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Kathy Hochul, Governor
Sheila J. Poole, Commissioner
April 2022 — Vol. 7, No. 4
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Commissioner's Message

Greetings and happy (cold!) spring to everyone.

During April, we shine the light on one of the most critical aspects of OCFS’s work throughout the year: the promotion of children’s safety and well-being. Child Abuse Prevention Month is a time to highlight prevention activities and our year-round commitment to helping children and families keep safe from harm. The supports and services we provide can make a life-changing difference.

I hope you joined us on April 1, “National Wear Blue Day,” and wore something blue to raise awareness of child abuse prevention efforts. Please also join us and wear blue on April 12, when OCFS holds its agency-wide Child Abuse Prevention Month event. We also, of course, planted pinwheel gardens, a simple way to remind ourselves and our communities that every child deserves a happy and carefree childhood.

Thank you for all you do to promote the safety, permanency and well-being of our fellow New Yorkers. I especially want to thank our Statewide Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment staff, who are on the front lines of the war against child abuse every day, and all of our child welfare professionals who have dedicated their careers to making New York a safer place for children. As we continue our critical work, let’s encourage others to keep an eye out for the well-being of all children – they deserve our very best.

And thank you for helping OCFS promote the safety, permanency and well-being of our fellow New Yorkers.

Sincerely,
Sheila J. Poole
Commissioner

Articles

We have a Trailblazer in Our Midst: Executive Deputy Commissioner Suzanne Miles

Congratulations, Suzanne Gustave-Miles!

Fordham University’s Black Law Students Association (BLSA) recently honored their alumnae and our very own Executive Deputy Commissioner Suzanne Gustave-Miles for “blazing trails for future Black lawyers by attaining significant achievements in the legal industry and beyond.”

“I am so honored and humbled to receive this recognition,” said Gustave- Miles. “The majority of my career has been in public service, and for me that really means working to serve others, especially young people. To receive this award from the students at Fordham makes it that much more meaningful.”

BLSA noted that “the challenges we have faced in recent months reveal the importance of standing together and building stronger ties within our community. As Black law students navigating the path into the legal profession, BLSA recognizes the power in celebrating those who have broken down barriers on their roads to success.”

When asked in a BLSA social media post about what being a trailblazer meant to her, Gustave-Miles responded, "I think it's really about having those difficult conversations about fairness and justice and equity so that others coming behind me don't have to have those conversations at the beginning of their journeys. But really, in the words of our illustrious VP, Kamala Harris, I may be the first Black woman in this role. But it is my job to make sure that I'm not the last."

See our trailblazer in action.

The Portal is Opening – Child Care Desert Grants Applications Opening April 11

The day is finally here. On April 11, the child care desert grant portal will begin accepting applications for grants to start a new child care business.

OCFS is 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.

Providers interested in opening a new child care program may submit a grant application from April 11 through May 19, with award announcements expected in June 2022.

The grant application portal will be available on the OCFS website in the Child Care section.

Mark Your Calendar: Child Abuse Prevention Month Event is April 12

April Brings Showers…and Blue Lights and Pinwheels

April is known for a few things, including those showers that we hope bring beautiful flowers.

It’s also Child Abuse Prevention (CAP) Month, and early in April, pinwheels started sprouting up in recognition. The pinwheel is a symbol of the carefree childhood we wish for all children in New York State and beyond, and the campaign promotes simple actions that can make a big difference in the lives of children, strengthen families and prevent child abuse.

This year’s CAP event theme is Building Resilient Children, Families and Communities and will be on April 12, 12-1 p.m., The event was planned by the CAP Month committee, consisting of state agencies, not-for-profits and parent leaders, and CAP Month reminds us how to take everyday actions to prevent child abuse, including:

  • having a trusted and safe family member or friend watch your children when you can’t be home,
  • encouraging parents and caregivers to take time for self-care and/or telling them they’re doing a great job managing their child’s challenging behaviors or needs.

Last year’s virtual event focused on protective factors and highlighting prevention programs. This year’s event builds upon these protective factors with a theme of “Building Resilient Children, Families and Communities.”

Commissioner Sheila J. Poole will provide opening remarks, and Lisa Ghartey Ogundimu, deputy commissioner, Child Welfare and Community Services, will emcee. Keynote Dr. Isaiah Pickens, licensed clinical psychologist and CEO and founder of iOpening Enterprises, will challenge us with his presentation, “Transforming the System: Moving Beyond Trauma and Toward Resilience, Recovery and Health.”

  • April 1: National Wear Blue Day for Child Abuse Prevention Month
  • April 12: 12-1 p.m., CAP event and OCFS’s Wear Blue Day
  • Landmarks around the state will also be lit in blue on April 1 and 12 to mark the month.

Please follow/like/share with OCFS on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn with the hashtag #GreatChildhoodsNY.

Child Abuse Prevention Month Resources Available

Here are some helpful links as you consider and mark Child Abuse Prevention Month.

Staff Updates

After Decades of Service, Renee Rider is Retiring

Renee Rider is retiring. (Say that 10 times fast!)

Currently the executive director of the New York State Council on Children and Families (CCF), which is an agency that reports to the Governor’s office and that OCFS administers, Rider’s last day will be April 13.

CCF is a policy arm of the Governor’s office and is comprised of 12 state agency commissioners and directors including OCFS, Office of Mental Health, State Education Department, Department of Health, Office for People with Developmental Disabilities and others.

Rider has had a very robust and significant career in lifting the social and emotional health of New York State children and their families. Check out some highlights of her career path:

  • Worked at the local level with the Mental Health Association of Columbia and Green Counties, focusing on getting the right care for each child,
  • Joined the OCFS Commissioner’s Office (under John A. Johnson), bringing her can-do attitude to state government,
  • Worked for the Governor as the assistant deputy secretary for Human Services and Mental Hygiene. Returned to OCFS as an associate commissioner for the Division of Child Care Services working on many projects including the annual Child Care Facts and Statistics that everyone finds so useful,
  • Served as associate commissioner of the Office of Early Learning at NYSED (2014-2018) where she led efforts to expand and fully fund state administered prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year-old children,
  • Leapt at the chance to lead the Council on Children and Families (in 2018) where she has worked tirelessly to help ensure our state’s most vulnerable children and youth receive the care they need.

“As I reflect on my 40-year career and realize it was actually 20 years ago that I was hired as an assistant commissioner at OCFS in the Commissioner’s Office, I have seen a lot of change,” said Rider. “When I see the OCFS leadership team of today, I stand proud and assured that our children and families are in the best of hands and that Commissioner Poole and her team, along with our forward-thinking, amazing Governor, will do everything in their power to bring hope and opportunity to all of New York’s children and families! As I retire, my heart is full, and I thank you all for the wonderful ride and experiences.”

At the Council, Rider has used her extensive education and human services contacts to help guide the $43 million NYS Birth through 5 project over the past three years. And during the coronavirus pandemic, she was on loan to the Department of Health and tasked with leading the project development of the Public Health Corp. Renee returned to the Council in summer 2021 and resumed keeping the council on task with hiring new staff, reconfiguring the office and facilitating their annual retreat.

“Renee is a true public servant who has remained passionate and committed to her work over many decades of service,” said OCFS Commissioner Sheila J. Poole. “We are grateful for her contributions.”

Council staff wish Rider well and send the biggest congratulations to her as she begins this new phase of her life and say, “Thanks for all you have done for children and families in New York State!”

John Holz Will Prepare OCFS for the Next Emergency Management Chapter

In February, John Holz became OCFS’s new emergency management coordinator. With more than 20 years’ related experience, the former disaster preparedness program representative at the New York State Department of Transportation coordinates agency-wide emergency planning, reporting and training. He replaces Steve Taylor, who left in December.

Holz said he is very encouraged by OCFS’s “level of interest from the top down in trying to get ahead of things and the cooperative relationship between program areas. There’s a lot of overlap built in here.

“You can’t plan for every little thing, so you plan for the big things that encompass” many smaller items and perfect those, he said. “We couldn’t plan for COVID-19 as an emergency, but we have done a lot of pandemic planning in general that taught us a great deal.”

An Army veteran, Holz was born on Long Island and is a graduate of Mansfield University with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications. His background also includes policy development, training and employee safety and health.

He explained that emergency management is about more than just responding during emergencies. “It’s about planning, coordination and using lessons learned. It’s making sure the right people get together with the proper resources to get things back to normal in a safe and efficient manner.”

Holz will also be the OCFS representative on state disaster and emergency commissions and task forces, including with the Disaster Preparedness Commission (DPC) and the State Office of Emergency Management (OEM).

OCFS is planning to hire an assistant to work with Holz.

He is currently reviewing and updating continuity of operations and emergency response plans to help ensure the continuation of agency work if a disaster or emergency strikes.

A sign in his office shows his serious side: “Do Not Meddle in the Affairs of Dragons…For You are Crunchy and Good with Ketchup.”

Dr. Galen Gomes Feels at Home in Division of Youth Development and Partnerships for Success

What’s the difference between Dr. Galen Gomes’ resume and the walls in his new OCFS office? The resume is full.

Gomes has been a writer, poet, teacher, youth counselor, college administrator and children’s book author. He has an Ed.D. from St. John Fischer College and joined OCFS in early March as associate commissioner with the Division of Youth Development and Partnerships for Success (YDAPS).

“I have two passions – youth and education – and just about all my professional experience has been in one of those fields,” said Gomes. He likes to “celebrate small wins every day. There is so much to get a grasp on here.”

Originally from Guyana, his family moved to the Capital Region when he was four years old. Married 13 years, he and his wife have four children younger than nine. (Youth at work and at home!)

Most of his professional work has been with teenage boys, including as a charter high school teacher and a counselor at Berkshire Farms Detention Center working with male adolescents.

“It’s always been youth-in-need, so-called hard-to-reach, those populations,” Gomes explained. “Whenever I mentor someone or talk to youth, I always say I work for positionality and influence. If you can get to a position of influence, you can create change.”

Gomes says there are so many outside influences with youth today, including social media and remote learning. Family dynamics have changed, too.

“There is so much they’re forced to engage with before they are even mentally prepared to do so,” he said. “If there’s nobody there to assist them, they’re just falling further behind.”

Gomes’ next project will be decorating the walls of his North Building office. He may steal some ideas from his kids.

Nicole Newcomb Promoted in Bureau of Financial Operations

Nicole Newcomb has been promoted to assistant director in the Bureau of Financial Operations (BFO) in the Division of Administration.

Nicole has a master’s degree in accounting and financial management from DeVry University and has more than 20 years of experience within the BFO, starting her career in entry level accounting and rising through managerial positions.

In her most recent position, Nicole managed a large federal Title IV-E unit responsible for federal reviews, federal reporting and local district financial and claiming systems. She has extensive knowledge of the Title IV-E federal and state laws and regulations, local districts’ financial and claiming systems and has excellent working relationships within OCFS, local districts and federal and state control agencies.

Please join us in congratulating Newcomb in her new position!

Annual Women’s History Event Honors Female OCFS Staff

OCFS held its annual Women’s History Month virtual event March 22, which was organized by the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) event subcommittee and followed the national theme: “Women Providing Healing, Promoting Hope.”

DEIA officer Angelica Kang moderated the panel discussion about contributions women have made – including Indigenous, Black, women of color, LGBTQ+, and women and girls with disabilities.

“Faced with numerous obstacles, barriers and discrimination, women and girls have fought for a society in which they are truly seen, treated and regarded as equal,” said Kang.

Our panelists offered different, complex, nuanced and thoughtful reactions to the theme showing that women themselves are different, complex, nuanced and critical thinkers.

For the first time, the event was held under New York State’s first woman governor, Gov. Kathy Hochul. The conversation included women’s roles within OCFS – from decision makers to youth support specialists, attorneys to accountants, investigators to research scientists. The women at OCFS show that there are no limitations to the type of work that women can do and the great influence that they can have.

What began as a local celebration in 1978 as “Women’s History Week” was nationally recognized in 1980 and expanded each year. March 8 was International Women’s Day.

Safe Shelter Pilot Identifies Immediately Available Housing for Domestic Violence Survivors and Runaway and Homeless Youth

OCFS has partnered with Caravan Studios to initiate the Safe Shelter Collaborative to New York State comprised of certified residential domestic violence (DV) providers and runaway and homeless youth (RHY) programs. Collaborative members will have access to a free app that addresses a critical need for quick identification of immediately available and appropriate safe shelter in the state.

This pilot initiative, beginning with counties outside of New York City, is set to launch in summer of 2022. Agencies or programs looking for a bed in a DV or RHY shelter will use the mobile app to answer a few demographic questions so the best-fit programs can be found for the client. The questions do not include any identifying information, so the client’s identity remains confidential. The app sends the request out to appropriate participating programs in a selected region, which can respond if they have an available bed.

“The Safe Shelter Collaborative offers a fantastic opportunity to leverage free, easy to use, technology to support responsive shelter programming in NY. We look forward to partnering with our providers to streamline referral processes and allow more time for service provision.”

The Safe Shelter Collaborative will help accelerate the process of finding appropriate shelter by reducing the need for multiple phone calls and/or emails or the repetition of sharing a person’s story and information.

Agencies that serve DV survivors or RHY in the rest of the state (ROS) have begun attending demonstrations of the app. Interested agencies and programs will then be invited to apply to participate. Throughout the initiative, training and technical assistance will be provided and feedback will be solicited to ensure the app is meeting agencies’ needs.

Division of Juvenile Justice and Opportunities For Youth Hits the Slopes

The Buffalo CMSO Ski Adventure Program held two outings in February at the Holiday Valley Ski Resort in Ellicottville, New York. Available to aftercare and voluntary agency OCFS-placed youth who excel in their programming, selected youth agree to complete the ski program and get to hit the slopes.

The program strives to have youth engage in an environment that is outside their normal comfort zone, endure the elements while gaining a new skill from start to finish and overcome the fear of trying something new.

This life lesson provides youth an opportunity to leave their normal city and or town environments and gain confidence, verbal and social skills, and possibly exposure to job opportunities. Participation also allows youth to communicate and engage with people from all walks of life, while hopefully encouraging an understanding of diversity, and building skills and social consciousness, patience, courage and confidence while enjoying time out in nature.

VISTA Intern Sees a Career Path

Serena Blackburn has come a long way – literally and figuratively – from her hometown of Nunda in Livingston County (pop. 3,064) to OCFS in Albany (262 miles from there).

“The more urban area was a pull for me,” said Blackburn of joining OCFS and the New York State Commission for the Blind (CFB). “I obviously can’t drive so being in an area where there’s public transportation and walkability was a priority of mine when it came to looking at where I could work. I grew up in a super rural area…things are really far apart; there aren’t really sidewalks or paved roads.”

Blackburn, who is legally blind, is working at the CFB Home Office as an intern under the New York State Commission on National Community Service’s AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program, which is a statewide, 10-agency program.

VISTA is a first-of-its-kind program sponsored by a state service commission, and it strives to focus attention on each agency’s constituent stakeholders who have been adversely impacted by COVID-19.

“The environment is pleasant and one I can navigate,” said Blackburn, who was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at age 9 and said there is a family history of inherited blindness and vision loss.

“I’m happy to be here not only because the environment is well-suited for my needs but because I have a bachelor’s degree in sociology and doing research and analytics,” she said. “Getting to work in an area that is well-tuned to my expertise and degree is definitely something that I don’t take for granted.”

Currently, Blackburn is working on several projects including “listing every district and county in New York State with a set of resources for blind and low-vision people,” she described. She is also researching short- and long-term services to solve crises like food, housing, medical transportation and entering and maintaining employment.

“The idea is to make the list simple to navigate and update with added sections,” she said. She is also doing testing with the new paraprofessional training program to assist New Yorkers who are blind with learning new life skills. CFB’s Orientation and Mobility program is working toward improving overall quality of life.

In her spare time, she loves to knit and crochet – currently working on a scarf project – and she enjoys reading non-fiction. Her internship runs until mid-July. After that, she would like to pursue graduate school with a career goal of doing research and influencing public policy.

“Everyone’s been really pleasant, good to get to know, good to work with,” she said.

Celebrating Heritage and Culture for Arab American Heritage Month

April is National Arab American Heritage Month (NAAHM), a time to recognize, celebrate and elevate the many accomplishments and contributions of Arab Americans.

Arab American tile work
An example of Arab American tile work at the Arab American National Museum in Michigan.

The push for NAAHM in the U.S. began in 2017. However, it was not until 2021 that President Biden recognized the month along with the U.S. State Department and the Department of Homeland Security. President Biden wrote “diversity is one of our greatest strengths, and it is essential that we continue celebrating, promoting and educating others about the myriad ways that the Arab people have advanced human civilization and contributed to the well-being of our nation.”

According to the Arab American Institute, an estimated 3.7 million Arabs live in the United States. Arab Americans are major contributors in cultural, political and economic spheres throughout the country and can trace their ancestry to 22 countries stretching from North Africa to the Arabian Gulf. While Arabs are ethnically, religiously and politically diverse, they descend from a common linguistic and cultural heritage. Additionally, a study conducted in 2016 by Pew Research Center found that Arabic is the fastest growing language in the United States. Arab American culture also encompasses diverse languages, customs and traditions.

“Arab Americans are an integral part of our country and deserve recognition for all they have accomplished,” said Angelica Kang, OCFS’s Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility officer. “The diversity of Arab culture in the United States is often misunderstood, generalized or stereotyped and many Arab Americans have experienced discrimination, hostility, racism and bigotry. Appreciating, understanding and giving voice to Arab American heritage helps to create a space where Arab Americans can feel safe, welcomed and included.”

Below are additional resources on the Arab American Community and AAHM:

World Autism Day: Celebrate Accomplishments of Those on the Spectrum

April 2 was the 15th annual worldwide celebration of World Autism Day (WAD), designed to increase understanding and acceptance of people with autism, fostering worldwide support. Established in 2007, WAD raises awareness of the experiences and challenges of people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD is neurodevelopmental disorder that affects people all around the world regardless of one’s race, gender, ethnicity or social class. According to a study by the CDC in 2018, about one in every 44 children is estimated to have ASD. WAD celebrates the accomplishments, contributions and individuality of people on the autism spectrum. People with ASD have a wide range of abilities.

While ASD can make standard practices of learning, communicating and socializing challenging, alternative environments and approaches to learning can help people with ASD thrive.

“Recognizing and appreciating the ability of people with ASD is crucial for ensuring we establish inclusive and mindful environments around us,” said Angelica Kang, OCFS’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility officer. “ASD affects everyone differently and all differences in ability are equally important and deserving of celebration.”

Those on the spectrum may display different types of behavior that can open them up to bullying, harassment and ridicule, which can affect their identity development and self-acceptance. A positive view of one’s identity is crucial to establishing a drive to learn, grow and establish goals.

“World Autism Day is an important reminder that we should treat people on the autism spectrum with kindness, respect and understanding,” said Kang. “Everyone deserves to feel included and have opportunities to flourish.”

Additional resources on WAD:

Post-Adoption Information Available in 11 Languages

Governor Hochul signed legislation into law on December 9, 2021, OCFS to provide information on post-adoption services in the top most common non-English languages spoken in New York State, based on census data.

OCFS translated web page information covering post-adoption help for families, adoption subsidy information, electronic payments and tax benefits into Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, French, Haitian Creole, Italian, Korean, Polish, Russian, Spanish and Yiddish. This includes adoption subsidy direct deposit/debit card authorization forms, frequently asked questions and KeyBank’s schedule of services.

Check out these links, which show the scope of the translation:

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.