Trying to foster change

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

Sit in Gregg Oberlander's kitchen long enough and he might make you cry. "There's just a ton of stories up there, and I like to tell them all," the Reynoldsburg father said, nodding to a wall busy with the framed photographs of more than two dozen children. Given the time, "I never fail to have people in tears," he said with a smile.

But Oberlander doesn't just aim to pull emotional strings. He wants to tug hard enough to make change. And foster parenting - not its heart, but its structure - could use some new direction, Oberlander thinks. That's why he and his wife often are willing to try emerging, and occasionally controversial, approaches, such as opening their home to the biological parents of a foster child so everyone can work together. And that's why he wants the Foster Parent

Association of Franklin County to work differently, too.

Oberlander is now the president of the 46-year-old association, which, according to its bylaws, is open only to foster providers who are licensed through Franklin County Children Services. That leaves out more than two-thirds of the foster homes that care for Franklin County's abused and neglected children. The majority of foster parents now work through private agencies that contract with the county.

Oberlander said he thinks the association should include them all and become a nonprofit organization that can raise money and operate independently, forging a less-cozy relationship with Children Services. He envisions a thriving support group that could someday include camps for the kids, workshops for parents, retreats and education. "There's just a lot that foster parents can learn from each other," he said. "But we've become an organization that no one is happy with."

But Children Services, and some association members, are wary about the creation of a broad-based association. Members who work for different agencies naturally would compare notes about pay rates, perks and policies, they say. And the agency likely would rethink its financial support if the association were open to members who work through other foster organizations. Children Services now pays for the association's annual banquet, provides child care during meetings and sponsors some conference attendees. "If they were to branch off and become, for lack of a better word, a company, then our responsibility to them would change," Children Services Executive Director Eric

Fenner said. "I want them to proceed cautiously."

Others agree that Franklin County needs an organization devoted to education and support for all caregivers, who are dealing with a fast-changing and difficult field. "Adoption, kinship, respite, foster -- we're something different than we ever were," said Dot Erickson, a longtime foster parent and trainer who serves on the board of the Ohio Family Care Association, a policy organization. "Families are really isolated from each other, and they don't have a good advocacy picture," she said. "There's a big proprietary issue with agencies."

For the Franklin County association to change, members would have to approve new bylaws. Melvin Gravely, a member who also has served with the National Foster Care Association, said there's no consensus yet. "We have a common mission," he said. "The question is putting it together."