Mister Ruth's Story From the Underbelly of the World
By Bill and Brenda Evans
A mishmash story is Randy Ruth’s description of his 50-year history of fostering 50 boys and young men and adopting six of them—a mishmash shared with his wife, Jo Ann, until her passing in 2019. Randy and Jo Ann were both raised near Portsmouth, Ohio. After Randy graduated from Welch College in 1970, they moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, found jobs, and assisted Bob Francis in a Free Will Baptist church plant. Two years later, they fostered their first young boy.
How did Randy and Jo Ann decide to become foster parents? “We did not decide—God put foster parenting into our lives,” Randy recalls. It started with Desmond Q—a “charming” boy born to a 15-year-old girl and a sailor in 1960 because of a dare among a group of high school girls. (The first to birth a child won the small pot of money the girls threw together.) At age 11, Desmond was caught stealing food. His mom entertained men, Desmond said, and made him leave for the night. So, he sneaked into a nearby office building through the ventilation system, ate the workroom food, and spent the night out of the cold.
Child Protection Services placed Desmond in a foster home. He soon showed up at the Ruth’s inner-city church—super cute, blond, blue-eyed, impish, and starved for attention. “He immediately attached himself to us,” Randy says. Desmond visited their home without invitation, ate meals, even came when they were at work (he knew where the key was hidden) to eat pickles from their fridge. Desmond loved pickles, and Jo Ann with her “spine of steel and heart of gold” kept a good stock of pickles and motherly love—two crucial things missing in Desmond’s life.
Desmond soon “appointed” himself to help with children’s activities at the church, cleaning, doing chores, and absorbing the positive adult attention he craved. After a week at youth camp one summer with Randy and three other kids from St. Paul, a message was waiting on the church answering machine from Desmond’s social worker—don’t take Desmond back to his foster home. With no other instructions, Randy and Jo Ann bedded him down on their sofa for the weekend.
Monday morning, Randy called the social worker who said Desmond’s foster mom had shot and killed his foster dad. Desmond needed new foster parents, but they had found none. The next day, the social worker asked Randy if he and Jo Ann would foster Desmond.
“At that time, a child could be placed into foster care without a license if there was a court order for placement. Without even getting a firm answer from me, and without a chance to consult with Jo Ann, we were given a court-ordered foster kid three days before his 13th birthday. We didn’t even know how the foster care system worked….so that is how we ‘decided’ to become foster parents!” Randy explained with a smile.
Though foster care began with Desmond Q without their choosing it, Randy says, “lost boys and young men who were placed in my path by God in His divine providence” quickly became his life and passion. In the simplest terms, to foster parent you “give all your love to someone who may not have experienced it…love the person, not their actions.…It is difficult to love a pile of smelly, dirty socks, but they are part of a needy child. Writing reports, patching cut knees, driving to appointments are all love just as much as a hug or a snuggle.”
The youngest of the 50 or so foster sons Randy and Jo Ann eventually loved and cared for was seven; the oldest just days away from his eighteenth birthday. That child, now a 43-year-old adult with special psychiatric/emotional needs, still lives with Randy.
Shortly after a young neighborhood boy was murdered on their church steps by his uncle, Randy got a degree in family counseling and social work and was hired by a boys’ shelter in Minneapolis. Over 50 years, he was licensed by six agencies, became a certified adolescent sex offender counselor, president of the National Foster Parent Association, where he spoke internationally in Australia and four European countries, a consultant for the National Institute of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and developed and managed a grant program for Supported Adoption. Along the way, he and Jo Ann fostered dozens of boys and adopted six.
As for Desmond, eventually his father asked for custody, and the county agreed. “I was devastated. It was so hard to imagine life without him. Our emotions were shattered into a thousand splinters, but we were given solace by simply knowing we had done the best we could and knowing our love would remain in his memory for a lifetime.”
Desmond stayed in contact with Randy and Jo Ann for a time and often stopped by for pickles. But at 17, his father accused him of a sexual offense with a female family member and kicked him out. He couch-surfed with various friends, then moved to Florida and stopped contact with Randy for many years. Eventually Desmond served time in prison because he “began living out the family norm,” Randy said. Desmond’s father was part of a crime family dealing in guns, stolen cars, and armed robberies.
To Randy’s surprise, two years ago Desmond contacted him through Facebook. He is 61, divorced with two sons, still in Florida, but not very communicative. Randy finished his story of Desmond with a sad smile and an exclamation point in his voice: “That’s a very long answer to the question of how we decided to become foster parents 50 years ago!”
Randy has written about Desmond and many other boys he and Jo Ann foster parented, using their real names with permission or changing names and details for the boys’ privacy. One was Michael E. whose life changed forever at age five. He was sitting between his parents in their pickup when his mother pulled a pistol from her purse, reached across Michael, and shot her husband in the head. He came to the Ruths sometime later, emotionless and deeply troubled. Years after moving on, he visited Randy briefly, still emotionless. Later a note came. Michael was married and had a baby. Randy sent a gift, then a letter. It was returned—no more communication.
Tim B., a “super difficult kid to live with,” was an emergency placement and undersocialized. He knew nothing about hygiene, table manners, and interaction with others. But Tim was brilliant, also a consummate liar. “He would lie for no reason...or argue that black was white and white was black,” Randy says. Tim’s social worker told Randy if Tim’s lips were moving, he was lying.
Tim once got serious burns from fireworks but told the gullible hospital staff he had fallen into wet lawn fertilizer. Living on his own after high school, Tim kidnapped an old man in a Cadillac, made him lie in the back seat while Tim drove around town showing off “his Cadillac.” He spent two years in jail for that. Later, Tim visited off and on, even drove from Denver for Jo Ann’s memorial service. Recently, at age 32 and happily married, Tim sent Randy this message via Facebook: “I love you! Thank you from the bottom of my heart for opening up your home…being the best father figure I could ever have asked for...I miss you. Love you, Pops!”
Randy likes being called Pops. One of his definitions of foster parenting is risking the protection of one’s heart for the protection of a child. It’s standing in the gap, loving those entrusted to you for however long they are entrusted.
Randy has seen the dark and sad underbelly of the world. He turns 79 this year, but says, “God led me into and through this ministry. I’m still in contact with about 20 of my foster sons…God gave me a passion and a love. And that is not over.”
About the Author: Bill and Brenda Evans live and write in Ashland, Kentucky. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.