The New York State Children’s Issues Task Force: A Model for Response and Success

Photo of the New York State Children’s Issues Task ForceBy Barbara Andrews, ACF Region II

Children have been described as society’s most precious resource, yet in a disaster, the needs of children are often overlooked, obscured by the overwhelming impact of devastated property and the ravaged landscape.  

An integral part of the response to Hurricane Sandy was the recognition that children have unique needs that demand quick, distinct and comprehensive action. Simply put, in a crisis, little people have big needs. The ongoing commitment and collaboration promoted through the formation and work of the New York State Children’s Issues Task Force was a key element in improving the emergency response for children and their families.

Pictured left to right: Janice M. Molnar, Deputy Commissioner for the New York State Office of Children and Family Services receEven before Hurricane Sandy hit land, people knew it was going to be a big storm. Fortunately, many government and non-government agencies were thinking and planning before the storm hit land. In the days following the storm, New York state and federal government agencies collected information to better gauge the extent of damage and available resources. 

The state had multiple partners who were trying to figure out how government and non-government entities could come together to support children and families.  ACF's New York Regional Administrator Joyce A. Thomas and Regional Child Care Manager Barbara Carlson contacted New York State Office of Children and Family Services Commissioner Gladys Carrión and Deputy Commissioner Janice M. Molnar about establishing an integrated Children’s Task Force with state, federal and local government and nonprofit organizations. 

Leadership identified key partners and the first meeting was held via conference call on Nov. 16, 2012, just two and a half weeks after the storm.  Task force leaders knew it was important to come together quickly and stay focused. The group recognized that it needed to identify and act on what could be done immediately, then shift its attention to other, less pressing and longer term issues.

The task force was a success. Working independently, together and tirelessly in between meetings, members were able to provide a comprehensive picture of the condition of child care services throughout the affected area. The group got a handle on what was happening and what was needed in the immediate and long-term. Federal Emergency Management Agency representatives provided periodic updates about activities and resources.  There were concrete results. Products were produced including a resource guide and domestic violence providers in 160 locations were connected to training. Child care resource and referral agencies assessed local conditions and connected providers with funding sources and training.  Through a subcommittee, children’s mental health issues were pursued; Head Start programs and child care providers were assisted in their preparations to receive federal and state funding.

When the task force had its first in-person meeting in February 2014 to discuss lessons learned, it was clear that the 40 members attending in person or by phone were impressed by the group’s process, its commitment and collaborative spirit, as well as the information shared and gained. 

Significantly, the goal to keep children and their families in the forefront of the recovery was sustained. Seasoned emergency professionals characterized it as one of the most successful task forces that have been formed. At the February 2014 meeting, Molnar was recognized for her ongoing and pivotal role in the success of the New York State Children’s Issues Task Force. Representatives of ACF’s Office of Human Services Emergency Preparedness and Response, led by Capt. Mary Riley (U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps) participated in task force meetings and facilitated the February meeting.

The knowledge gained and the model created by the New York State Children’s Issues Task Force served New Yorkers well in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Working together and sustaining their commitment and focus, the task force was able to better identify and respond to the needs of children and their families.  Moreover, the task force has given the nation a legacy of how to improve our planning and reaction to the next crisis.