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The University Magazine

Her mission is to help others

University Magazine - Fall 2008 Image
Carpenter-Palumbo '84

True or false: Most substance abusers are homeless people wandering the streets of large cities.


“That’s the big misconception,” says Karen M. Carpenter-Palumbo ’84 (social work), commissioner of the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services. “We know that one of out seven people has a substance abuse problem – 1.8 million New Yorkers. People from every walk of life. Everyone knows someone who struggles with an addiction.”

Carpenter-Palumbo is responsible for making sure that those people don’t have to struggle alone. She oversees the largest substance abuse treatment system in the United States, serving 110,000 people daily in more than 1,500 programs statewide, with a $1.7 billion annual budget. The agency addresses prevention, treatment and recovery, with treatment remaining by far the largest part of the three-pronged approach to a huge societal issue.

Appointed to her current position in February 2007 by then-Governor Eliot Spitzer, Carpenter-Palumbo has more than 25 years experience in the areas of health, mental health, substance abuse and disability-related issues. Immediately prior to becoming commissioner, she served as regional vice president for the American Cancer Society. From 1997-2004, she was executive vice president of Government Programs for Capital District Physicians’ Health Plan Inc. From 1990-1994, she was assistant secretary to Gov. Mario Cuomo, where she served as his senior policy adviser on issues of state agencies in the areas of mental health, mental retardation, substance abuse and general disability issues.

During the time she worked in the Cuomo administration, the Division of Alcoholism and the Division of Substance Abuse merged. Today, the agency also provides services for people with gambling problems.

A native of Horseheads, N.Y., Carpenter-Palumbo was a student at Eisenhower College in Seneca Falls, N.Y., when it became a part of RIT in 1979. When the college closed in 1983, “I was devastated,” she says. But finishing her degree at RIT meant an internship with Rochester Police Department and the opportunity to add a practical focus to her liberal arts background. That helped determine her career path.

“It worked out very well for me,” says Carpenter-Palumbo, who went on to earn a master’s degree in social work from Adelphi University.

She calls her current position “an honor and a privilege,” although it’s a 24/7 commitment involving travel, public speaking and heavy administrative responsibilities. As commissioner, her job is to lead and motivate a team of more than 1,000. She enjoys the challenge – and especially the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives.

Last year, she announced a plan to make all addiction treatment centers in the state smoke free and to provide clients with a program to cure nicotine dependence. Her motivation was the alarming fact that 92 percent of people in substance abuse programs are smokers, compared to 18 percent of the general public. She believes it makes no sense to help people overcome drug and alcohol addiction while overlooking another serious health threat. The new policy went into effect in July 2008.

“It’s not easy,” she says, “but people are embracing it. It’s the right thing to do.

“We want to make sure people who have struggled with an illness can be supported for a lifetime of wellness and sobriety,” she says. “We must make sure we’re doing everything possible for their health and well being.”

For more information about the Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services visit If you or someone you know needs help, call the OASAS 24-hour help line at 1-800-522-5353.