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Kathy Hochul, Governor
Suzanne Miles-Gustave, Esq., Acting Commissioner
January 2023 — Vol. 8, No. 1

Acting Commissioner's Message

Happy new year, everyone!

As we all know, January is full of new beginnings. Here at OCFS, that can mean so many different things – preparing new plans to improve our services, outlining new budget requests to help us meet those resolutions and exploring new ways to support our hardworking staff. In 2023, there is another “new” to all of this.

I am now charged with overseeing and leading these efforts, and I couldn’t be more thrilled about what lies ahead!

Despite my excitement, being appointed acting commissioner for this amazing agency is still bittersweet. While I’m incredibly honored and humbled by this awesome responsibility, it was only made possible by the departure of our previous, beloved commissioner, Sheila J. Poole.

Like all of OCFS – and boy did we see it on display during our virtual farewell – I wish Commissioner Poole the very best as she also embarks on a season of newness in the next chapter of her career, and we thank her for her unrivaled leadership. Commissioner Poole set OCFS on a path to becoming one of the leading human services agencies in the entire country.

As acting commissioner, I pledge to each and every one of you to honor the legacy she leaves behind after 15 years of collaboration, innovation and excellence in serving some of the state’s most vulnerable populations.

It is so critically important that we make our communities feel seen, that their voices are heard and that their needs are fully understood as we wield our powerful policy and decision-making authority to protect and support them. Our task is a challenging one that requires bravery and courage, not just to serve those who rely on our programs, but to engage in constant and sometimes difficult self-reflection so we may serve them at an even higher level.

Still, it is an extremely rewarding mission, and OCFS is only as strong as the staff who carry it out. I will need all your help as we collectively move toward healing the individual and systemic traumas felt by the families we serve and their communities and continue building a service model that responds to the complexities of these experiences. The principles of social justice and racial equity will also continue to guide our work internally as we prioritize inclusion and belonging in our workforce throughout every office, facility and site across the state.

So yes, there will be a lot of new in 2023, but two things remain the same. First, our fight to ensure the permanency and well-being of all New York’s children, families and communities, while striving to improve the conditions in which they live, learn and grow. Second, I will also continue to serve as executive deputy commissioner.

I am truly grateful for the opportunity to lead OCFS. I feel a tremendous vibrancy all around the agency because of you, our dedicated staff. Thank you for your continued determination and commitment to OCFS.

Suzanne Miles-Gustave
Acting Commissioner


2022 Holiday Adopt-a-Family, Helping Seniors and Giving Trees

OCFS once again partnered with Albany and Rensselaer counties to adopt families and seniors in need during the holiday season. Our employees generously donated gift cards and presents after choosing a gift request tag from our Giving Trees in Home Office and the Human Services Training Center. Thank you to Beth McCarthy, director of the Bureau of training, for organizing the initiative from soup to nuts, and thanks to all who lent a helping hand and made a positive impact on the holidays for these families and seniors.


New Staff Hires and Happenings Hightlight OCFS' Focus on Excellence

Exciting things happening at OCFS!

Kathryn Shelton
Kathryn Shelton

We’re happy to announce our new Bureau of Strategic Systems Innovation (BSSI), established December 13, 2022, which is being directed by Kathryn Shelton, former associate commissioner in the Division of Child Welfare and Community Services.

The new bureau reflects the agency’s ever-evolving business needs and will strengthen communication and coordination with ITS, as well as help all divisions meet their organizational needs.

Kathryn has been with OCFS for many years and has extensive senior leadership experience working in state government. She has a diverse background, including in child welfare, call center operations and information technology. Her responsibilities included oversight of the Statewide Central Register (SCR), Bureau of Clearance and Records (BCR), Human Services Call Center (HSCC), CONNECTIONS Implementation Team and the Comprehensive Child Welfare Information System (CCWIS) project. As a founding member of the HSCC, she was responsible for building the HSCC from a conceptual design to an award-winning operation that handles over 1,200,000 calls per year on behalf of 10 New York State Agencies.

The BSSI supports all technology and system solutions to meet the goals of OCFS’ divisions and program initiatives. It’s comprised of seven units across several key areas: CCWIS project management, Integrated Eligibility System (IES) project support, Information Technology Services (ITS) asset management, the Human Services Call Center, CONNECTIONS Implementation and Build Support and the Business Systems Analyst Unit.

It will allow OCFS to:

  • Provide more dedicated support for technology that better reflects the agency’s emerging business needs and improves coordination and communication with ITS.
  • Provide better internal structure to assist divisions in meeting their essential organizational requirements.

Kathryn is working to build the BSSI into a solution-driven bureau assisting in the design and implementation of new and existing supports to enhance our services for children, families and vulnerable New Yorkers.

Emily Steinbach
Emily Steinbach

Emily Steinbach was appointed chief of staff in the OCFS Executive Office, effective December 8, 2022. In her new role, she will support the Executive Office by providing project management and coordination of internal and external projects, serving as primary liaison to the Governor’s Office team on agency assignments, preparing research and background in advance of special events, overseeing the executive office support team and managing the agency’s portfolio of boards and appointments.

Emily will be essential in representing the commissioner’s office on workgroups and will often serve as project lead for major initiatives. She holds a master’s in public administration from Rockefeller College, as well as a bachelor’s degree in economics.

Emily began her post graduate career as a Women & Public Policy fellow at the Center for Women in Government & Civil Society through the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy. Through this fellowship, Steinbach was assigned to the New York State Office of Mental Health where she assisted with the New York State Behavioral Health transition to managed care and other behavioral health initiatives.

In 2015, she accepted an Excelsior Service Fellow position at the New York State Department of Health where she managed the department’s policy and guidance for the Integrated Services Program and was later appointed as Project Coordinator and tasked with drafting New York State regulation and Medicaid Evidence-Based Assistance requests for proposals. Immediately before joining OCFS, Ms. Steinbach was a senior contract negotiator with the Capital District Physicians Health Plan.

Christine Kanawada
Christine Kanawada

Christine Kanawada was appointed special assistant in the OCFS Executive Office, effective Thursday, January 5, 2023. In her new role, she will represent the executive deputy commissioner at meetings, conferences and conventions, prepare speeches, special correspondence and research materials. She will also coordinate internal and external projects for the acting commissioner/executive deputy commissioner and serve as the lead project manager on special projects or assignments.

Christine began her post collegiate career as the director of athletics and recreation at the Albany College of Pharmacy, directing intercollegiate athletic programs and coordinating all financial aspects of the program. In 2020, she served as executive director for the Association Development Group where she supported two national nonprofits, guiding the missions of both agencies through goal setting, strategic planning, and program and project development.

Christine was most recently the executive assistant to the president and board of trustees at the Albany College of Pharmacy, where she performed supportive and operational duties for the president and the board, often serving as primary point of contact for the highest-ranking officials at the institution.

She holds a bachelor’s degree in sports and recreation management from Concordia University.

Kendra Sena
Kendra Sena
Willow Baer
Willow Baer

Kendra Sena, deputy general counsel, began serving as interim acting deputy commissioner and general counsel for OCFS’ Division of Legal Affairs on December 8, 2022.

Willow Baer, previously in this position, was asked to serve as assistant counsel to the Governor’s Office for the Human Services and Mental Hygiene portfolio on an interim basis until a new candidate is hired. We are fortunate to have Willow continue to provide support to OCFS in this interim position, and we’re grateful to have Kendra serve so capably in her absence.

Please join us in celebrating these transformative positions and congratulating everyone on their leadership roles!

Updates from the Commission for the Blind (NYSCB)

Glaucoma Awareness Month Highlights Leading Cause of Vision Loss
example of vision with glaucoma
The view for someone with glaucoma. Photo courtesy of the National Eye Institute.

January is Glaucoma Awareness Month, and to recognize this, the Commission for the Blind is sharing important information on this leading cause of vision loss and blindness in the United States.

Glaucoma is a group of eye diseases that can cause vision loss by damaging the optic nerve. It often begins slowly, and a person may not experience any noticeable symptoms. As glaucoma develops, you may begin to lose peripheral or side vision, and if untreated, the disease can develop into tunnel vision or a total loss of vision.

Anyone can get glaucoma, but some people are at higher risk for developing the disease. If you have a family history of glaucoma, are Black, African American, Latinx, you have a significantly higher risk of being diagnosed with glaucoma.

The only way to determine if you have glaucoma is through a comprehensive dilated eye exam with your eye care professional. Anyone older than 60 and all those older than 40 who are in a high-risk group should have a biannual dilated eye exam. While there is no cure for glaucoma, it can be treated with medications and surgery. Early detection is key to preventing the disease from developing further and potentially causing vision loss or blindness.

For anyone who does develop significant vision loss due to glaucoma, the Commission for the Blind provides extensive vision and vocational rehabilitation services to enable a person to maintain their independence in their home and work environments.

More information on glaucoma can be found on the National Eye Institutes website at www.nei.nih.gov/glaucoma.

Updates from the Division of Child Care Services (DCCS)

DCCS Will Launch Licensing/Registration Supervisory Institute

To prepare to implement DCCS’ new Licensing/Registration Super-visory Institute, Home Office child care staff and child care regional managers and assistant regional managers gathered at the Human Services Training Center to pilot the content.

The Institute is specifically designed for child care licensing/registration supervisors. Participants receive six days of training designed to enhance their skills with providing guidance to child care regulators and programs, covering diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility; professional communication and time management; and using technology. DCCS is excited to provide this professional development opportunity to our supervisors!

The training was enthusiastically embraced with many managers participating in the simulations for the first time. Session A was concluded with the leadership team donning their merriest sweaters to illustrate the team’s holiday spirit. This new professional development opportunity will be available to supervisory staff in early 2023.

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

New York State Prevention Summit Draws 200 Attendees
screen shot of online presentation by Marcella Wilson
Marcella Wilson, Ph.D., CEO and founder of Transition to Success®, presenting "Understanding and Responding to the Condition of Poverty."

On December 1-2, CWCS held the New York State Prevention Summit: Working Together to Enhance Family and Child Well-being.

The summit was attended by approximately 200 commissioners, directors of services and frontline staff from local departments of social services (LDSSs) and voluntary foster care agencies (VFCA), as well as OCFS staff and local stakeholders.

The summit focused on elevating the intersection between poverty and child welfare and reinforcing the need to provide families with supports and services long before a crisis occurs and a call to the Statewide Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment becomes necessary.Marcella Wilson, Ph.D., CEO and founder of Transition to Success, kicked off the two-day summit with a presentation on understanding and responding to the condition of poverty, discussing the standard of care to treat social determinants of health and using science and data to define root causes of and evidence-based treatment pathways to treat poverty as an environmentally based, treatable condition – not a character flaw.

On day two, Clare Anderson, M.S.W., senior policy fellow at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, started the session with her presentation, Prevention Strategies: The Role of Economic & Concrete Supports, which highlighted the mounting evidence that macro-economic and public benefit policies designed to support families by meeting their basic needs, reducing material hardship and buffering against income shocks can prevent both child abuse and neglect.

Additional presentations also focused on the importance of prevention services such as Healthy Families New York (HFNY), a direct cash transfer program, CarePortal and mobile response vans. Parents with lived experience provided a powerful presentation from their perspective about what families really need from the agencies designed to serve them, and Paige Pierce, CEO of Families Together in New York State, discussed the value of family peer advisors and advocates in child welfare and the role they will play in New York State.

New York State Prevention Summit Draws 200 Attendees

In December 2022, a social worker from the Manhattan VA hospital called the HEARS Family Line on behalf of a patient who was hospitalized and needed temporary placement or respite for his 15-year-old son with autism.

The son had been staying with the father’s friend, who could no longer care for the boy and asked for other arrangements to be made within a week.

HEARS staff contacted the New York City Regional Office (NYCRO) for additional assistance, which then contacted the Administration for Children’s Services assistant commissioner of the Office of Placement Assistance, and together, with several other ACS units, they quickly found the best resolution for the father and son within a tight timeline.

In collaboration with the father, they determined that a voluntary placement would best meet the needs of the boy while his father was recovering. Thanks to the enormous effort and teamwork among the HEARS staff, NYCRO, ACS and other state and regional entities, the father was able to receive the treatment he needed while his son was cared for.

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

Brentwood Residential Center Holds Toy and Food Drives to Benefit Community

Brentwood Residential Center for Girls held its first annual toy drive this year, and the response from staff was wonderful. They donated unopened toys for kids who are residing at the Family Service League of Long Island, which were delivered by facility youth before the holidays.

The team chose Family Service League because they house families with children who have fallen onto difficult times. The team earlier organized a food drive for them as well.

In both situations, facility youth dropped the donations off and experienced true volunteerism.

Brentwood staff are also considering a coat drive this winter so that Family Service League knows that there is a partner in the community they can count on.

First Two Tubman Youth Participate in Health-Related Occupations Program
Student practicing on medical training dummy
A youth from Tubman learning hands-on, practical, health-related skills.

I’m super proud of these two,” gushed Troy Hopson, facility director at Harriet Tubman Residential Center.

The youth were the facility’s first to participate in the Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES Health Related Occupations Program, which provides a broad foundation of theory and clinical skills that prepare youth to pursue entry-level employment or continued education.

Successful completion of the program certifies each participant as a home health aide and/or nursing assistant. While these youth won’t remain in care long enough to complete the program, the experience allows them to see the potential in themselves and has ignited a desire in both to continue to achieve.

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

Raising the Lower Age of Juvenile Delinquency Legislative Implementation

In 2021, the law changed to increase the lower age of juvenile delinquency from 7 to 12, with carve-outs for homicide charges (Raise the Lower Age, or RTLA). The law went into effect on December 29, 2022. YDAPS was the lead division on the legislation implementation.

It is a privilege and great responsibility to lead the implementation of new legislation, which will positively impact the lives of children and families. For too long, we have developed policy in a silo, always intending the best for children and families, and yet, often the results are sustained inequities in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

YDAPS took an intentionally inclusive approach for the implementation of this complex legislation and began with an internal workgroup to assess any impacts related to systems, finance, regulations and other program areas. YDAPS also reached out to state agency partners (Division of Criminal Justice Services, Office of Mental Health, State Education Department and the Council on Children and Families), as these agencies were likely to see impacts from this legislation.

In addition to the state-level engagement, we believed it was critical to receive ideas and feedback from those most impacted and to center youth and family experience as part of our regulatory and policy development work, as well as from the districts, which were statutorily responsible for the implementation.

To that end, we engaged a small, diverse group of local department of social services (LDSS) representatives to inform each step of the implementation and guidance:

  • Families Together in New York State to collaborate with us on obtaining feedback from families and young adults with lived experience in the juvenile justice system.
  • The OCFS Policy Review and Data Analysis group to conduct an equity assessment of the regulations and policy materials.

These initial steps supported a cross-system equity approach for implementation. We conducted presentations as part of the iterative development process. The additional external groups were consulted through:

  • regional meetings of the LDSS directors of services
  • New York Public Welfare Association
  • State Implementation Team
  • Central Regional Youth Justice Team
  • Individual technical assistance sessions with counties
  • Association of Youth Bureaus Conference
  • Webinars for LDSS and providers on the Raise the Lower Age requirement to develop a differential response practice and annual plan
  • New York State Conference of Local Mental Hygiene Directors meeting of the local single point of access and mental health providers
  • the Children and Law Committee for attorneys
  • a detention provider meeting.

Using such an intentional inclusive approach facilitated ongoing critical discussions with the field while also ensuring the recommendations of families and young adults with lived experience were integrated into policy, practice guidance and training.

We must intentionally change our actions and approach if we truly want to achieve equitable systems where those with lived experience are seen and heard as experts, and we are simply their messengers.

Updates from the Council on Children and Families (CCF)

New York State Mentoring Program Celebrates National Mentoring Month

January is National Mentoring Month, a movement started in 2002 to expand mentoring, celebrate the power of social connection and raise awareness around the value of mentorship in the lives of young people.

The New York State Mentoring Program (NYSMP) observes the month recognizing three key events:

  • January 16: International Mentoring
  • January 16: Dr. MLK Day of Service
  • January 26: Thank Your Mentor Day

To follow National Mentoring Month activities, like @newyorkstatementoring on Facebook and @newyorkmentoring on Instagram as we profile and thank New York State mentors who support, encourage and guide youth from Buffalo to Montauk.

If you are inspired to become a New York State mentor, the state’s Latina Mentoring Initiative is seeking volunteers in Freeport, Brentwood and Brooklyn programs. Apply to be a mentor today and share your greatest gift – time.