The head of child welfare and juvenile justice in New York state, Commissioner Sheila Poole, will be stepping down from her position after 15 years of working at the Office of Children and Family Services.
In a Tuesday email to her colleagues obtained by The Imprint, Poole said she will leave her position at the end of the year. She added that she’s already accepted a new role in the human services field at a national level.
“For over 35 years, it has been an honor to work alongside countless leaders and individuals like you serving the public and children, families and vulnerable adults who rely on the safety net of government services and support,” Poole stated in her email.
Poole was appointed acting commissioner in 2014 by former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), and approved by the Legislature for the job in 2019.
Last year, she was among the first to publicly condemn Cuomo’s behavior following accusations that he had sexually harassed women. She stated she was astounded by “the deep and powerful harm” Cuomo had perpetuated. Poole has stayed in her post since Cuomo was replaced by Gov. Kathy Hochul, who won her first election for the job earlier this month.
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Office of Children and Family Services confirmed the commissioner’s last day would be Dec. 29. He added that Poole’s “passion for this mission is unwavering, and we know her work as a leader driving innovation and equity in the human services field will continue.”
Poole has overseen pivotal reform in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems during her tenure.
One significant juvenile justice reform was 2016’s Raise the Age law, which ended the automatic prosecution of 16- and 17-year-olds in the adult justice system and expanded opportunities for them to have their cases heard in Family Court. Poole helped oversee the law’s implementation and has been outspoken about her support for the reform.
COVID-19 added pressure to Commissioner Poole’s leadership. While the number of youth in pre-trial and state-operated detention facilities continued a sharp decline during her tenure and remains far lower than a decade ago, numbers have been increasing again, according to state detention and facility reports.
Two juvenile facilities have closed on Poole’s watch, including the Red Hook Residential Center and Columbia Secure Center for Girls.
On Poole’s watch the number of children admitted into New York’s foster care system has also continued a decades-long decline. According to the Office of Children and Family Services data, there were 15,633 children in foster care on Sept. 30, a 15% decline from the end of 2014, her first year as acting commissioner.
Poole has overseen the local version of the federal Family First Prevention Services Act, which promotes placement of foster youth with family and kin and decreases reliance on group homes and institutions. The act also provides states with federal funds to invest in preventative services such as mental health, substance abuse and parenting programs that support caregivers and lower the likelihood of children being separated from their parents.
In a 2021 press release, Poole said she was happy to embrace the legislation to keep families intact. “Children have the best outcomes when they have the devoted attention of a family providing guidance, love, safety and security,” she stated.
Poole also pushed to ban the use of certain physical restraints used on foster children, especially controversial “prone” or face-down restraints, which have caused high-profile youth fatalities nationwide, and left one New York City teenager paraplegic after a 2019 incident. The new rules in effect last year apply to state-licensed foster care facilities, and also bar room isolation.
Several nonprofit executives whose facilities are regulated by the Office of Children and Family Services praised Commissioner Poole’s tenure and wished her well in her further endeavors.
In an email to The Imprint, Jeremy Kohomban, CEO of The Children’s Village human services organization stated: “During her tenure, she helped many of our counties develop the preventive strategies that were desperately required, supported NYC’s thoughtful juvenile justice and child welfare reforms and when despite our best efforts, plans did not work as intended, she never engaged in the blaming and the needless finger pointing that is too often still the norm in our sector.”
Michael Fitzgerald contributed to this report.
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