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Kathy Hochul, Governor
Suzanne Miles-Gustave, Esq., Acting Commissioner
November 2015 — Vol. 10, No. 11

Message from the Executive Office

Soon, we will gather with loved ones to give thanks for the many blessings in our lives: family, friends, food on our tables, roofs over our heads and meaningful work to fulfill not only our financial needs, but also our need to make a meaningful contribution with our talents. This is also a time when we begin planning for and setting goals for what we hope to accomplish in the coming year. But it’s also a great time to look back on some of what we have accomplished in this year.

Among the highlights are two awards that the Division of Child Care Services received: the State Academy for Public Administration Public Service Excellence Award for reducing the day care licensing process from an average of 173 days to 90 days and Rhonda Duffney’s New York Welfare Fraud Investigators Association Service Award for fighting fraud and abuse in the child care subsidy program.

The team at Finger Lakes Residential Center successfully complied with four audits conducted in as many months – quite an accomplishment! In addition, four Division of Juvenile Justice and Opportunities for Youth facilities received American Correctional Association accreditation: Columbia Secure Center for Girls, Taberg Residential Center, Goshen Secure Center and MacCormick Secure Center. DJJOY has also made landmark achievements in improving juvenile justice and continues this important work.

The Healthy Families New York home visiting program’s achievements were recognized with the UAlbany President’s Award for Exemplary Public Engagement for their work to address a significant societal need and enhance public well-being.

Child Welfare and Community Services’ Human Services Call Center hit a milestone last May when the Center hit the half-million mark with calls answered. And, the New York State Commission for the Blind increased its employment outcomes for the seventh year in a row, increasing employment opportunities by four percent in 2015 over the previous year.

Most recently, two OCFS staff members have been selected to receive the Archives Award for Excellence in State Agency Records Management. I also hope you will check out this month’s newsletter, to read about several new accomplishments across our divisions.

So as we construct our work plans for 2016, let’s build them on the foundation of major achievements made in 2015 as we look forward to more milestones and triumphs in the coming year.

Later this month, many of us will celebrate Thanksgiving -- a holiday focused on gratitude and reflection of all we’ve been provided. I am very thankful for the dedicated OCFS workforce across the state and wish you all a great month ahead!


Sheila J. Poole

Acting Commissioner


Taberg Supports Little Boy Fighting Cancer

Jesse Axtell’s life changed forever on April 28.

Axtell, a cook at Taberg Residential Center in the Division of Juvenile Justice and Opportunities for Youth, learned that his 3-year-old son Noah had a cancerous growth known as a Wilm’s Tumor.

“It had consumed his right kidney and moved its way across his body to the front,” Axtell said. “He also had three spots on his lung that were forming.”

Little Noah underwent 12 weeks of treatment, followed by surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital to remove the kidney and the tumor.

Then, Jesse and his wife Tonia received more bad news.

(At right: Noah Axtell, wearing a protective mask, holds his dad's hand.)

“After returning from Boston, we found out that the tumor had been tested and the pathology was unfavorable,” Axtell said. “This meant six more intense treatments of inpatient chemo while also getting 13 days of radiation.”

Noah has completed four of the six chemotherapy treatments to date, often receiving blood or platelet transfusions during off-weeks.

It’s a big fight for a little boy.

Coming Together

When the Commissioner’s 5K Challenge arrived on October 9, Taberg dedicated the race to Noah.

Naming their team after his favorite cartoon, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the “Taberg Turtles” wore specially-designed tee-shirts for the event. Twenty-one youths and 30 staff members competed.

“The facility really came together,” Taberg Education Coordinator Kelly Miller said. “The youth were upbeat, compassionate, and really showed genuine concern toward Noah. It was nice to see.”

Youth presented get well cards and posters to Noah, while staff collected donations for his parents.

Jesse, who came to Taberg four years ago after working at Youth Leadership Academy and Allen Residential Center, was moved by the outpouring.

(L to R: Tonia, Jesse, and Noah Axtell attend the Commissioner's 5K Challenge.)

“We have all had this cancer together as a family,” Axtell said. “It is simply wonderful to have such an amazing group of people who have supported my family through this rough time.”

Happily, the news is getting better. The Make-a-Wish Foundation is sending the Axtells to Disney World so that Noah can shoot laser beams with Buzz Lightyear.

But the best news of all came from the doctors.

“Noah just had his first CT scans since starting the more intense chemo to rid his body of the cancer cells, and they were great,” Axtell said. “Nothing had spread to any other parts of his body.”

OCFS Energy Warriors Program Earns Statewide Recognition

In April, two youths in the OCFS Energy Warriors program applied spray foam insulation to the drafty basement of the Industry Residential Center chapel.

Six months later, the building’s energy costs are down 68 percent and the fast-growing program – in which youth learn valuable skills while helping OCFS go green -- is receiving a BuildSmart NY Facility Star Award at the New York Power Authority Innovators Summit on November 4.

“The Energy Warriors program truly embodies the spirit of BuildSmart NY – developing innovative solutions for energy management, while promoting green careers and improving the state’s environment,” BuildSmart NY Manager Gabriel Cowles said.

(At right: Wearing a respirator mask and protective suit, a Finger Lakes Residential Center youth applies spray foam in the basement of the Industry chapel.)

“Energy Warriors” includes ten weeks of classroom instruction followed by on-the-job vocational training. The ultimate goal of the program is to connect youth to internships, higher education, or job opportunities in the green energy sector.

Finger Lakes Residential Center, MacCormick Secure Center, and Youth Leadership Academy are participating, with a fourth facility set to join next year.

Cutting Costs

The Facility Star Award is the latest success in the agency’s push to go green.

Under Executive Order 88, all state agencies were required to demonstrate 2.3 percent energy savings in the 2014-15 fiscal year. OCFS more than doubled the goal, delivering a 5.75 percent savings at nine DJJOY facilities.

"Our maintenance staff are doing an outstanding job retrofitting lights to energy-efficient LED, weatherizing buildings, and doing preventive work,” OCFS “Energy Czar” Clayton Carey said. “I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, but I know we still have a long way to go.”

(At left: A staff member flicks off a light at Industry. Maintenance Supervisor III Matthew Van Norman said his facility has purchased 91 LED light kits to replace its standard T-8 fluorescents.)

The Executive Order requires all state agencies to reduce their energy costs 20 percent by the year 2020.

Carey recommends turning off equipment and lights when not in use, and reporting faulty equipment using the work order system.

New Regulations Encourage Day Care Children to Get Outside and Play

Bounding across the backyard, 2-year-old Kaeden Ash chases down a soccer ball at Eco Bay Day Care in Downtown Troy.

He scrunches his face into a little boy smile, splashed by golden sunlight and nipped by the crisp October air. 

Kaeden was the first child through the door when Eco Baby opened in 2013. His mom, Andrea Uvanni, chose this day care center because it emphasizes physical activity and social development.

There are no televisions here.

“We walked into other places and saw kids sitting in front of the TV,” Uvanni said. “I said, ‘No thanks.’”

(At left: Kaeden Ash.)

Eco Baby owner Robyn Scotland prides herself on offering all-natural food and vigorous playtime, with no movies or TV shows.

“I think kids get more social engagement with each other and better gross motor development when they’re outside,” Scotland said. “It’s about giving them the healthiest start we possibly can.”

A Healthy Beginning

The Division of Child Care Services requires child care providers to offer an age-appropriate program of physical activity. Now, the agency is going even further to promote a healthy beginning.

A new OCFS regulation prohibits television for infants in day care centers, and limits screen time for toddlers and older children. TV must be part of a planned, developmentally-appropriate program with a defined learning objective.

Plus, the TV must be off during meals and naps.

“Just turning the television off makes kids move,” said Kathleen Pickel, Manager of the DCCS Regional Office Support Unit. “Research shows that children who are moving and more active are physically healthier. Reducing screen time also allows them to be more creative, and it increases social interaction.”

(L to R: Avery Payette, Kaeden Ash, and Connor Hains.)

As for little Kaeden Ash, each day brings new adventures in the backyard at Eco Baby. In the summer, he enjoyed dashing through the sprinkler. Soon, he will trundle through the snow.

What matters is that he’s moving.

“Kids have an imagination,” his mom said. “I think too many people have suppressed that by plopping kids in front of a TV.”

Adoption Month Brings Hope, Healing

November promises to be a special month for little Shazear.

On the ninth, he turns 9-years-old. On the tenth, his adoption becomes official at a suit-and-tie ceremony hosted by the Schenectady County Department of Social Services. 

“Shazzy is very excited to be part of a huge family, which still includes occasional contact with his birth family,” said his mom-to-be, Jema Clements. “He is also extremely excited to wear his all-white suit like his younger brother.”

Clements adopted Shazzy’s brother, Junahveon, in August. The boys first entered her home in a foster care placement last year.

“Since moving in, they have grown leaps and bounds,” Clements said. “They’ve developed academically, socially, mentally, and emotionally. Both boys have become avid about sports, activities, and community involvement while establishing relationships with family and friends.”

(At left: Jema Clements, who runs an after-school literacy program in Albany, adopted Junahveon (left) in August. Her adoption of Shazzy (right) becomes official this month. Clements is also fostering a newborn and a 2-year-old.)

Forever Home

In recognition of National Adoption Month, the Division of Child Welfare and Community Services is celebrating adoptive parents like Clements who offer a loving, permanent home to children in foster care.

The Division is also spreading the word about New York’s approximately 2,000 “waiting children,” who are ready for their own forever home right now.

“We hope that by increasing awareness, caring adults will consider all that they may have to offer as an adoptive parent,” said Carol McCarthy, Director of the OCFS Bureau of Permanency Services. “There will be events held throughout the month sponsored by the dedicated staff of courts, local departments of social services and agencies that work to make adoption a reality for New York’s waiting children.”

The OCFS website features a photo and description of each child freed for adoption, along with contact information for his or her caseworker. The non-profit Heart Gallery also enables prospective parents to view photo listings.

National Adoption Day is November 21.

Two DJJOY Staff Win National Awards

Youth Development Aide Sam Spina was in the middle of his shift at Taberg Residential Center last month when the telephone rang.

“Mr. Spina?” a young woman asked with hesitation in her voice.

“Yes,” he responded. “Who’s this?”

The caller was a youth he had mentored several years earlier. She has left the care and custody of OCFS, and her life is going in the right direction. She wanted to thank him for making a difference.

“She was crying,” Spina said. “She told me how happy she was with herself. She was back in school and had a job at night. She said, ‘Anytime I get upset, I remember what you taught me.’”

(At right: Sam Spina also mentors youth outside of Taberg. He coaches hockey and other sports.)

In recognition of Spina’s compassion and dedication, he was recently named a Bob Rader Line Staff of the Year Award winner at the National Partnership for Juvenile Services (NPJS) symposium.

“Mr. Spina exemplifies extraordinary passion in working with extremely traumatized teenage girls,” Taberg Assistant Director of Treatment Dr. Gauri Goel said. “Additionally, he has clearly stood out as a strong leader for newer staff.”

Spina reacted humbly, wanting to acknowledge his co-workers – especially fellow YDA Bruce Warcup – for all their hard work.

Two Winners

There’s dedication. And then there’s John Nigro.

A Youth Development Aide at Columbia Secure Center, he has never called out sick – or reported to work late – in 20 years of state service. Nigro feels he owes it to Columbia's youth to be there every day, right on time.

"It is not what you look at but what you see," Nigro said. "Some people look at kids that committed crimes, but I see kids who made mistakes and deserve a second chance. Sometimes they are just searching for a person to believe in them.”

For countless young women, he is that person.

(At left: Like Spina, John Nigro is involved in athletics. He coaches high school boys and girls basketball.)

“He has developed solid and supportive relationships with residents from challenging backgrounds,” Facility Director Dr. Patricia Fernandez said. “He is reliable, self-motivated and trustworthy, in addition working tirelessly to complete whatever task is assigned to him".

Nigro has also become an expert in training administrators and preparing facilities for audits.

In recognition of his many accomplishments, he, too, was named a Bob Rader Line Staff of the Year Award winner at the NPJS symposium.

“I am honored to receive this award but also humbled,” Nigro said. “This is really a result of having very good people around me who are doing great work with our youth.”

Until Next Time...

Thank you for reading the November 2015 edition of the OCFS Newsletter. If you have a story suggestion for future editions, email steve.flamisch@ocfs.ny.gov.