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National CASA/GAL announces 2022 Awards of Excellence winners

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June 7, 2022

National CASA/GAL announces 2022 Awards of Excellence winners


SEATTLE, Wash. – The National Court Appointed Special Advocate/Guardian ad Litem (CASA/GAL) Association for Children announced eight 2022 Awards of Excellence winners during its 2022 Annual Conference on June 6, 2022. These awards honor volunteers, staff, judges and others who have gone above and beyond in their efforts to provide best-interest advocacy for children who have experienced abuse or neglect.

The CASA/GAL model started more than 40 years ago, and in those decades, hundreds of thousands of committed volunteers, staff members, judges and others have made a lifelong difference to individual children. This year’s winners all demonstrate a commitment to the children of their communities and to the mission of National CASA/GAL.

The G.F. Bettineski Child Advocate of the Year Award recognizes a CASA/GAL volunteer who has made significant contributions to promoting the best interests of children who have experienced abuse or neglect, and who also supports the CASA/GAL program in their community.

Carolyn Muscari is this year’s recipient. With 40.5 years’ tenure, Muscari has served the Eighth Judicial District Court CASA Program in Las Vegas as a CASA volunteer and volunteer peer coordinator since September 1981. After 25 years working in hotel sales and another almost 20 years as a victim advocate, she retired from her day job in 2016 to enjoy spending time with her of three children, 9 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. Muscari has never retired from the CASA program, however, and doesn’t ever plan to do so. When she became a CASA 40 years ago, there were only 10 volunteer advocates and now there are approximately 400 CASA volunteers in Clark County, Nevada. Muscari is proud of the significant progress.

The Kappa Alpha Theta Program Director of the Year Award, named for one of National CASA/GAL’s long-time partners, was created to recognize the exceptional work program directors do every day. The recipient of this award is someone who has taken significant actions to establish or expand a CASA/GAL program.

Victoria Benge was hired as executive director of CASA of Madison County in 2018, at a point where the program’s number of volunteers and children served were low and challenges with fundraising. Additionally, the court questioned the competence and effectiveness of the program.

Under Benge’s leadership, CASA of Madison and Clark Counties has expanded into Clark County, growing from five to 79 volunteers and eight to 147 children served. Additionally, donations have increased by 1000%. Through professionalism, respect and dedication, Benge has ensured that CASA of Madison and Clark Counties has a prominent seat at the table in every conversation and discussion regarding the child welfare system in both communities.

The National CASA/GAL Association Board Member of the Year Award was created to honor an individual who exemplifies outstanding leadership and commitment to their CASA or GAL program through their role as a member of a board of directors or advisory council.

The Board Member of the Year is Kevin Gardner. Over the past 26 years, Gardner has exemplified CASA leadership, innovation, devotion and passion, making significant contributions to the cause of California’s foster youth and advocacy across 51 counties. A marketing consultant in Silicon Valley with more than a quarter century of experience, Gardner’s CASA journey began in 1996 when he became a volunteer advocate for two teenage brothers until they emancipated from the foster care system.

Today, Gardner is Board Chair of the California CASA Association. He has served as both a California CASA and Child Advocates of Silicon Valley board member for 16 years, leading almost every key committee, and volunteered on the Empowerment Council of the Outlet Program, which provides support for LGBTQ youth in Silicon Valley. He received the Silicon Valley Association of Fundraising Professionals’ Distinguished Volunteer Fundraiser award in 2004.  Gardner continues his CASA connection by spending an afternoon each week with his original CASA child’s nine-year-old son.

The Honorable David W. Soukup Judge of the Year Award, named for the founder of the CASA model, honors the outstanding contributions of a judge who has advanced the best interests of children through support of the CASA/GAL model.

The Honorable William Owens, Associate Juvenile Judge: District 8 in Ottumwa, IA, is this year’s recipient. Ask anyone that has worked with Judge Owens, and the answer is always the same: “He is ‘top notch.’” A compassionate, understanding and innovative leader in the courtroom, Judge Owens was appointed as an Associate Juvenile Judge in November 1998 after serving as Assistant Monroe County Attorney and Monroe County Attorney and being in private practice. He is co-chair of the Iowa Supreme Court Advisory Committee for Children’s Justice, a member of the State Council of the Iowa Supreme Court Commission for Children’s Justice and chair of the Juvenile Judge Committee of the Iowa Judge’s Association. In 2018 and 2022, Judge Owens was appointed by Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds to the Child Advocacy Board which oversees Iowa’s CASA and Foster Care Review Boards and was recently selected its Chair. In the same years, he was appointed to National CASA/GAL’s Judicial Leadership Council. Judge Owens’ support of the CASA program extends beyond the court room. He is a champion of the program to all audiences and never overlooks the time, commitment and dedication of CASA volunteers.

The State Director of the Year Award honors a state director who has taken action to establish or develop the state network and has demonstrated commitment to applying the National CASA/GAL mission, vision and strategic framework at a state level.

Vicki Spriggs of Texas CASA has been named the State Director of the Year. Spriggs is a dedicated advocate for children who has worked for more than 40 years in the child services arena. Known for her leadership on youth-related issues, Spriggs is a national speaker, a decisive leader and a fierce believer in the rights of all children, especially the right to a safe, loving and permanent home. She joined Texas CASA in 2012, after serving in a variety of positions dedicated to child welfare, including as a foster parent, director of the Travis County Juvenile Court Informal Adjustment unit and executive director at the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission. During her decade of tenure with Texas CASA, Spriggs has led a period of dynamic growth, increasing the number of programs to serve 24% more children and increasing state funding by 88%. The state organization and local programs’ graceful pivot into remote work during the pandemic is also a credit to Spriggs’ agility and innovation, as she secured funding to equip local programs with the technology necessary for a successful continuation of services. Her leadership has ensured that Texas CASA’s presence is a continued, welcomed sight throughout child welfare in Texas.

The Diversity and Inclusion Award recognizes excellence in promoting the values of inclusiveness and diversity among volunteers, board members and staff, ultimately enhancing the organization’s quality of service to children.

This year’s winner, Boston CASA, was formed in 1982 under the jurisdiction of the court and became an independent non-profit in 2012. The program started with one staff member, 33 volunteers and 60 children served and has grown to 13 staff members, 200 volunteers and more than 300 children served in 2022. In 2019, Boston CASA moved from acknowledging the problem of systemic racial inequity to implementing solutions. After rolling out its DEI commitment plan in 2020, the diversity of both program staff and the board has increased.

Today, Boston CASA’s staff is 34% White, 34% Black, 16% Asian and 16% Hispanic. The program created Community Liaison positions while establishing community partnerships that have led to increased culturally sensitive services and support. Boston CASA also recruited new board members and formed a Multicultural Advisory Committee so that members might inform and guide its racial equity plan and overall mission. With diverse leadership, the program now accurately mirrors the racial composition of the communities served, resulting in more effective actions as well as better and long-lasting results.

The Promising Practices Spotlight Award highlights a successful, replicable practice that exemplifies creativity in a program’s pursuit to provide that quality advocacy.

CASA for Children of DC has been a leading voice for DC’s youth in foster care for 20 years, training over 2,200 volunteers to serve more than 2,000 youth impacted by abuse and neglect. Recognizing that the “Foster Care to Prison Pipeline” is a reality that too many youth face, CASA DC formed the BRIDGES program in 2019 to provide best interest advocacy to DC’s justice-involved youth, including dual jacket youth involved in both the child welfare and justice systems. Since 2019, CASA DC has supported more than 100 dual-jacket and justice-involved youth. The BRIDGES Program has built its work around key protective factors specifically identified to prevent juvenile delinquency and to promote safety for youth. In 2020, with support from their CASA volunteers, 91% of BRIDGES youth avoided sentencing following probation – 50% higher than the general DC juvenile justice population. Currently, 80% of BRIDGES youth are on track for successful case closure.

The prestigious Children’s Champion Award is for an individual or organization who has made a significant contribution at the national level to improving the lives of children who have experienced abuse or neglect. It recognizes a partnership that is critical to the growth and advancement of our service to America’s most vulnerable children.

The winner of this award is Sally Wilson Erny, Deputy CEO of the National CASA/GAL Association for Children. Erny has served the CASA mission almost since its inception. She spent 13 years as executive director of CASA of Jefferson County in Louisville, Kentucky. As a local program director, her commitment to the mission was evident in the relationships built, program growth and children and families served. Erny’s dedication was recognized in numerous ways, including with National CASA/GAL’s Program Director of the Year award in 1994. Erny joined the National CASA/GAL staff in 1998, and has led network operations, lobbying efforts and stakeholder engagement. She has also played a critical role in numerous program development and standards projects, strategic plans and new initiatives, while advancing the CASA/GAL mission.