Child Welfare News And Notes

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Kathy Hochul, Governor
Dr. DaMia Harris-Madden, Commissioner
July 2020 — Vol. 4, No. 1

Deputy Commissioner's Message

A Message From Deputy Commissioner Lisa Ghartey Ogundimu

Recently, Chapin Hall distributed a message to child welfare stakeholders.

Aptly titled A Season of Crisis: Chapin Hall on race, health, justice and our collective commitment to transforming systems, it poignantly states, “We are living in an unprecedented time. A season of crisis has upended the way we work, the way we live, and the way we think and feel about each other. Racially motivated murders, compounded by a global pandemic with disturbing racial disparities, have once again heightened awareness of inequity and injustice in our nation. Chapin Hall joins countless others in the commitment to move beyond awareness to action.”

The New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) joins in this commitment, and this newsletter highlights some of the work we have been doing to:

  • Decrease the overrepresentation of children and families of color in the child welfare system.
  • Increase kinship placements.
  • Recognize the work of our child welfare workforce.
  • Incorporate the voices of parents who have been involved in the child welfare system.

Despite these unprecedented times, OCFS, local departments of social services, voluntary foster care agencies and our external partners have demonstrated an unwavering commitment to the safety, permanency and well-being of New York’s children and families. Together, we can improve safety outcomes for our children, increase family and community engagement, and lift up the voices of those who are touched by our system.

In Brief

Americans with Disabilities Act Celebrates 30th Anniversary

OCFS joins in supporting and celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was signed into law on July 26, 1990. This important civil rights law prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation and all public and private places that are open to the general public. The purpose of the law is to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.


Reminders: #MaskUpAmerica and #NewYorkTough

Deputy Commissioner Lisa Ghartey Ogundimu


Family First Success! You Did It!

OCFS set a goal, and you met it.

Placement with kinship caregivers currently stands at 40.9% (as of 3/31/20). Please visit the OCFS Family First Readiness webpage for updated data reports; a recording of the June 17 Webex, Kinship Foster Care in NYS: Performance Updates (which will be posted soon); and an update to the Family First Readiness Transition Fund.

Have a successful strategy for increasing kinship placements in your county?

Please email with the subject line: Increasing Kinship Placement Successful Strategies so we can share it in our next newsletter!

Parent Advisory Board Launched

OCFS is excited to announce the launch and first (virtual) meeting of the Parent Advisory Board (PAB) in July. The 18-member PAB is comprised of birth, foster and adoptive parents, and kinship caregivers from around the state who have expressed a desire and commitment to improve the outcomes of New York State’s child welfare system.

The PAB, established with the support of Casey Family Programs, shares our commitment to reducing the need for foster care and building safe and healthy communities for children. And we share the belief that every family should have access to the support of a strong and caring community. The board is a natural and timely step toward achieving these goals, and members will advise executive staff on policies and programming to improve practice statewide.

In describing how they were feeling about participating, board members stated they were "honored" and "grateful," and some members reported a natural level of "skepticism” about how much influence they will have to improve the child welfare system. Deputy Commissioner Lisa Ghartey Ogundimu acknowledged the importance of trust and team building that will need to occur to create meaningful change for children and families touched by the system.

Casey Family Programs will continue to help us develop the PAB and the board’s framework and working agreements, as well as help our two OCFS liaisons to the board facilitate future meetings. Board membership will rotate, so a variety of interested parents and parent figures will have an opportunity to serve in future terms.

Amy Papandrea and Charlene Griffin were selected to serve as our liaisons. Amy focuses on family engagement in the child welfare system and stated she was honored to be selected and is looking forward to hearing from each member on how to improve New York's child welfare system. Charlene is new to the OCFS team and is monitoring child abuse prevention programs. She has experience with community action agencies and programs for higher education after incarceration. She is excited to facilitate communication that will promote family-driven policies that safeguard unity and wellness for all families across the state.

Statewide Child Fatality Review Team

The goals are to delve deeper into cases and to allow staff to feel supported in the field during what can be extraordinarily trying circumstances with families.

The Statewide Child Fatality Review Team (SCFRT) held its second meeting on June 24, 2020, via a Zoom virtual platform. The founders of Collaborative Safety, Scott Modell, Ph.D., and Noel Hengelbrok, M.S.C., discussed the Collaborative Safety Model, which promotes a shift from reactionary approaches after a critical incident (child fatality or near fatality) to a systemic and proactive culture of safety. Margaret Bissell, director of the Bureau of Protective Practices (to the right), facilitated the meeting.

Through this culture of safety, agencies can begin to understand “the second story” of what happened. This model is aligned with the SCFRT’s goals, which are to help identify systemic breakdowns, target meaningful prevention and identify best practice efforts to save lives.

The goal of the partnership between OCFS and Collaborative Safety is to promote this shift in reviewing critical incidents and delve deeper into cases, allowing staff to feel supported in the field during what can be extraordinarily trying circumstances with families.

The Collaborative Safety presentation brought high levels of discussion and input from members.

“I spent 31 years in CPS from investigator to assistant director over those programs,” said SCFRT member Chris Larkin, who runs the local Onondaga CFRT. “This is very exciting and gives me such hope. Thank you.”

Dr. Marilyn Kacica from the state Department of Health said it was a “great presentation” and wants to partner more with OCFS on looking at trends and intersectional data to prevent child fatalities.

Barbara Guinn, executive deputy commissioner of the Office of Temporary Disability Assistance, was “glad to learn more about this process,” and Robi Schlaff of the Westchester Office for Women discussed how safety science can apply to other institutions of service like domestic violence, stating, “this is wonderful.”

The OCFS fatality writers and supervisors and the Child Fatality Review Team unit will begin training the week of August 10. For more information on Collaborative Safety, visit their website at

OCFS Creates “We Are Child Welfare” Worker Recognition Video

In recognition of child welfare workers as first responders, OCFS released a "We Are Child Welfare" media campaign celebrating these workers who are on the front lines every day.

"Child welfare workers are everyday heroes; they are first responders, keeping our children safe and supporting families in crisis," said Sheila J. Poole, OCFS commissioner. "We appreciate you, and we thank you."

The YouTube video shows child welfare workers in various real-life situations – knocking on doors, driving in their cars and walking towards homes – as they explain what this career path means to them and their belief that child welfare is a calling. Some are wearing masks, reminding us that they, too, are on the front lines during this unprecedented health crisis.

The video has been posted on social media outlets such as OCFS’ Facebook page and Twitter. It was also added to the National Child Welfare Workforce Institutes’ “We Are Child Welfare” video collection. The video also made its way to Washington, D.C., and has been circulated and credited by our federal child welfare partners.

June Was Foster Care Month…

…but we celebrate and thank our foster parents every chance we get! A huge thank you from the Schenectady County Department of Social Services and OCFS to Alicia Lackey and Melissa Lemay, pictured below, for their ongoing generosity and support of Schenectady County's children in foster care.

Melissa and Alicia are new Schenectady County foster parents and had their first two placements during COVID-19. When they were looking into becoming foster parents, they read that children were entering foster care sometimes with only garbage bags to hold their minimal belongings. This touched their hearts.

They applied for and received a $2,000 grant from Foresters Financial. The financial services company offers the grant to their members to plan, organize and run a one-day volunteer activity in their area to support a cause they care about. When COVID-19 forced Melissa and Alicia to cancel their event to fill the 72 backpacks they purchased, they assembled them on their own and donated them to Schenectady County.

The pair continue to donate care packages to children entering foster care in their community. The bags have consistently made an incredibly difficult day for the children a little bit easier. Melissa and Alicia are currently trying to arrange a fundraiser with a local business to keep their thoughtful project going.

My Bag. Their Story.

Members of the OCFS Youth Advisory Board (YAB) are integral to helping us improve the child welfare system. Because of their tenacious advocacy, concerns are elevated, and policies and practices change for the better. One example of this is the creation of My Bag.

During the OCFS Permanency Summit, members commented on how their belongings have been put into garbage bags during a removal from their home. They expressed the negative impact it had on their self-worth and how it exacerbated an already stressful time their lives. They said this in front of OCFS Commissioner Sheila Poole, who immediately raised the concern to OCFS leadership. Conversations turned to action, and in September, OCFS will be offering duffel bags, at no cost, to our county partners.

“As members of the YAB, we know that the work we do is important – from public speaking to sharing our stories to creating documents that benefit youth, foster parents, attorneys for children and caseworkers,” said one young adult leader from YAB. “But the best moments are when we make changes unintentionally. The initial idea of replacing garbage bags with something more personal and permanent came out of a passing comment at one of our many presentations. It further solidified the fact that by just showing up and telling our stories, we are making a change.”

The My Bag project will include shipping more than 2,000 bags around New York in an assortment of sizes and colors for age ranges: large for teenagers, medium for younger children and a small bag with a strap for infants (see photos for samples). In July, local districts received an email explaining the program in further detail.

“Our children deserve dignity if they’re being removed from their homes,” said Lisa Ghartey Ogundimu, deputy commissioner for the Division of Child Welfare and Community Services. “They should have a bag of their own to gather their possessions, and certainly not a trash bag during this traumatic time in their lives.”

Blind Removals and Kin-First Firewall Updates

During these unprecedented times, the children and families we serve have experienced a global pandemic that highlighted alarming racial disparities, as well as racially motivated murders, which heightened our awareness of systemic racism, inequity and injustice. OCFS is committed to a more just and equitable child welfare system. The time is now to move from conversation to action, and OCFS is currently examining existing policies and practices with a race equity lens.

Over the past several months, we have been working on two new policies that will improve practice at key decision-making points in the child welfare continuum – investigations and placements. These policies – the blind removal process and kin-first firewall – are also aligned with the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) for keeping children safely at home, and, when that isn’t possible, placing children with relatives. These policies were announced as part of the 2020 State of the State.

Blind removal process

With blind removals, all demographic information is hidden from decision makers to prevent implicit bias from unintentionally impacting a removal decision. An effective tool in reducing racial disparity and disproportionality in child welfare, the initiative will be expanded statewide and have far-reaching positive outcomes beyond New York’s borders. Our state will be in the vanguard of a national strategy to reduce racial disparity and build a more equitable and just child welfare system.

Kin-first firewall

To further promote kinship placements, this practice is intended to increase safe and appropriate kinship placements. It requires a higher level of review to verify that all viable relatives and significant adults in a child’s life have been explored to achieve a kinship placement before a non-kinship placement is made.

Staff Updates in Child Welfare and Community Services

Gail Geohagen-Pratt joined the Division of Child Welfare and Community Services in February as associate commissioner. Gail is responsible for supporting the implementation of Family First and overseeing the Office of Implementation and Accountability. Gail was previously with the Albany County Department for Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) for 21 years. She began her career with DCYF as a caseworker and was fortunate to serve as Commissioner for the Department for six years before transitioning to OCFS.

Cassandra Kelleher-Donnaruma is the senior director for the newly created Office of Implementation, Community Affairs and Protective Practices. She serves as a member of the CWCS Senior Team, overseeing the Fair Hearing and Administrative Review Management unit and administrative review process, assisting in the oversight of the Bureau of Adult Services, managing the Division’s implementation of state legislation, assisting with community affairs with advocates and stakeholder groups, and acting as a liaison between CWCS and the Legal Division. In her nine years with OCFS, Cassie was an associate attorney and bureau head for the Bureau of Legislation and Intergovernmental Affairs within the Legal Division.

Jara Traina joined the team as the director for the Bureau of Domestic Violence Prevention and Victim Support, while continuing in her role as senior attorney with the Division of Legal Affairs. Over the course of 12 years at OCFS, Jara has provided legal services for the Commission for the Blind, Child Preventive and Protective Services, foster care, domestic violence services, juvenile justice and adult protective services. She has also provided ethics training and guidance for OCFS employees. Prior to her work at OCFS, she was a law guardian for the Children’s Law Center in the Bronx, where she represented children in custody/visitation, child welfare, domestic violence and guardianship cases in family court and supreme court matters.

Shelly Aubertine-Fiebich is the director of the Bureau of Adult Services. Shelly has spent 25 years at OCFS, the last four as special assistant to the division of Child Welfare and Community Services’ Associate Commissioner Renee Hallock. Her responsibilities included the Child and Family Services Review Program Improvement Plan, the Home Finders Summit and the development and implementation of rapid permanency reviews. She also supervised the Justice Center work within the division.

Sheletha Chang has been named acting regional director for the Westchester Regional Office (WRO), overseeing 35 voluntary agencies in nine counties. Sheletha has been with OCFS for 21 years, beginning in the Family Services Division for Youth and Division for Child Care Services before joining CWCS. Prior to OCFS, Sheletha worked at the Office of Mental Health (OMH). She also served eight years in the Army Reserves.

Christopher Bruno is the acting regional director for the Rochester Regional Office (RRO). Christopher began his OCFS career in the Division for Youth before coming to CWCS in 2007 when he supervised the licensing of all Region 2 Voluntary Foster Care Agencies. Before OCFS, Christopher was a residential treatment facility direct care worker at St. Joseph's Villa (now Villa of Hope). He holds a BA in Psychology from Syracuse University and is currently president to Alyssa's Angels, a not-for-profit organization that assists needy children and families in the Greater Rochester Community.

Jane Brennan-Gilmore is working on the Family First Prevention Services Act implementation with associate commissioner Gail Geohagen-Pratt in the Office of Implementation and Accountability. She has worked at OCFS for more than 20 years and was most recently the Bridges to Health program coordinator and then director of Health Homes for the Division of Juvenile Justice & Opportunities for Youth for the past 11 years.