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Kathy Hochul, Governor
Suzanne Miles-Gustave, Esq., Acting Commissioner
January 2015 — Vol. 10, No. 1

A Message from the Executive Office

Dear Colleagues,

Happy New Year! I am delighted to be joining you on the OCFS team. I consider myself extremely fortunate to be working for an agency that handles such critical issues that truly make a difference in the lives of New York State's children and families.

I'd like to share just a little bit about myself, to give you an idea about my experience before being appointed to lead OCFS. I’m joining OCFS from the Acacia Network, a network of agencies offering housing and services to low-income communities. Previously, I was commissioner of the New York City Department of Probation where I worked with a great team to supervise adults and youth, and assist with their re-entry into the community; I headed up a teen anti-smoking initiative at the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs, where I was assistant commissioner; and worked as the Assistant Director of The Door: A Center of Alternatives, the city’s oldest multi-service youth development agency. I spent the beginning of my career at the New York City Department of Juvenile Justice, and in recent years, was appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to serve as Chief Judge to the city Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings (OATH), where I supervised administrative law judges. As I embark on a new chapter of my career, I am excited to have an impact on a larger population, and work toward OCFS goals on the state level.

I also want to take a moment to show my appreciation for Executive Deputy Commissioner Poole, who served as Acting Commissioner for nearly a year. Her dedication to this agency is unwavering, and her support has been outstanding. I look forward to working with Sheila, and know she will continue to be a leader at OCFS. I thank Sheila for keeping the agency on a path to success, and for making for such a smooth transition.

I look forward to getting to know all of you, and wish you a healthy and happy new year.


Roberto Velez

OCFS Acting Commissioner

In Brief

NEW! OCFS Grammar Guide

The Public Information Office (PIO) has compiled an updated guide to grammar and usage that is now available on the intranet.

This guide should be used for all documents produced by OCFS employees, both internal and external. Specifically, it should be used for all documents that go through the Policy Tracking System and/or Internal Clearance Process.

Questions? Suggestions?
Contact PIO at (518) 402-3130.

Flickr Photos: Holiday Sweater Day 2014

New on the OCFS Flickr page: Photos from holiday sweater day (12/18). Thank you to everyone who contributed!

Reminder: FOIL Requests

A reminder that the OCFS Public Information Office (PIO) no longer processes Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests. This is handled through the Division of Legal Affairs. All FOIL requests should be sent to the OCFS Records Access Officer Craig Sunkes and Christena Casale.


OCFS Marks Human Trafficking Awareness Month in January

OCFS is continuing anti-trafficking efforts to mark Human Trafficking Awareness Month (January 2015).

A victim of human trafficking is a person who is forced, tricked, or coerced into performing commercial sex acts, or is compelled to perform labor or services for someone else. A victim of trafficking can be American or foreign-born, and can be any age, sex, or ethnicity.

Click here to read about OCFS efforts to combat human trafficking.

Throughout January, the lights at Home Office will turn blue to raise awareness. Additionally, on Tuesday, Jan. 13, OCFS employees are encouraged to wear blue (blue ties, blue socks, a blue ribbon, etc.). A table with materials demonstrating what OCFS is doing to combat human trafficking will be in the South Building lobby at Home Office on the same day, and will be coordinated by Lynn Baniak (OCFS), Heather Girard (OCFS), and Madeline Hannan (International Organization For Adolescents). Staff should drop by the display table in the south lobby wearing blue for a ticket to win a prize.

OCFS and IOFA will screen and discuss the EPCAT-USA film, “What I’ve Been Through is Not Who I Am," from noon to 1 p.m. in Room 102 South at Home Office on January 28. IOFA will also host a screening of the same film along with a discussion about child trafficking in the Capital Region the night before, on January 27, at 7:00 p.m. at the main branch of the Albany Public Library (161 Washington Ave, Albany).

Brazilian Representatives Discuss Human Trafficking with OCFS Staff

Representatives from Brazil recently met with OCFS staff to discuss the intersection of human trafficking and child welfare. They discussed the similarities and differences between the anti-trafficking efforts in Brazil and New York, and services that are in place for child trafficking victims. The meeting was coordinated by the International Center of the Capital Region.

(Pictured, L-R: Tom Brooks, Deputy Commissioner for SPPD; Sara Blake, Assistant Director of Policy Analysis; Lynn Baniak, Policy Analyst; Rinaldo Aparecido Barros, Judge, Goias State Court Justice; Ebenezer Marcelo Marques De Oliveira, Special Advisor for the Promotion of Fair Labor Standards, Coordinator for the Committee to End Slave Labor, Municipal Board for Human Rights and Citizenship, São Paulo City Hall; Livia Maria Xerez De Azevedo, Coordinator for Humanitarian Assistance Unit for Migrants and for Combating Trafficking in Persons State of Ceará; Leila Maria Dos Santos Silva, Para State Coordinator, Fight Against Trafficking in Persons and Sexual Exploitation of Children and Young Adults and Department of Human Rights and Justice, Office of Justice and Citizen Rights; and Sonia Meyer, Senior Attorney.)

Local Families Receive Helping Hands from OCFS for Holidays

OCFS staff helped make holiday dreams come true for eight families and 25 senior citizens in the Capital Region, thanks to your generosity and a partnership with the Needy Family Holiday Fund. Giving trees at Home Office and fundraisers yielded the donations in the photo!

Additionally, thank you to employees at Home Office who donated to the Mitten Tree. About 30 Rensselaer children received mittens as a result.

Don't forget: OCFS is also participating in the MLK Statewide Food Drive to benefit local food banks until January 16. Take the “Can-A-Day Challenge”: each morning as you leave for work, grab a can from your pantry to share with the Regional Food Bank and help the hungry in our area. You can drop the cans in the bins located in the lobbies of the North and South Buildings.

Enhancement Program Brings Lessons in Drum-Building, Teamwork

Goshen Secure Center is making the most of the enhancement program, partnering with Primal Percussions to give youth the opportunity to build drums. The residents work together to hand-assemble Djembe drums, and, as a result, learn team-building skills that produce results. The youth are also set up for drum lessons so they can use their creations.


CWCS-Sponsored Strategy Session Focuses on Disparities in Out-of-Home Placements

Representatives from across the state gathered on December 8 for a Disproportionate Minority Representation (DMR) strategy session, continuing their efforts to address racial and ethnic disparities in out-of-home placements. One of the aims of the session was to encourage attendees to consider developing a regional perspective and develop the capacity to support each other in their regions, a major goal to work toward in 2015.

Representatives from Nassau County presented on their new "blind removal" process, which is being considered as a promising practice for the other counties. "Blind removal" means allowing a decision to be made regarding the removal of children without any of the participants knowing any culturally or racially identifying information about the family. Participants from Onondaga presented on the work that they have done, which they credit with contributing to a reduction in their placements of black children in foster care. Representatives from the UAlbany School of Social Welfare, local districts, and regional offices also attended.

The strategic planning peer learning session was hosted by the Division of Child Welfare and Community Services (CWCS) and Casey Family Programs (CFP), and featured presentations by Dr. Ralph Bayard, Senior Director for Systems Improvement and Strategic Consultation at CFP; CWCS Assistant Commissioner Lisa Ghartey-Ogundimu; and Greg Owens and Claire Strohmeyer, also of CWCS.

Child Safety and Risk Training Helps Child Welfare Decision-Making

OCFS and the Office of Court Administration (OCA) recently co-sponsored a multidisciplinary, two-day training for more than 250 lawyers, judges, and child welfare administrators to help maintain safety and manage risk in child welfare cases. Participating professionals came from the 21 counties with the highest foster care populations in the state.

Local district teams created logic models to implement strategies and meet goals for child welfare outcomes in their counties. Training the first day focused on the role of child welfare agencies in accessing and responding to child safety and risk, and the judicial considerations of safety and risk during the process of removing children from a home and when returning them to the home.

Participants had the opportunity to attend workshops on the second day about quality hearings, infant advocacy, relative resources, family engagement, and maintaining educational stability for foster care youth. Attendees were able to meet with others in their profession to discuss their roles in maintaining safety and managing risk. Participants also heard a presentation by Fred Wulczyn, Senior Research Fellow at Chapin Hall, on the art and science of Continuous Quality Improvement.

OCFS Limited English Proficiency (LEP) Update: New Translations Available

The Public Information Office (PIO) continues to meet the needs of the limited English population. The following written translations were recently delivered to the requesting divisions/offices and/or posted on the Internet, as applicable.

Division of Child Care Services (DCCS)

Division of Child Welfare and Community Services (CWCS)

New York State Commission for the Blind (NYSCB)

PIO also translated a Superstorm Sandy Eligible Consent for Services Form in Chinese and Urdu (for the Division of Administration), and the following materials in Spanish: a child care Market Rate Survey and cover letter (for DCCS), a New York State Bill of Rights for Children and Youth in Foster Care as well as letters related to the filing of Instruments to Acknowledge Paternity (for CWCS), notices to parents related to a youth’s Individualized Education Program (for DJJOY), and various messages for the Human Services Call Center.

For more information about any of these translations or others, contact Mery Rosendorn.

Stay Safe While Driving This Winter

By: OCFS Emergency Management Coordinator Steven Taylor

This time of the year, it is important to plan your travel and check the latest weather reports to avoid the storm!

A few tips: 

  • Keep your gas tank near full to avoid ice in the tank and fuel lines.
  • Avoid traveling alone.
  • Let someone know your timetable and primary and alternate routes.
  • Adjust speed for road conditions and maintain a safe distance from other vehicles.

Even the smartest and safest drivers get into accidents. That’s why it’s crucial to be prepared for the possibility of any kind of collision or accident that could leave you and your passengers stranded on the side of a cold and possibly dangerous road. Researchers say that 70 percent of the fatalities related to ice and snow occur in automobiles, and about 25 percent of all winter related fatalities are people that are caught off guard, out in the storm. 

It's a good idea to carry a winter storm vehicle survival kit. Inside the kit, you will want to include common car safety items like jumper cables, a flashlight and a roadside visibility kit of either reflectors or flares. If you are stranded, a small shovel, bag of sand, and a set of chains, along with some sort of flag or ribbon to notify first responders or other drivers you are stuck, are all must-haves. If you are handy, you’ll also want a set of tools to repair minor damage. For about $30, you can buy pre-assembled winter road kits from AAA, or you can just assemble your own according to the types of conditions you expect to face, and how far you intend to drive this winter.

Here’s a full list of supplies you may want to include in your kit:

  • Tools: jack, lug wrench, shovel
  • Chains or traction tires
  • Extra car fluids: oil, washer fluid, antifreeze
  • Non-clumping kitty litter, sand, or de-icer
  • Flares, reflectors and flags
  • Road maps
  • Extra warm clothes, boots, hats, and gloves
  • Ice scraper and snow brush
  • Cell phone and car adapter
  • Rechargeable flashlight
  • First aid kit
  • Matches or lighter
  • Battery jumper cables
  • Extra food and water
  • Blankets/sleeping bags
  • Pocket knife

Check out the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) winter safety page for more winter weather information. For more about on winter weather safety, reach out to Steven Taylor via email

Hope in an Unfamiliar Place: The Story of a Heart Gallery Photo Shoot

“Don’t change it! Stop!”

It was with these words that Katie, 14, makes herself known at a refinished barn full of strangers. She kept her hands in the pockets of her puffy down coat, removing them only to nibble on the sugary cider donuts that left a trail on the floor below. Before her brother, Chris, 15, began acting exactly like an older brother -- changing the music to and from Katie’s favorite songs that played over large speakers, for precisely the reaction she is having now -- Katie was quiet, reserved, slightly uncomfortable. But it is her brother who makes her crack a smile with his dance moves, loosen up just a little bit, come alive. And that’s why Katie traveled 30 minutes from home to an unfamiliar barn with a caseworker: this day was her only opportunity to see Chris in a few weeks’ time.

The barn is owned by Paul Lange, a renowned photographer whose work has lived in the New York Times, Vogue Magazine, Pittsfield’s Hancock Shaker Museum, and the Chicago Botanical Garden home at various points in his long and illustrious career. Today, though, like on many other days over the past few years, Lange is inviting children and teens in foster care to his Columbia County home studio to feature them in professional photos, using his gift and his time to create moving portraits of youth in search of adoptive families as a contributor to New York State’s Heart Gallery.

An adoptive parent recruiter for the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department collaborated with a photographer in 2001 to begin the Heart Gallery, and the idea spread among social services agencies nationwide. To date, more than 120 Heart Galleries across the country have helped thousands of foster youth find forever families. The founder of the Heart Gallery says that at least four photographers have adopted their subjects.

That special connection is clear as Lange asks each of the youth questions about their favorite hobbies, their siblings, their lives, their aspirations. He often goofs around and acts silly with the kids while maintaining the air of a master of his profession, breaking down barriers and snapping away as the youth shake off their insecurities like cloaks on a spring day.

Chris and Katie, for all of their playful sparring, have a spotlight to share with another group of siblings at Lange’s barn: Keyshawn, 14; Rayshawn, 12; Shayla, 5; and Kavon, 4. The two oldest boys, who share a home with a foster family, take photos together, then provide some assistance for Lange in wrangling their younger brother and sister. Kavon poses no problem and smiles when Ray and Key coax him into it. Shayla, however, needs no such inspiration. Described as a “tomboy princess,” Shayla jumps up and down, lifts Kavon off the ground, dances around him in circles, and charms her audience with her bright smile and infectious energy.

Both Ray and Key take on the typical responsibilities of being older, protective brothers: at the shoot, they carry Shayla and Kevon around, dance with them, entertain them, and make sure they aren’t eating too many cookies. But their lives differ greatly from those of other youth their age. Key, for instance, is open about sharing that he has been in foster care for five years, since he was just nine years old. He is forthcoming about what he witnessed while living with his biological parents. He is active in his brothers’ and sister’s lives, even though he can’t see the youngest each day. And he is wise beyond his years, and perhaps the years of each person at Lange’s barn.

Taking a short break from the chaos, Key sits in a pop-up chair and nods his head to the top-40 hit coming from the speakers. He begins talking about his favorite rapper -- not Jay-Z, Eminem, or another popular musician who might be a favorite of young men who are 14 -- named Hopsin, an up-and-coming artist who raps against drug and alcohol use, and criticizes entertainers who glamorize such ideas to youth. Key says he finds a kindred spirit in Hopsin, and has seen firsthand the negative effects that substance abuse have on families. Then, he reveals his favorite thing about Hopsin: his message.

“The people in his videos, they’re sad for no reason,” Key says. “It doesn’t have to be that way. Your life is only bad if you let it be bad.”

For Key, it’s been years of waiting for his forever family, years of being shuffled around, years of having to be the older brother who fears that his experiences will become that of his youngest siblings. But it is in this unfamiliar barn, in an unfamiliar place, with unfamiliar people, that he experiences one familiar feeling: hope.