The awards recognize outstanding individuals and communities for their distinguished work, exceptional leadership and tireless dedication to improving the lives of children and families in America. The awards are given in the following categories:
Leadership: These awards recognize child welfare leaders who have had a significant impact in improving outcomes for children and families and building Communities of Hope.
Jim Casey Building Communities of Hope: Named in honor of the founder of Casey Family Programs, these awards recognize communities that have brought together public, business, nonprofit, philanthropic and community partners to improve the safety and success of children and their families.
Alumni and Family: These awards are presented to alumni of foster care, foster and adoptive parents and advocates, kinship caregivers and birth mothers and fathers who have demonstrated extraordinary efforts to improve the lives of children and families.
"The winners of these awards are making the world a better place for children and families," said David C. Mills, chair of the Board of Trustees of Casey Family Programs. "They are helping others navigate life's challenges, serving as role models and advocating for improvements to the systems that help ensure the safety and success of children and their families. We are honored to recognize their accomplishments and the critical work they are doing."
"Every day in communities across America, leaders from every sector and at all levels are working to build Communities of Hope for children and families," said Dr. William C. Bell, President and CEO of Casey Family Programs. "These awards are a recognition that everyone has a role to play in safely reducing the need for foster care by strengthening families and ensuring every child has what they need in their lives to reach their fullest potential. It is an honor each year to recognize a few of the people who are making a real difference today in their communities and in the lives of children by building hope."
The winners for 2019 are:
Casey Excellence for Children Leadership Awards
Mischa Martin Little Rock, Arkansas
Mischa Martin became director of the Arkansas Department of Human Services' Division of Children and Family Services in 2016. Her leadership has caused a paradigm shift in the Arkansas child welfare system. In the last two years, Arkansas has significantly reduced the number of children who remain in shelters longer than 10 days. The number of children 12 and under in group homes has also been dramatically reduced. Ms. Martin has inspired, coached and increased accountability not only for reaching outcomes but also for sharing ideas and strategies. As a result, in the last 18 months, the number of overdue investigations decreased from 1,627 to 59. In addition, Arkansas has seen a reduction of more than 700 children in foster care in the last year. Ms. Martin is not only changing the culture of the child welfare agency, but also educating the judiciary and legislature on best practices that reduce trauma and keep children safely with parents whenever possible.
Judge Ernestine Steward Gray New Orleans, Louisiana
The Hon. Ernestine Steward Gray has been serving as judge of Orleans Parish Juvenile Court since 1984. She is a member of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and a past president of the Louisiana Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. Judge Gray has also been on the National CASA Association Board of Trustees since 2001 (CASA stands for court-appointed special advocate) and she has authored several publications on child welfare, adoption and parental substance abuse. In January 2018, Judge Gray was named the recipient of the American Bar Foundation Outstanding Service Award. She currently serves as president of the Pelican Center for Children and Families, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of legal representation for children and providing interdisciplinary training and education to child welfare practitioners. Gray regularly appears before the state legislature to speak and provide information on issues relating to youth in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
Lisa Opoku and David Hansell New York City, New York
Lisa Opoku, chief operating officer for the engineering organization at Goldman Sachs, and David Hansell, commissioner of the New York City Administration for Children's Services, have played integral roles in the Fostering College Success Mentoring Program. The program is a public-private partnership among the New York City Administration for Children's Services, Goldman Sachs and Casey Family Programs, and aims to build a better tomorrow for young adults in foster care. The program pairs students from foster care with Goldman Sachs employees in a meaningful mentoring relationship with the goal of helping them graduate from college and secure employment, and providing guidance in their transition to adulthood. Goldman Sachs mentors receive training on the unique experiences and challenges facing foster youth. Students in the program have provided firsthand feedback about the incredible support they have received.
Jim Casey Building Communities of Hope Awards
San Francisco Family Resource Center Initiative San Francisco, California
San Francisco has reduced the substantiated rate of child abuse by 60 percent and the rate of children in care by 52 percent since 2008 as a result, in part, of its Family Resource Center (FRC) Initiative — a public-private investment in 26 FRCs networked strategically throughout the community. Family Resource Centers provide a range of supportive parenting services such as child care, counseling, education, mentoring, care management, concrete needs like food and diapers, and other activities that strengthen families and build protective factors proven to mitigate maltreatment. San Francisco's Initiative promotes a public-health, multigenerational approach to improve child welfare; advocates for tracking data and evaluation; and leverages resources among multisector and communitywide partners. The Children's Bureau of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families recently recognized San Francisco-based Safe & Sound and its Integrated Family Services model — a partnership with Casey Family Programs, with potential to expand throughout the field — as a "particularly effective, promising approach" in urging the adoption of primary prevention strategies to protect children and promote positive outcomes. Children's Bureau Associate Commissioner Jerry Milner has visited Safe & Sound and highlights its work as a national example when discussing the potential impact of the Family First Prevention Services Act.
Bester Community of Hope Hagerstown, Maryland
The Bester community in Hagerstown, Maryland, can be a challenging place for families to raise children safely, with a high poverty rate, health challenges and a high rate of children removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect. In the face of these challenges, San Mar Family & Community Services began questioning the value of their group home and foster placement services and whether there was a better approach to improving the safety of children and their families. Based on their discussions, San Mar decided to shift their focus from treatment to prevention. They formed a partnership with Casey Family Programs to launch a demonstration project for a new approach to child welfare. Hagerstown is a place where public and private organizations — nonprofits, philanthropies, government, businesses and communities — collaborate closely to build a Community of Hope. They focus on prevention with a place-based strategy for positive outcomes for children and families located in the Bester Elementary School neighborhood. The early outcomes have been promising: Bester Elementary was identified by Washington County Public Schools as having the most improved attendance in Washington County, and the Maryland Center for Character Education at Stevenson University awarded Bester Elementary the 2017-2018 School of the Year award.
Casey Excellence for Children Family and Alumni Awards
Brittney Barros Canton, Michigan
Drawing on her own experience as a child in foster care, Brittney Barros' advocacy and work have had a lasting impact on homeless youth, children in foster care and the systems that support them. As a peer outreach worker for Ozone House, Ms. Barros recruited more than 2,000 youth to emergency shelters, therapy and life skills groups. She also interned for Sen. Gary Peters, where she worked on child welfare issues and briefed Congress and the White House on sibling separation. In May 2018, Ms. Barros provided personal testimony at the Casey Family Programs Family First Prevention Services Act press briefing in Washington, D.C. In addition, as a peer leader with the Michigan Youth Opportunity Initiative, Ms. Barros trains other youth in life skills to better prepare them for adulthood. Her long-term goals include becoming a foster care worker and parent as well as running for Congress.
Many Native American children who live on reservations in rural areas of Utah are unable to stay in their communities due to lack of foster homes, but Stephanie Benally is committed to changing that. Ms. Benally serves as the Native American Specialist for Utah Foster Care and works to educate state child welfare workers, judges, attorneys and guardians ad litem on the importance of placing Native American children in kinship placements to ensure they have a connection to their families and culture. This is in keeping with the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). She was also a stakeholder on the Utah recruitment team's Casey National ICWA Placement Recruitment & Retention Project, where she led the development of Utah's first statewide Native American foster care recruitment plan. With the assistance of her extended family, Ms. Benally and her husband have taught their children the Navajo language, their cultural value systems and traditional Navajo ways.
When Jan Wagner unexpectedly became the primary caregiver for her grandson, she worked with his school to secure training for school professionals on the impact of trauma on children and how to provide trauma-informed care. She has facilitated a kinship caregiver support group for more than five years and is the chair of the Michigan Kinship Coalition. In 2014, she was awarded the National Foster Parent Association's Advocate of the Year Award, and she is a member of Generations United's Grandfamilies Advocacy Network Demonstration, which informs policies and practices affecting grandfamilies. She has also participated in numerous Casey Family Programs events, including the Family First Prevention Services Act press briefing in May 2018. Ms. Wagner's goal in her advocacy is to reduce the confusion and stress placed on kinship families, and she believes that if kinship caregivers are given the help and resources they need, they can provide their children with the future they deserve.
Jeremiah Donier is a nationally recognized expert in father engagement and a dedicated advocate for strengthening families to prevent child maltreatment. He has provided leadership on numerous child welfare education and advocacy efforts, including the Developing Advocacy for Dads Coalition, the Birth Parent National Network Parent Council, and Casey Family Programs' Birth Parent Advisory Committee and Birth and Foster Parent Partnership. In 2012, he and his wife were named the first reunification heroes by the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law. Shortly after becoming a dad, Mr. Donier struggled with mental health challenges and abuse allegations. He became involved with child welfare and his child was placed in foster care. For the next 18 months, he and his family participated in wraparound and therapy services, and through hard work and effort, his family was able to successfully reunite.
Raven Sigure is a passionate parent advocate and new member of Casey's Birth Parent Advisory Committee. A mother of five, her children were removed and placed in kinship care due to substance abuse issues and difficulty parenting. Ms. Sigure made the difficult decision to enter an inpatient treatment program, and eventually she was able to reunify with her children. She now works as a parent partner with Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services, providing support to parents in the system. In May 2018, she was a powerful messenger at Casey Family Programs' Family First Prevention Services Act press briefing in Washington, D.C., sharing her compelling story and her hopes for positive reform due to Family First. Today, she frequently speaks with policymakers on Capitol Hill and is a nationally recognized parent advocate who is dedicated to strengthening families to prevent child maltreatment.