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Kathy Hochul, Governor
Suzanne Miles-Gustave, Esq., Acting Commissioner
December 2022 — Vol. 7, No. 12
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Commissioner's Message

It feels very strange writing my final Commissioner’s Message, and I will certainly miss the enjoyment of reading about the amazing work and accomplishments of our agency and staff in our monthly newsletter.

I want to begin by first expressing heartfelt thanks for generously giving of yourselves every day as we seek to fulfill OCFS’ mission. And so many OCFS staff view their work not as a job, but as a vocation --- to be of service time and time again, going above and beyond to support individuals, agencies and communities in need.

This generosity of time and spirit is an extension of the care and compassion overflowing through each division of OCFS, whether on the front lines or supporting those behind the scenes.

In the past year, we helped domestic violence survivors by donating care packages to help individuals get a fresh start; we supported children from low-income families by providing school supplies; we provided low-income children and families with needed items requested through our giving tree; and we donated 24 boxes of food totaling almost 700 food items to provide holiday meals to those in need. We also hosted the most far-reaching public event OCFS has seen for our Adoption Awareness Month with hip-hop legend Darryl “DMC” McDaniels who helped us spread the word far and wide about the need for loving adoptive families for children and youth in foster care.

We continue to drive forward insistently with initiatives to make child care more affordable for working families, combat child poverty, prevent domestic violence, interrupt gun violence and uphold the rights of women and LGBTQ+ people, and with our work to achieve racial and social equity with a spotlight on child welfare and juvenile justice.

As I step away from OCFS later this month, I reflect on my 15 years here and want you to know how privileged and honored I have felt to lead an agency of such dedicated, intelligent and driven human services professionals. I want you to know how much I appreciate your determined efforts to fulfill our mission for the people we serve. I’ve seen it every day, and I know it will continue long into the future.

I wish you all a peaceful and joyous holiday season with hearts full of gratitude for all the blessings received and wishes for a happy, hopeful new year.

With gratitude,
Sheila J. Poole
Commissioner

Articles

Updates from the Commission for the Blind (NYSCB)

NYSCB Helps Blind Entrepreneur Launch a “Smart” Drink
Sierra Hooshiari
Entrepreneur Sierra Hooshiari

Sierra Hooshiari is one determined, focused individual. The blind entrepreneur combined her passion for neuroscience and biology with her business savvy to launch BrainPOP, a drink that aligns with her values of health and wellness and has the tagline “DrinkToThink.”

NYSCB supported her through its Business Enterprise Program, which helps legally blind individuals in New York start their own businesses.

Hooshiari wanted to change the health drink industry. She tragically suffered a traumatic brain injury in her sophomore year at Cornell University when her car was hit by a drunk driver, and she was in a coma for four days. Hooshiari said the recovery was an ongoing challenge, especially due to the combined visual impairment from the accident.

However, the event and recovery inspired her, and with her dedicated father’s support, she shares her story with others and inspires female entrepreneurs, particularly in the blind community, to be self-proprietors.

Hooshiari first developed a BrainPOP business plan with local business leaders and then presented the plan to the NYSCB self-employment committee in 2021. Committee members were amazed with her presentation, preparation and knowledge of the health drink industry and decided her plan was viable. With NYSCB’s support, BrainPOP moved from development to testing and early production.

Since receiving support from NYSCB, Hooshiari and BrainPOP have received other financial support and accolades that have allowed BrainPOP to come to market.

Learn more about BrainPOP at newagedrinks.com or watch a video interview of Hooshiari as she discusses BrainPOP and her story at youtu.be/TdhtJW5mA7M.

Updates from the Division of Child Care Services (DCCS)

Child Care Council of Nassau Honors One of Our Own
Robin Beller
Robin Beller

Robin Beller, who has served as the Long Island regional manager at OCFS since 2004, was honored by the Child Care Council of Nassau when it recently celebrated its 50th anniversary with a gala event that recognized important partners and champions of child care.

Event honorees included Matt Cohen, president and CEO of the Long Island Association (LIA). Cohen spearheads the LIA’s programs and initiatives to make Long Island an attractive place for young professionals, to support small businesses and to expand child care options.

In a related press release, Cohen said, “Quality, accessible and affordable child care is essential to a thriving economy, and I thank the Child Care Council of Nassau for their tireless work to support working families and our next generation.”

Throughout her tenure at OCFS, Beller regularly demonstrates a passion to develop strong relationships with the child care provider community to ensure the best for children, staff and programs.

“Congratulations to Robin!” said Nora Yates, deputy commissioner of OCFS’ DCCS. “We are so grateful for her partnerships in the community and her unwavering support and commitment to New York’s youngest residents. She is a tireless advocate and collaborator, and this is a well-deserved honor.”

Rochester Regional Office Hosts Spirit Week
Spirit Week
Rochester’s regional office child care staff celebrated Spirit Week for Halloween.

Child Care’s Rochester Regional Office celebrated Spirit Week from October 31 to November 4 with events designed and spearheaded by the office’s Sunshine Committee leader, Roshelle Walker, who has been with the division for many years.

With all the challenges and changes during the pandemic and beyond, what a great way to boost morale and create some staff bonding time!

Spirit Week included:

  • Monday – Halloween Costume Day
  • Tuesday – Tik Tok Tuesday – The office learned and performed a viral dance together.
  • Wednesday – Color Party – Supervisors and their teams dressed in the same color and brought in colored snacks to match.
  • Thursday – School Spirit Day – Staff dressed to highlight their alma mater: college, high school, their child’s school or their fraternity or sorority.
  • Friday – Football Friday – Staff showed their love of their favorite sports teams and enjoyed a pizza party to end the week.

Two lucky prize winners were named every day. Sounds like fun!

Child Care Assistance Program

The Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) has been expanded to allow more families in New York to be eligible for help paying for the cost of child care.

Many more families may now be financially eligible for this program, and OCFS launched a media campaign in October to spread the word. The campaign is in full swing and includes ads in both English and Spanish on several social media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.

Additionally, ads are running on a variety of audio outlets such as Pandora and iHeart radio. Campaign ads can also be found on bus wraps and billboards throughout New York State.

OCFS employees and your friends, family and neighbors may be eligible. Please help us spread the word.

Updates from the Division of Child Welfare and Community Services (CWCS)

More Than 300 Attend Annual Adult Abuse Training Institute
participants in the 2022 Adult Abuse Training Institute
L to R: Participants Sanquanette Milligan, deputy director (APS Manhattan North Field Office); Chanda Levine, case manager (APS Queens Field Office); and Nicole McEwen, nurse (APS Manhattan North/South Field Office)

More than 300 participants and presenters attended The Bureau of Adult Services’ annual Adult Abuse Training Institute (AATI) in Albany from October 12-14, 2022 – the first in-person AATI event since 2019. This year’s theme was Times Change but the Work Remains.

Attendees included statewide partners from local departments of social services (LDSSs), adult protective services units, New York State Office for the Aging and their network of aging service providers, members of various state and local Alzheimer’s Associations, county attorneys, law enforcement and representatives from New York City Elder Abuse Center and the State Judicial Committee on Elder Abuse.

“The energy of the event was uplifting and participants’ motivation, commitment and appreciation of an in-person gathering was evident throughout the entire of event,” shared Shelly Fiebich, director of the Bureau of Adult Services.

Keynote speaker the Honorable Deborah A Kaplan, deputy chief administrative judge for the New York City Courts, described the courts’ ability to continue elder and vulnerable adults’ access to justice during the COVID-19 pandemic. She shared staggering statistics of intimate partner violence, exploitation and other crimes that affect our elder adult population.

The Institute was a culmination of workshops and presentations highlighting and celebrating the need for transformation, resilience, equity and inclusivity required to successfully meet the needs of New York State’s vulnerable adults. Presenters shared information and experiences about Medicaid, housing, guardianship cases, formalized networking sessions for participants to share successful strategies that support challenging populations with multiple diagnosis.

Participants heard about new programs that support caregivers and provide in-home problem solving designed to reduce depression. Also on the agenda was information about the signs and symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s versus normal aspects of aging. The two days were infused with messages of worker wellness, self-care and strategies for developing and improving resiliency.

Retiring Employee “Breezy Brie” Will be Missed
Breezy Bree retirement party
"Breezy Brie" Nobis and Commissioner Poole at Nobis' retirement party.

Commissioner Sheila J. Poole recently attended the retirement party of her “all-time favorite OCFS employee,” Brianne Nobis, who also goes by “Bri” and “Breezy Brie.”

Brie’s mother, Ann, made a point to thank the commissioner for the tremendous support OCFS has provided to her daughter and remarked about the overwhelmingly inclusive work environment throughout her 12-year career.

Breezy Brie has been with OCFS since February 2010. She came to the Bureau of Clearances and Records in December 2016 and brought with her a bundle of energy that cannot be replaced.

“No job within OCFS is insignificant, and Breezy definitely proved that,” said Wendy Leonard, Bri’s supervisor. “There is no way to replace the energy, joy and happiness that she brought to all of us daily. While she will be greatly missed around the office and throughout OCFS, we wish her a happy and adventurous retirement.”

Bri spent her days helping the mailroom staff open, date and stamp hundreds of pieces of mail each day and delivering the mail throughout the office. She also reviewed a high volume of outgoing letters each day, checking for complete addresses and fulfilling the many requests.

“She is a happy individual ready with a smile and was eager to take on anything that is new and challenging,” noted Leonard. Throughout the day when she was delivering mail to staff, she was always ready with a smile to greet them.

Updates from the Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA)

Indian Child Welfare Act Before the Supreme Court

November is a time to recognize and celebrate the countless ways Native Americans have influenced our culture, defined our history and contributed to groundbreaking changes for equity and equality. This was further highlighted by the recent focus in the Supreme Court on a case that could undo the progress made to ensure Indigenous peoples remain connected to their rich culture and community.

On November 16, our Office of Native American Services hosted a virtual event and facilitated a call to action: Why is the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) important?

For a long time, Native children were forcibly removed from their communities, their families and stripped of their culture and language. In 1978, ICWA was enacted and sets federal requirements that apply to state child custody proceedings involving an Indian child who is a member of or eligible for membership in a federally recognized Indian tribe. Among its added protections for Native children nationwide, ICWA requires caseworkers to take specific actions intended to address the harmful practices of the past. ICWA implementation increased the ability of tribes to keep Native children connected to their tight-knit families, communities and culture.

OCFS attorney Craig Sunkes described ICWA, which is being challenged in the United States Supreme Court, as the justices recently heard oral arguments both for and against keeping it as the law of the land in a case named Brackeen vs Haaland.

“New York stands with and supports ICWA, and we have known it to be the gold standard in child welfare and can’t stress enough how important it is to keep Native children connected to their culture and communities,” said Commissioner Sheila J. Poole. “This Supreme Court decision will be enormous.”

Special event guests included St. Regis Judge Carrie Garrow, who discussed the many reasons why ICWA is so important, from statistics compiled by Congress to the importance of cultural connectivity, and Veronica Treadwell, OCFS Native American Services staff, who presented on how ICWA, by allowing tribal intervention, assisted a family on remaining together and presently thriving. Deputy Commissioner Lisa Ghartey-Ogundimu closed out the event by stressing the importance of following ICWA and ensuring our Tribal youth remain connected to their families, communities and culture.

Updates from the Division of Juvenile Justice and Opportunities for Youth (DJJOY)

Awards Ceremony for Classroom Achievement

Staff at the Finger Lakes Residential Center held their First Quarter Awards day on November 16 where residents were honored for their classroom achievements.

Eleven young men made the honor roll in the first quarter with averages between 85-92, and two young men made the high honor roll with averages between 93-100. During the awards ceremony, guest speaker and veteran staff member YSS Marvin Edmonds spoke about the importance of making personal investments in the program, into education and into families.

Edmonds is the Finger Lakes basketball coach, and staff use the intramural basketball program to motivate the residents in the class, which appears to be helping residents become more focused in the classroom.

YSS staff who are the foundation to programming at Finger Lakes were also celebrated, along with the teachers, for their hard work and dedication.

Rochester Community Multi-Services Office Staff Gain Knowledge of What it’s Like to be Visually Impaired

Rochester CMSO staff had a small taste of what it might be like to be blind or visually impaired.

The CMSO hosted a program with the Commission for the Blind in honor of White Cane Day. Staff attempted to complete different tasks while blindfolded or wearing goggles that simulated different visual impairments. They tried unlocking a lock, signing a document, navigating the hallways with a cane, pouring a cup of water and plugging a cord into an outlet.

The event was great for team building, learning more about another part of OCFS and gaining a sense of what the blind community must navigate every day.

Highland Residential Center Sees Benefits of Equine Therapy

Highland Residential Center (HRC) has been busy enjoying the fall season, including a new program with equine therapy that has been very exciting for the residents.

Youth have been participating in equine therapy every other week, learning about how to care for and ride two horses. Several dogs are also available for residents to interact with.

The new equine program has been a major incentive, exhilarating youth and staff alike.

One HRC staff said that one of their main goals is bridging the gap between the facility and the community, along with teaching residents skills and tools to use once they return home to be more successful. Many of the skills are grounded in the ideas of giving back, thinking about others and being a more productive member of society.

Youth continue to participate in this activity because they truly enjoy the animal contact and want to make a difference. Youth have the opportunity to take pride in caring for the horses and dogs, and acquiring traits to be a positive influence with their peers and community once they are reunited. Their passion and drive to attend this therapeutic program speaks volumes for how to create a change in mindset with the simple integration of animal therapy.

Updates from the Division of Youth Development and Partnerships for Success (YDAPS)

Runaway and Homeless Youth Prevention Month Initiatives “Shine a Light” on Vulnerable Youth
Collage of Wear Green for RHYA images with people wearing green

November was National Runaway Prevention Month, an awareness campaign to bring visibility to the plight of youth who are without housing and/or have run away. This year’s national campaign was designed to “shine a light” on the experiences of these youth, who too often remain invisible.

The impacts of homelessness for youth are far reaching – they are more likely to drop out of school and experience violence, food insecurity, medical and mental health complications, substance use and trafficking. Nearly 30 percent of people experiencing homelessness are younger than 24 according to a 2018 HUD factsheet.

Youth and young adults who are homeless or lack stable housing are always vulnerable – particularly those in the LGBTQ+ community who may have even fewer supports. To mark the month, OCFS created podcasts and donated care packages to local programs. Learn about how OCFS supports these youth.

To mark National Runaway Prevention Month, staff statewide wore green on November 10 (see above collage), and we ran a social media campaign to increase awareness about this often invisible and vulnerable runaway and homeless youth.

Updates from the Council on Children and Families (CCF)

Kindergarten Transition Events Foster Prepared Kids

CCF has held more than 19 community-wide kindergarten transition events in the past three years for families statewide with funding from the Preschool Development Birth through Five project (PDGB5), a grant through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The events are hosted by local districts and community-based organizations that apply for PDGB5 seed money and feature kindergarten registration, school bus rides, school tours, free resources from local service agencies, opportunities to apply for a library card, dental screenings, job fairs, “kinder-prep” summer camps and more.

Communities focus on reaching children and families to prepare them with the resources and support to enter kindergarten ready to learn. As of fall 2022, these events reached close to 7,000 families! PDGB5 statewide kindergarten transition activities will continue into 2023.

CCF wants to ensure that children and families feel part of their community right from the start. Remember, it’s never too soon to talk about transition!

Please see the recorded kindergarten transition orientation for some wonderful ideas for community teams: ccf.ny.gov/.

Updates from the Public Information Office (PIO)

Serving the Limited English Proficient Population

You may not know that PIO coordinates language access initiatives for OCFS, and every year, PIO quantifies the assistance it provides to limited English proficient (LEP) people throughout the state in a report submitted to the Governor’s Office.

This year, the report covered activities from October 1, 2021, through September 30, 2022, and it was presented to the newly created Office of Language Access under the Office of General Services.

The report focuses on interpretation assistance, which includes in-person interpretation, video-remote and over-the-telephone interpretation. It also covers written translation services, which encompasses translations performed by approved vendors and/or bilingual OCFS staff.

  • OCFS served 7,680 LEP clients during this period, mostly by phone. The languages served were Albanian, American Sign Language, Amharic, Arabic, Bosnian, Bengali, Burmese, Chinese, Farsi, French, Greek, Haitian Creole, Hebrew, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Karen, Korean, Malayalam, Nepali, Pashto, Portuguese, Serbian, Somali, Spanish, Swahili, Sylheti, Tamil, Russian, Turkish, Urdu, Vietnamese, Wolof, and Yiddish.
  • OCFS translated 873 documents into various languages, with 106 completed in-house. The languages covered were Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Dari, English, French, Haitian Creole, Italian, Korean, Pashto, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Spanish, Turkish, Russian, Urdu, Uzbek, Vietnamese, and Yiddish.
  • OCFS spent close to $310,000 in language access services. Written translations accounted for more than $220,000, while over-the-phone interpretation accounted for more than $57,000.

OCFS’ language access coordinator, Mery Rosendorn, works with liaisons from various divisions/offices to gather information for this report. Please email her if you have any questions.