Casey Family Programs, the nation’s largest operating foundation dedicated to safely reducing the need for foster care and building Communities of Hope for children and families, announced today the recipients of the 2023 Casey Excellence for Children Awards.
These awards honor outstanding individuals and organizations for their exceptional leadership and unwavering dedication to improving the well-being of children and families who are engaged with the child welfare system in America. Each year awards are given in the following categories:
- Family and Alumni: These awards are presented to alumni of foster care, resource parents, kinship caregivers, and birth mothers and fathers who have overcome significant challenges and demonstrated extraordinary efforts to improve the lives of children and families.
- Leadership: These awards recognize child welfare leaders and change-makers who have had a significant impact in improving the lives of children and families and building Communities of Hope.
“Our founder, Jim Casey, once said, ‘One measure of your success will be the degree to which you build up others who work with you. While building up others, you will build up yourself,’” said Dr. Walter H. Smith, Jr., chair of the Board of Trustees of Casey Family Programs. “This year’s honorees are doing an excellent job of building up their communities.”
Dr. William C. Bell, President and CEO of Casey Family Programs, said, “The individuals we are recognizing today are as diverse as the communities they represent, and they are unified in their common desire to improve the lives of children and families across our nation.”
The Casey Excellence for Children Awards are an annual, national recognition of the accomplishments of leaders, including those with lived experience in the child protection system, who are working to safely reduce the need for foster care and build Communities of Hope. The awards are named in honor of Jim Casey, the founder of United Parcel Service, who established Casey Family Programs in 1966 as an operating foundation to help improve the safety and success of children and their families across America.
The mission of Casey Family Programs is to provide and improve — and ultimately prevent the need for — foster care. For 57 years the foundation has worked directly with children and families to improve life outcomes and well-being. Today Casey Family Programs also works with child welfare systems and other partners in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and with tribal nations across North America to influence long-lasting improvements to the well-being of children, families and the communities where they live.
2023 Casey Excellence for Children Family and Alumni Awards
View recipient video stories at casey.org/ceca
View recipient photos here
Kinship Caregiver Award
Gail Engel is an advocate for kinship families in Colorado, inspired by the journey of caring for a granddaughter and adopting a grandson with special needs. In 2015, Engel founded Grand Family Coalition Inc., a nonprofit designed to create a community of peer support and connection to resources for grandparents and kinship care providers.
Engel joined Generations United GRAND Voice Network in 2017 and serves as a voice of lived experience, advocate and an educator. She has been a voice supporting legislation such as the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) and the Supporting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Act of 2018.
Engel serves on federal, state and local councils as a material witness in the matters of child welfare and grandfamily and kinship caregivers. She also served as the voice of families on the FFPSA Implementation Team, is working with Colorado Department of Human Services to create a Child Welfare Family Advisory Council and participates in policy and rule changes. Engel co-chairs the Larimer County Alliance for Grandfamilies and speaks regularly on panel discussions about the needs of children and families involved in child welfare. Engel’s work gained the attention of the Senate Committee on Aging and earned her an invitation to testify about the impact of COVID-19 on grandfamilies.
Resource Parent Award
Shawna D. Begay
Farmington, New Mexico
Shawna D. Begay serves families as a protective services placement worker with the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department. A member of the Navajo Nation, Begay strives to ingrain the principles of the Indian Child Welfare Act into her work with all children, youth and families. She provides community resources to strengthen families and their self-efficacy, working closely with children and families with a focus on rehabilitation and strengthening. If a family’s stability cannot be immediately achieved, Begay identifies kin who can care for children and be a partner in family strengthening.
Begay was led into the work after her own childhood experience with her father’s alcoholism and domestic abuse. The youngest of six children, she ended up being raised by her mother as a single parent. Despite the abuse and being moved in and out of her birth home due to safety concerns, she excelled at school. She received her Associate of Arts with Academic Honors, then continued her education, graduating with High Honors with a Bachelor of Science in social work. While working on her degree she served as an intern with the Court Appointed Special Advocate program, providing case study synopses for adjudication court proceedings.
Begay and her husband care for her teenage nieces, who are excelling in life and school.
Sixto Martin Cancel
Sixto Martin Cancel draws on his powerful personal story of his time in foster care to advocate for transformation in the child welfare system. While in college he launched Think of Us with a vision in which people with lived experience in foster care could share their experience through video. Think of Us evolved with a focus on transforming the child welfare system so people with lived experience are at the center of designing, imagining and building. For example, Think of Us partnered with Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services and youth with lived experience to redesign the Foster Youth COVID-19 Quarantine Program, resulting in housing for 59 youth who were sick or exposed to COVID, and with the cost reduced from $2.1 million to $45,000.
Cancel often participates in conversations about improving outcomes for youth aging out of foster care. He has been a guest at the White House four times and presented about foster care issues at over 20 conferences, including the National Governors Association. Cancel serves on the board of directors for the National Foster Care Coalition. His honors include the White House Champion of Change award, 2021 Children’s Bureau Champion and Forbes Top 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneur.
Birth Parent Awards
Roger De Leon, Jr. – Birth Father
A dedicated father, grandfather, minister and passionate advocate for children and families, Roger De Leon, Jr. works as a parent partner with Riverside County’s Children Services Division in California. He was one of the first parent partners hired and helped develop their program, helping families with support, encouragement and navigating these systems, often leading to reunification. He is a birth father representative on the California Child Welfare Council and serves as a member of the Parent Partner Advisory Committee. De Leon uses his personal experience navigating the child welfare and court systems to inform his work.
De Leon is a member of the Children’s Trust Fund Alliance’s Birth Parent National Network. He has also worked in collaboration with Casey Family Programs on strengthening families through the American Rescue Plan Act and the Parent Partner Learning Collaborative and provides consultation to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
De Leon is an instructor for the UC Davis Resource Center for Family Focus Practice and the Cultural Responsiveness Academy in San Diego State University, helping develop and deliver state-mandated trainings throughout California. Topics include child welfare subjects, enhancing the skills of parent partners and fatherhood engagement.
Tecoria A. Jones – Birth Mother
Columbia, South Carolina
Tecoria A. Jones is a devoted mother to six children and has been an active advocate, speaker and leader. Her work includes being a member and chair of the PRISMA Children's Hospital Parent Advisory Council and a parent peer partner with the Federation of Families South Carolina.
At the state level, Jones was chosen to be the first parent leader on the South Carolina Child Well Being Coalition, working in her state with FRIENDS National Center for Community-Based Child Abuse Prevention and SC Children Trust. Her restorative work focuses on health, specifically mental well-being, racial justice, food policy and therapeutic massage.
Jones works with Thriving Families, Safer Children as a lived experience national partner and Advisory Board member for the state lead team. She is also a member of the Birth Parent National Network, which provided a connection for actively leading Radical Family Engagement Week 2021, an initiative sponsored by the Administration for Children and Families. National professional relationships include as a parent leader and trainer with the National Family Support Network (NFSN). Work with NFSN includes parent expertise leadership on revision of the Standards of Quality for Family Strengthening & Support. Jones also serves on the board of Be Strong Families.
Casey Excellence for Children Leadership Awards
Gail C. Christopher, D.N. | Executive Director, National Collaborative for Health Equity, Washington, D.C.
Dr. Gail C. Christopher is the executive director of the National Collaborative for Health Equity (NCHE) and is widely known for her work to infuse holistic health and diversity concepts into public sector programs and policy discourse. She is also an accomplished writer, having authored or co-authored three books, as well as written a monthly column in the Federal Times and hundreds of articles, presentations and publications.
In her time at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF), she served as Kellogg’s senior advisor and vice president for program strategy. Dr. Christopher was the driving force behind the America Healing initiative and the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation effort.
In 2017, Dr. Christopher left WKKF to launch the Ntianu Center for Healing and Nature and to devote more time advocating on issues of health, racial healing and the human capacity for caring.
In 2019, Dr. Christopher joined NCHE and became a Senior Scholar with George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being. Dr. Christopher was elected by the APHA Governing Council to serve as the American Public Health Association’s Honorary Vice President for the United States in 2021. She also currently chairs the Board of the Trust for America’s Health.
Prior to joining WKKF, Dr. Christopher was vice president of the Office of Health, Women and Families in Washington, D.C. Previously, she was a guest scholar at The Brookings Institution and executive director of the Institute for Government Innovation at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Mark Harris and Michelle Gros | Executive Director / Chief Operating Officer, Pelican Center for Children and Families, Zachary, Louisiana
Mark Harris is the executive director of the Pelican Center for Children and Families. He has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for outstanding efforts in promoting the safety, permanency and well-being of Louisiana’s at-risk children.
Michelle Gros is the chief operating officer for the Pelican Center and Strategic Plan coordinator for the Louisiana Court Improvement Program. She is passionate about improving the foster care system and adoption process and has personal experience as a foster and adoptive parent.
In their work, Harris and Gros focus on centering the needs of families and communities. One of the biggest examples was the development of My Community Cares (MCC), which was inspired by the Children’s Bureau’s vision to shift from a reactive system to one centered on family strengthening. Stakeholders in child welfare, law and the communities themselves were impassioned to develop strategies to serve families before they became entangled with child protective systems.
Over the past two years, MCC has partnered with thousands of families to co-design solutions to their challenges and keep children from entering or remaining in foster care. MCC has expanded to nine regions in Louisiana and is poised to be an example of how to center the voice of community residents and engage the five sectors in child welfare to work toward a goal of meeting the concrete needs of families, preventing the unnecessary removal of children and a safe reduction in foster care.
Judge Kathleen A. Quigley | Associate Presiding Judge, Pima County Superior Court, Juvenile, Tucson, Arizona
The Hon. Kathleen A. Quigley’s distinguished career has had a profoundly positive impact on youth and families. She has served as a judicial officer in juvenile court since 2003, was appointed to the Pima County Superior Court bench by the governor in 2012, and from 2014-2020 she served as the Presiding Judge of the Juvenile Court.
In 2019, Judge Quigley learned of Casey Family Programs’ work to establish Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) courts and worked in partnership with Casey staff on the creation of an ICWA Court in Pima County. The team focuses on placing out-of-home children with family or tribal families, building cultural awareness, ensuring ICWA is followed and establishing relationships with tribes. This inclusive and collaborative approach has simplified court processes and procedures.
Much of Judge Quigley’s work nationally and in Arizona has been centered on keeping families together and improving the system. Two examples of her collaborative work included co-creating the Southern Arizona Transnational Task Force in 2014 and leading the development of the Dependency Alternative Program, which launched in 2015. The Task Force created a Transnational Toolkit for child welfare systems to ensure due process and address the unique needs of a parent or child who is a citizen of another country. The Dependency Alternative Program serves families to prevent the filing of a dependency petition and has expanded throughout other counties in Arizona.
Judge Quigley serves on the Board of Directors of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, and on the National Judicial Task Force to Examine State Courts’ Response to Mental Illness.
Judge Sonia Rodriguez True | Superior Court Judge, Yakima County Superior Court, Yakima, Washington
The Hon. Sonia Rodriguez True began serving as a judge in Yakima County Superior Court in September 2022, appointed by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to fill a vacancy on the court. Prior to her appointment to the bench, she became the first Latino court commissioner in Yakima County in late 2020.
As an attorney, for more than five years, Judge Rodriguez True provided pro-bono legal consultation via Legal Options Clinic in partnership with Catholic Charities, where she assisted relative and fictive kinship families to prevent those children from entering the child welfare system. She volunteered her legal services to Casey’s Yakima Field Office every month and provided trainings to other attorneys on family law related to guardianship.
Judge Rodriguez True has served on many boards and committees related to children and families. She served on Memorial Hospital’s board in Yakima and is past board chair of United Way of Central Washington. In 2009 she was appointed to the Yakima City Council, where she served for one year. She’s been a leader in developing communitywide gang intervention strategies. Today she serves on the board of the Downtown Yakima Rotary.
Judge Rodriguez True was raised by a single mother who eventually became an attorney, and who was her inspiration to pursue a law career. She and her husband have welcomed over 20 children into their home at various times in the last six years for temporary and long-term care, currently raising three children in a guardianship.
Sauer Family Foundation | Colleen O’Keefe, Executive Director; Pat and Gary Sauer, Benefactors/Founders, St. Paul, Minnesota
The Sauer Family Foundation (SFF) is a private foundation that serves children in Minnesota who are at risk of experiencing abuse or neglect, exposed to trauma, or have challenges developing reading, writing or math skills. The foundation also makes grants for workforce diversification.
In 2021, SFF founders and leadership committed significant resources to focus on child welfare transformation, turning their focus to addressing systemic racism and developing community-based prevention services so vulnerable families get their needs met without being reported to child protection. This commitment follows earlier work with child welfare leaders with a goal of creating a child well-being framework focused on the domains of physical, social, emotional, cultural and spiritual well-being.
The SFF has funded a number of projects and initiatives. One is a family-finding tool, now being used across the country, that helps social workers find family for foster youth more quickly and effectively. Another, the Quality Parenting Initiative, enables connections between birth and foster parents. Yet another initiative is a collection of Family Resource Centers in Minnesota. They are also funding the evaluation of youth-centered supports for young adults living in supportive housing for those aging out of foster care, believed to be the first of its kind in the U.S., a project that heavily involves the voices of affected youth.