FACETIME- Stone's soup: CASA founder pleads for kids

Ruth Stone opened up her home to several troubled foster kids in the mid-1980s– but she worries today whether she really made a difference.

"Things didn't turn out well for kids I really cared about," she says. 

Stone, now 50, says that they all returned to their families; two are now in prison, and one faced the death penalty. She stayed in touch with one of her former foster children, but merely being a pen-pal to a prisoner wasn't enough for Stone.

In 1995, she established the Piedmont CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates). A branch of a non-profit organization that began spreading across the country in the late 1970s, the group trains volunteers to serve as advocates for abused and neglected children in the juvenile justice system.

It appears to be filling a need. 

"In our jurisdiction, every abuse and neglect report is automatically reported to the CASA organization," says Stone. "That's really an affirmation by the court of how important the CASA program is."  

"Ruth has been committed to children through her adult life," says veteran local attorney and former bar president Mary Susan Payne. "Now she's spreading that care to children in the whole community."

CASA's most recent volunteer drive found a community eager to help: 29 newcomers joined the existing pool of advocates, which usually hovers around 75 or 80 active volunteers.

"They make recommendations about custody and visitation, and about parental rights," Stone says. "It's a pretty heavy responsibility. I think a well-informed judge makes much better decisions about the child and the child's family."

But since CASA limits assignments in order to keep volunteers from being overwhelmed with responsibility, there are still some 20 children on the waiting list.

"I remember one time a volunteer said to me, 'Sometimes if things don't get worse, that feels like a major victory,'" Stone recalls. "These are difficult cases. For most families, being in crisis is the result of a long history."

Payne agrees. "CASA volunteers are able to spend time one-on-one," she says, "with children who need special support that parents can't provide.  They're committed to finding out what each child needs."

"There are happy endings, too," Stone says, "with just a little support and guidance, and a lot of work on the parents' part." Those are the cases who keep her going.

"My office is right by the Albemarle County Courthouse," she says. "Do you remember in It's a Wonderful Life, the little girl says, 'Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings'?

"Well, every time a child is adopted in Albemarle County, they ring the bell."

Ruth Stone