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Kathy Hochul, Governor
Suzanne Miles-Gustave, Esq., Acting Commissioner
January 2017 — Vol. 12, No. 1

Commissioner's Message

Happy 2017! I wish every member of the OCFS family good health, happiness, peace and joy in the coming year. And, I wish you success in achieving the goals you set in your new year’s resolutions. We can all make a change for the better. And, breaking bad habits can be tough to do. Whether you want to be happier, healthier, want to increase your productivity or decrease your debt, you can do it. And as we make our professional resolutions and prepare for the challenges 2017 will bring, let’s keep the people we serve at the forefront of our minds.

January highlights two of those populations with observances: Human Trafficking awareness month and Mentoring Month.

This National Mentoring Month, we welcome the New York State Mentoring Program to the OCFS family. The program's new location on the second floor of the OCFS home office will be the center from which program staff connect caring adults with young people who need a mentor and who will have better outcomes thanks to the attentions of a good role model and listener.

Human Trafficking Awareness Month provides a time for us to educate the public so people recognize the signs of trafficking and so we can get survivors the treatment that they need. The OCFS handbook for child-serving professionals and blueprint for responding to trafficked and exploited youth, provide effective tools to guide service providers in reaching out to and caring for survivors.

Here's hoping you have the positive energy in this new year to do the things that can open new horizons, instill pride in yourself, and inspire others to follow your example. I know you do.


New York State Mentoring Program Now Part of OCFS

The program that matches mentoring adults with young people is now part of the New York State Office of Children and Family Services. Statewide Director Sophia Pallone and her staff are excited about working toward introducing youth to mentors who have the potential to change lives through the New York State Mentoring Program. Pallone has a bit of a head start in that some members of the OCFS family are already mentors.

“It’s like having the seeds of success already sprouting,” Pallone said. “Often when people see the degree to which others have affected a young life, they feel like they’d like to give it a try, too.”

When young New Yorkers need the help of an adult in making the right choices in life the mentoring program can be an invaluable resource. The school-based program benefits from the resources of communities, schools and businesses in matching youth with volunteer mentors who are screened and trained; dedicated people who know how to guide youth in building positive relationships.

January is National Mentoring Month, an awareness campaign started in 2002 by the National Mentoring Partnership and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. It focuses attention on the need for mentors and shows how people from all walks of life can work together to provide positive outcomes for young people by increasing the number of mentors.

Denise Forte of Albany mentors in the same elementary school she attended. “I have six grandchildren, five of them students in the public school system, and I wanted to help the kids in my community,” she said. “This program is allowing me to do just that and has a special place in my heart.”

The national campaign and the New York State Mentoring Program aim to garner the attention of media outlets to spread the word and reach people who see in themselves the abilities needed to become a mentor. The New York program recruits, trains and coordinates with schools such as the one the Honorable Matilda Raffa Cuomo visited in Rome in May 2016.

Mrs. Cuomo chaired the committee that established the nation’s first school-based, one-to-one mentoring program which operated from 1987 until 1995. In 2015, New York State reaffirmed it’s commitment to children and mentoring by creating the New York State Mentoring Program. Chaired pro bono by the Mrs. Cuomo, the program strives to match mentors with students for weekly one-hour sessions over the course of an academic year. A typical session finds mentors and students playing board games, sharing stories, working on arts and crafts and simply talking.

Cassie Charles of Albany wanted to mentor as a way to learn new things from her mentee and to share her knowledge and experiences. She sees mentoring as a two-way street. “We both give and get so much from one another,” Charles says. “I also chose to mentor because kids are great, and many of them need someone aside from family friends to talk to and have ‘fun time’ with.” She says her favorite part of mentoring has been the relationship she established with her mentee. “We have created a great bond and although our session is only once a week, we both wish it were more frequent because the sessions are so fantastic.”

Students benefit in many ways, including the introduction of companionship with someone who is a positive role model who shows compassion, helps to build self-esteem, improves communication skills and reduces the need for discipline while being supportive and encouraging.

For anyone who’s thinking of mentoring and isn’t sure, L.J. Kotary of Rensselaer suggests one will never regret it. She said her experience as a mentor reminded her that kindness matters, and it has a ripple effect. She recalled a quotation she first saw years ago from a teacher who said, “A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove, but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.”

Brookwood's "We The People" Puts Residents in the Role of Counsel

A young woman listened as a panelist asked her thoughts on the right to assemble. She had just expressed her position on President Abraham Lincoln's assertion that the Constitution of the United States contains a "substitute for revolution" and she had spoken about the history of freedom of assembly in America.

She was one of a dozen youth who gathered at Brookwood Secure Center on December 1st for the 2016 We The People Student Congressional Hearing, an event that has been challenging young minds since 2008.

In 2016, OCFS became part of the James Madison Project, a five-year, multi-million dollar program funded by the U.S. Department of Education, designed to help teachers introduce at-risk youth to student congressional hearings, civic competence and responsibility. 

Presiding over the proceedings that Thursday afternoon was Jim LeCain, founder of the Brookwood College Program and 2016 recipient of the Howard A. Levine Award for Excellence in Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare.

"Brookwood is the model for teaching incarcerated youth in New York State for this pilot year and for the four years the program unfolds across the country," says LeCain.

LeCain started the college program in 2009 and had it fully operational by autumn 2010. The Brookwood satellite campus of Columbia-Greene Community College has offered 37 courses. Four students have earned full A.A. degrees.

During the hearings on the 1st, students tackled the question of whether police should be able to search cell phones without a warrant, whether the constitution's protections extend to all classes at all times, the source of the people's right to govern, and more.

The judges were Sarah Jones (seen at far left), who was on the faculty of New York Law School, Betsy R. Ruslander, the director of the Office of Attorneys for Children in the 3rd judicial department, Paul D. Rogan (seen at near right), a faculty member at SUNYDelhi and John Schoonmaker, a government and economics teacher in the Pine Plains school district.

OCFS Embraces the Spirit of Giving

 The home office staff bought hundreds of gifts as part of the annual Adopt-a-Family and Adopt-a-Senior campaigns.
“The response was amazing," said Beth McCarthy, Assistant Director of the Bureau of Training and Development, who coordinates the charity drive. “The generosity of OCFS staff made the holiday season a memorable one for many families and seniors.”

OCFS has a long-standing tradition of adopting families and seniors from Rensselaer and Albany counties in December. The recipients are selected by their caseworkers and have been deemed "in need" based on county criteria. McCarthy says the generosity of OCFS staff this year was stunning.

"Every family received much-needed household items such as vacuum cleaners, blenders and cleaning supplies, as well as coats, clothes and toys for the children and gift cards to help buy dinner. Each senior received exactly the gift he or she requested."

The gifts went to eight families and 20 seniors in Albany and Rensselaer counties. Included in the delivery of gifts was wrapping paper and supplies to help the recipients present the gifts in their own way.

In another act of generosity, the 2016 COAT Committee collected donations for the volunteer service and outreach office at the Stratton VA Hospital in Albany. "We asked for donations of coffee, peanut butter, jelly, toiletries and long underwear," says Judy Tomisman, a services specialist in the Office of Regional Operations and Practice Improvement. "Surprisingly, one if their biggest needs and requests was for coffee. Such a simple item."

The outreach office at the VA sees 20-30 veterans a day related to some type of service such as housing, employment, counseling, medical services, and food and clothing.  100% of all donations go directly toward supporting the veterans. 

"As we were collecting donations at the holiday party," said Tomisman,  "a number of staff thanked us for choosing Stratton. Several employees shared stories of their fathers serving in the war and how important organizations like the VA are in helping their families. I am always amazed and impressed by how generous our staff can be."


Girl Wins Trophy for Karate Skills, Mom Praises NYSCB

When Jaylynn Balmer heard about a karate tournament at the gym where she trains, she asked to compete. She ended up courageously demonstrating her skills in front of more than 300 people from all over the world - quite an accomplishment for anyone - and took home a first place trophy. Jaylynn has been working with a counselor from the New York State Commission for the Blind, making great strides at home and at the S&S Fitness Gym and Martial Arts Center in Hamlin.

Gym owner Scott Haug remembers the shy girl who began training a year ago. "She has grown into quite a young athlete," Haug says. "She steps up to each new challenge with that 'yes I can' attitude, flourishes with the other students and interacts with everyone."

Jaylynn and her mother, Tennille Lenz, receive children’s services from NYSCB in Rochester. NYSCB provided recreation funding to help Jaylynn train. Balmer's counselor, Tammy Irvin, received a message from Lenz saying, "Thank you for all you have done for us. You all have been heaven sent. I'm very grateful. The help I have received from your facility, and resources to help my daughter see better is a gift. I am eternally grateful. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you." Lenz has said karate has helped to boost Balmer's confidence and provided her with a wonderful social experience.

Irvin says it has been a pleasure to work with Jaylynn and her family over the last few years. "I have seen a transformation in Jaylynn. Her confidence has increased dramatically and she shares her happiness in being part of the experience. The S&S owners have been wonderfully supportive to Jaylynn and her family, and to NYSCB."

"I hope to see her continue karate training for a long time," Haug said. "I see in her the potential to be an instructor someday, and helping other kids with challenges. I'm happy to have her in my karate family. She's been a great inspiration to other students, instructors, and to me."

OCFS Youth Show Off Their Wares at Home Office Kiosk Sale

   OCFS youth made life a little easier for some holiday shoppers when they offered some of their works for sale at the home office on December 9th. Handmade jewelry was a popular item. Some items were beginning to sell out even as the tables were being set up in the lobby of the south building. The youth made the jewelry and ornaments by hand. The youth took 10 orders for bird houses which they built and were delivered by December 25.The enthusiastic response surprised them, but anyone familiar with their handiwork might have expected some excitement after having seen the bracelet that was presented to Lt. Governor Kathy Hochul at the home office last March.