families and the recognition that no one system is equipped to provide the complete services and supports they need.

OCFS Commissioner Sheila J. Poole was joined recently by three other New York State leaders – State Education Department’s Dr. Betty Rosa, State Office of Mental Health’s Dr. Ann Sullivan and State Division of Criminal Justice Services’ Rossana Rosado – to meet with community stakeholders to discuss a survey tackling the impact of the pandemic on children, families, schools and communities and brainstorm solutions.

“We have been having very provocative conversations about what we can’t do because of funding or regulations,” said Commissioner Poole. “These are not new issues. I am challenging our team since we are in this partnership to be less bureaucratic. Let’s ask ourselves: ‘Does this speak to the mission of our agency? Are we speaking to the communities that we are trying to serve?’”

The commissioners discussed the need for mental health guidance being grounded at local levels, a need for flexibility in state and federal funding, staffing challenges, moving away from working in silos, breaking down bureaucratic red tape and collaboration.

During the second half of the meeting, attendees who completed the survey broke into facilitated discussion groups, grouped by county to start, build and/or strengthen relationships and community to support their local children and families.

Get Discounted Broadband Internet Service!

Governor Kathy Hochul recently announced discounted broadband access, which provides discounts of up to $30 a month toward internet service for low-income families. On average, broadband costs New Yorkers more than $60 a month.

This multi-agency initiative, led by the New York State Department of Public Service, encourages eligible New Yorkers to sign up for the federal government's Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). The ACP helps ensure that households can afford broadband needed for work, school, healthcare and more.

In addition to the rebate, financially eligible households can also receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop computer or tablet from participating providers.

For more information and to sign up, visit www.fcc.gov/acp.

Talk About It: Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month

Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month - #ICanDoSomethingNY

February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. More common than you may think, dating violence is prevalent among teenagers and young adults.

This year’s theme is “Talk About It,” a call to action to young people and their supporters to have meaningful conversations about healthy relationships and to steer clear of unhealthy or abusive ones.

According to Love is Respect, a group from Texas that is part of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, one in three teens in the United States will experience physical, sexual or emotional abuse from someone they’re in a relationship with before they become adults. Nearly half (43%) of college women report experiencing violent or abusive dating behaviors.

OCFS will share messaging on its social media outlets this month – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn – with the hashtag #TDVAM2022, and we encourage you to have conversations with your loved ones to help stop dating abuse before it starts.

February Marks Low Vision Awareness Month

It’s Low Vision Awareness Month, which spreads understanding of when, even with corrective lenses or surgery, people have difficulty seeing. Everyday activities – reading the mail, shopping, cooking and writing – are challenging.

Most people with low vision are age 65 or older, and the leading causes of vision loss for this group are age-related macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, cataracts and glaucoma. For younger people, it is most often inherited eye conditions or trauma.

“The Commission for the Blind’s low vision services truly enhance a person’s quality of life,” said Julie Hovey, associate commissioner of the New York State Commission for the Blind (NYSCB). “Our goal is to help people participate as fully as possible in everyday activities.”

Most of the individuals served by NYSCB have some degree of residual vision, and the commission works closely with certified low vision specialists or optometrists to help individuals participate fully in everyday activities. Low-vision services can be, and often are, life-changing. Being able to read the mail, continue to work or care for your children is something many NYSCB participants thought they could never do again.

Addressing a visual impairment can be as simple as providing large-print documents or adjusting the lighting. Low-vision devices like specialized corrective lenses, indoor and outdoor light-filtering lenses, magnifiers, and portable and full-size electronic video magnifiers can greatly enhance the quality of life. For more information on services across New York State, please visit ocfs.ny.gov/programs/nyscb.

Looking Ahead to April: Child Abuse Prevention Month

A reminder from OCFS’s Child Abuse Prevention committee to mark your April calendars for

  • April 1: National Wear Blue Day for Child Abuse Prevention Month
  • April 12: 12-1 p.m., OCFS Child Abuse Prevention Month event and OCFS’s Wear Blue Day

The April 12 event will feature a keynote by Dr. Isaiah Pickens, licensed clinical psychologist and CEO and founder of iOpening Enterprises. He will challenge us with “Transforming the System: Moving Beyond Trauma and Toward Resilience, Recovery and Health.” More details to come.