Karls, 80, Honored Before Passing

— Lyn Stoesen, News Staff


The NASW Foundation in June presented its International Rhoda G. Sarnat Award to James Karls, who developed the person-in-environment (PIE) social work evaluation system.

Karls died due to complications related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) on June 29, days after the award presentation. He was 80.

“Dr. Karls’ legacy of creating the first assessment system based on a social worker’s education and expertise is a legacy of pride for the social work profession,” said NASW Foundation President and NASW Executive Director Elizabeth J. Clark. “Long after his retirement from social work, Dr. Karls gave back to the profession in profound ways.”

The award was presented at a ceremony in Santa Barbara, Calif., on June 24. Karls had been too ill to attend, but was represented by his wife, Diane Karls. NASW President Jim Kelly, California Chapter Executive Director Janlee Wong, and Rhoda G. Sarnat Award Committee Chair Suzanne Dworak-Peck attended the event. Karls was also elected an NASW Social Work Pioneer® on June 19.

The International Rhoda G. Sarnat Award is a monetary prize given to an individual, group, or organization that has significantly advanced the public image of professional social work. It is awarded through an endowment fund established in 1996 by social worker Rhoda G. Sarnat and Bernard Sarnat.

Karls’ 30-year social work career began following his service in World War II. He worked in public mental health services at the local and state level and started the first mental health clinics in California’s Central Valley.

Along with social worker Karin Wandrei, Karls developed the person in environment, or PIE, assessment system that distinguishes social work from other mental health professions. Using the PIE system, practitioners record the results of their assessment that addresses the whole person. PIE helps practitioners determine recommended courses of action and to follow progress. It provides an alternative to the medical model of mental health practice.

Karls’ works on PIE have been published by the NASW Press and have been translated into many languages and have been used as teaching tools in the United States and other countries. Karls served as NASW California Chapter president and as president of the Santa Barbara Mental Health Association. He founded the California Hall of Distinction, which honors past and present social workers; he was inducted into the hall in 2008.

“Dr. Karls knew that in order to promote social workers as legitimate mental health professionals, social workers had to distinguish themselves from psychiatrists and psychologists,” the California Chapter’s Wong wrote in nominating materials. “This included the very important alternative that PIE represents to the medical model of physical brain dysfunction. By taking it outside the brain, Dr. Karls pushed social work to lead the way in social rehabilitation, community resource, and advocacy models.”