Published: April 22, 1998

In 1989, CU-Boulder Professor Richard Noble decided it was time to begin sharing part of his life working with people in need and began searching for a group that could use his skills.

When told that Voices For Children Inc. -- a Boulder advocacy group for abused and neglected children -- provided fulfilling challenges for qualified volunteers, Noble made up his mind. He went through a 30-hour training session with the nonprofit organization’s supervisors and became a Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA, for unfortunate kids trapped in the Maelstrom of the justice system.

As co-director of the College of Engineering and Applied Science’s Center for Separations Using Thin Films and one of the university’s top teachers, Noble is known for being open, straightforward and an innovative problem-solver. Recognizing his skills, CASA administrators immediately assigned him to a high-profile court case that involved a group of brothers and sisters who had been sexually and physically abused by their parents and another adult couple over the course of several years.

The case, which lasted several years, concluded with the four adults being incarcerated for their crimes. Noble, a CASA for one of the children, supervised family visits, worked closely with the child’s court-appointed attorney, social services workers and child psychologists, attended court hearings on behalf of the child, and filed monthly progress reports.

"Life can be really hard, especially for these kids," says Noble, who also took the child out for occasional recreational activities. "They’ve seen it all, and it hasn’t been a Walt Disney life for them. It’s rare to see positive changes in the kids on a monthly basis, but usually over longer periods you can see that things are starting to get better. That’s the hope."

In 1995, Noble was selected to receive the Bank One Colorado Corporation 1994-95 Faculty Community Service Award for exceptional humanitarian and civil service. He selflessly plowed the accompanying $2,500 cash award from an endowment made by Bank One Colorado Corp. through the CU Foundation back into the Voices For Children program.

Noble now sits on the 16-member Voices For Children board of directors, a group that includes attorneys, child psychologists, education experts and health care professionals. "Everybody on the board feels very strongly about helping kids," said the chemical engineering professor. "This is not a country-club charity group. We try to be proactive at every turn."

Marsha Caplan, executive director of Voices for Children, said the number of CASA volunteers ranges from about 75 to 100 at any given time. Each case lasts an average of 18 months and CASAs are expected to devote about 10 to 12 hours a month toward the welfare of their court-appointed child.

Training sessions are held each fall for about two dozen new qualified CASAs, said Caplan. She called those selected as CASA volunteers "a dedicated group of people, the cream of the crop."

"We have volunteers ranging in age from 21 into their 70s, including homemakers, construction workers and professionals," said Caplan, noting some CU-Boulder graduate and law students participate. "I think some of these people just wake up one day and decide it’s time to do something worthwhile for the community by helping children in need."

Fran Ritz, a systems analyst in CU-Boulder’s Administrative Streamlining Project, was accepted into the CASA program in 1997. "I just got to a place in my life where I wanted to give something back," said Ritz.

Ritz’s first assignment was being the CASA for an 18-month-old child that had been removed from her pregnant mother’s home because of neglect and placed in a foster home. At first, Ritz spent up to 20 hours a month facilitating visits between the mother, father and child, noting progress, attending court hearings, writing monthly reports and occasionally taking the mother and child to breakfast or to a park.

The purpose of the outings between the mother and child (and with both children after the second baby was born) was to observe their interactions outside of supervised visits. She also provided advice to the mother about child care and ways she might improve her situation. "I tried to let her know that I really did care about her and the kids," said Ritz.

Ritz also talked frequently with the case worker and attended meetings in which everyone working on the case discussed information and made decisions on how best to support the children and parents.

Unfortunately, the mother abruptly skipped town with both children. And although it may seem like a tragedy that a mother heading a family in crisis appears to have rejected all attempts at help, Ritz is more optimistic.

"We were told not to allow ourselves to be attached to the results of the cases but to know that our caring and giving time are enough," said Ritz. "Although the mother was not able to get her act together, we hopefully had a positive influence on her life by saying or doing useful things and showing her there are people out there who care.

"Our primary charge is to watch out for the children, and we know that the oldest child got a lot of love and affection from everyone involved in the case, especially from the foster parents. And I know that any love and affection received by a young child has positive effects."

Voices For Children has plans for several pilot projects, including a parental education effort in conjunction with other county agencies to see if family situations resulting in neglected or abused children can be prevented.

"We are strongly supported by the community," said Caplan, who noted the organization periodically holds fund-raising events to support its cause. "And we plan to continue on our path, working in the best interests of these children."

For more information about Voices for Children, contact Caplan or Judy Walker at 440-7059.