Remembering James Karls

Jul 7, 2008

(1927 – 2008)

James Karls passed away on Sunday, June 29, 2008.

After serving in World War II, Dr. Karls began his outstanding 59 years of social work in public mental health services at the local and state level. He started the first mental health clinics in California’s Central Valley. He was the associate director and then director of the Mental Health Training Center in Southern California, which offered seminars to anyone in the mental health field in the southern half of the state. He followed that as director of Mental Health Research for California. He was a part-time faculty member at UCSB, UCLA, University of California, Berkeley, San Francisco State and USC.

Perhaps Dr. Karls’ greatest contribution to the public appreciation of social work is his development of the “person in the environment” (PIE) assessment system that distinguishes social work from the other mental health professions. Working with Dr. Karin Wandrei, Dr. Karls used the concept underlying social work practice of person-in-environment to develop a system for social workers to record the results of their assessment that addresses the whole person. It helps the practitioner determine recommended courses of action, and to clearly follow the progress of the work. PIE has been translated into many languages, and it has been computerized. It is used as a teaching tool not only in the US but in other countries. PIE provides an alternative to the medical model that has traditionally dominated mental health practice, and encourages social work leadership in social rehabilitation, community resources, and advocacy models.

The NASW Press published Dr. Karls’ books and CDs on PIE, which have been translated into eight languages including French, Spanish, Hungarian, Japanese, Korean, Greek, and Hebrew. Dr. Karls traveled extensively around the world teaching international social workers about the PIE assessment system.

Dr. Karls was a lifelong NASW member and activist. He chaired several national committees for NASW, including one on case management, and wrote one of the early books on case management. He served as the NASW California Chapter President and the President of the Santa Barbara Mental Health Association. Dr. Karls received numerous social work awards including NASW’s Chapter and Unit Lifetime Achievement awards and the lifetime national recognition award from the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare. He founded the California Hall of Distinction that honors past and present great social workers in California, and he was inducted in 2008. He was also the recipient of the 2008 International Rhoda G. Sarnat Award.

Wherever social work systems theory is discussed, person in environment or PIE frequently comes up. When Dr. Karls’ name comes up, social workers throughout the country and around the world nod their heads in acknowledgement to this great social worker who has significantly advanced professional social work in theory and practice.

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