FAQs about the Office of the Ombudsman (Español)
An Ombudsman is an advocate who helps protect the legal rights of children placed in the custody of NYS Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS). In OCFS, the Ombudsmen are either licensed attorneys or persons with expertise in the areas of juvenile justice or youth rights.
The Office of the Ombudsman (OOTO) has been in existence since the seventies, however it was codified by a law which took effect on January 1, 2008. The New York State legislature felt it necessary to enact a statute in order to protect the legal rights of youth in programs and facilities operated by OCFS.
The Ombudsmen are regionally located. There are offices in Rensselaer, Buffalo, Syracuse, New Windsor and New York City.
No. An Ombudsman should be contacted by calling 1-888-219-9818, by sending an email to MyAllies@ocfs.state.ny.us, by sending a fax to 518-486-7079, or by sending a letter to the Office of the Ombudsman at 52 Washington St., Rensselaer, New York 12144.
Children in OCFS custody have all the rights provided to them by the constitutions and laws of the United States of America and New York State, as well as any rights granted by court orders, decisions, or stipulations; state and federal regulations; and OCFS agency or facility policies. A legal right is something that the youth is entitled to. Because OCFS policies cover every aspect of a youth’s placement from intake to discharge, what is considered a legal right within the authority of the Office of the Ombudsman is pretty broad.
Ombudsmen are not allowed to represent youth in civil or criminal cases, but they can let them know whether or not they need an attorney and can help them obtain representation.
OOTO is part of the Commissioner’s Office and the Ombudsmen report to the Commissioner.
Residents may call the Ombudsman with any concern they may have concerning their placement. Facility staff does not have the right to refuse a child’s call to the Ombudsman.
No. Also, while staff has the right to adequately supervise the youth in their charge, they need to make sure that the youth is able to speak to the Ombudsman without their conversation being overheard by anyone . . . including staff. Likewise, correspondence between residents and the Office of the Ombudsman is confidential.
No. They may reach out to a youth without getting permission from anyone. Additionally, in order to speak with a child, an Ombudsman may request that the child be removed from a program activity. This will only be done when necessary.
11. Residents are supposed to have reasonable access to a telephone so that they can call the Ombudsman. Doesn’t the facility get to decide what reasonable means?
To a large extent, yes. Staff does not have to drop whatever they are doing and immediately get residents to a telephone whenever they ask to speak to an Ombudsman. For example, it is reasonable to wait until the end of a class, or until the next morning, when a resident asks to make a non-emergency call at bedtime. However, residents should always be allowed to call as soon as possible.
12. As part of their rehabilitative process, shouldn’t residents learn to resolve their own problems? When they go to the Ombudsman, doesn’t it interfere with the ordinary process for resolving issues within the facility?
OOTO encourages residents to resolve problems on their own. One of the most common questions an Ombudsman will ask of a resident is “Who have you talked to at your facility?” or “Have you asked your counselor about that?” Often, youth are referred directly back to someone within their program, or they are encouraged to utilize the agency’s grievance program. Unfortunately, sometimes youth either cannot ask for help inside a facility, or don’t feel comfortable doing so.
13. What is the grievance program?
The Resident Grievance Program is a more formal procedure by which residents can complain about policies, procedures, or actions taken by staff that personally affect them.
14. Can a facility staff member call the Ombudsman’s Office on behalf of a youth, even if the youth hasn’t asked to call?
Yes. Staff should immediately call OOTO whenever a child is about to be, or may be, arrested, whether or not the child asks to speak with an Ombudsman. They should also call whenever they think a resident may benefit from the services of an Ombudsman.
15. Can people who are not OCFS staff or residents call OOTO?
Yes. Parents, attorneys, and other interested persons may call OOTO if they have concerns about the rights of a youth, or youths, in placement.
16. If someone who is not a youth calls to complain about the conditions of a youth in placement, does that person have to disclose his or her name?
Providing contact information is important and is necessary in the event additional information is needed in order to correctly identify and solve a problem. However, if someone who calls OOTO does not want their identity disclosed to others, OOTO will honor that request.
17. When an Ombudsman goes to a facility, is he allowed access to any area he requests?
18. When the Ombudsmen call or visit a facility during the middle of the day, especially during the week, it disrupts program. Can’t Ombudsmen talk to residents at times that are not so disruptive?
The Ombudsmen try to organize visits and calls in such a way as to minimize unnecessary disruption, and are willing to discuss how to best accomplish this. However, in order to be able to fulfill statutory and regulatory mandates they must have unhindered access to residents at their discretion.
19. If an Ombudsman requests any of the documents or reports created and maintained at the facility, do they have to be provided to them?
Yes. New York State law gives the Ombudsmen access to “books, records, logs, reports, memoranda and any and all other materials or written documents” concerning facilities.
20. Do Ombudsmen investigate the complaints that youth make?
They may investigate them, or they may refer complaints to other agencies or divisions, or they may simply pass on the complaint to the appropriate facility personnel.
21. Do the Ombudsmen investigate child abuse allegations?
The Ombudsmen are mandated reporters and it is their legal obligation to immediately report all child abuse allegations to the New York Statewide Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment (SCR). If the SCR accepts the complaint, the matter is referred to the Institutional Abuse Bureau which conducts the investigation.
22. Do the Ombudsmen have the power to solve the problems that are brought to their attention?
The Ombudsmen do not have the power to solve problems. However, they bring the problems to the attention of those who do have the power to solve them.
23. What if a young person is in the custody of OCFS, but they are actually living in a residential facility that is not operated by OCFS?
As long as a young person is in the custody of OCFS, no matter where they are living, they have access to the services offered by OOTO.