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The Daily



10-10-03: Coldwater foster parents have love to spare

Standard Correspondent

COLDWATER — In any given year in the United States, there are more than 500,000 children in foster care.
A few of the lucky ones wash up on the front porch of Richard and Rose Obringer in Coldwater.
From the street, the Obringer’s house looks like any other house in Coldwater. There is no outward sign that for years, it has been a safe haven and home for the abused, neglected, abandoned, needy, inadequately loved children who find their way there, with the help of the foster care system.
“It takes a lot of patience to be a foster family, and you can’t have high expectations,” said Rose Obringer.
She was talking about her expectations for the foster children, who often need to relearn how to live in a family when they come to the Obringer home. For herself, Rose Obringer has the highest expectation, which is this: “When a child comes into the home, we want to give them the most love and attention that we can.”
Along with that love and attention has to come a sense of normalcy, the order out of chaos that many foster children desperately need. Rose Obringer laughs at the notion that hers is a highly organized household; sometimes it’s all she can do to keep her photo album current with the pictures of the foster children who have shared her home. But she does know what it takes to run a loving household, and to integrate children into it.
“We let them know that we’ll respect them, and they need to respect us,” she said. “We let them know that they have the right to speak up, but that we’re going to make the final decision, in their best interest.”
“It doesn’t come automatically,” added her husband, Richard, known around Coldwater as Obie. “It takes a lot of work.”
Foster parents have to be both incredibly open and incredibly disciplined, according to Foster Parenting Magazine (www.fosterparenting.com). Foster parents are likely to face problems such as bed-wetting, lying and rebellion.
“Foster parents need to act as any other parent, but with the added challenge of dealing with a child that has a troubled background and an already inflated fear of rejection. They need to provide a sense of belonging, acceptance and love; however, these needs are usually met as the result of a small success following an enduring struggle with many early failures,” according to the magazine’s Web site.
Around the nation, the average age of a child in foster care is 10. Accepting a child of that age into a home is a challenge in itself, said Jason Cupp, the program specialist for Mercer County Job and Family Services who assigns foster children to foster families.
“It takes a lot to open your house to a stranger, especially to older kids,” Cupp said. “When you see a 2- or 3-year-old who needs a home, anyone’s heart would melt. But when you see a 10-year-old, that’s different. A child of that age or older could also be mouthy, disrespectful, disruptive. It takes a lot to take that child in.”
The Obringers, like all foster parents in the county’s program, receive a fee for caring for foster children. The basic rate is $26.50 per day for children from age newborn to 10, $37.50 per day for children ages 11-18, and that has to cover all the typical living expenses that come along with children in the house, such as diapers, school supplies, clothes and haircuts.
But “people aren’t in it for the money,” Cupp said. “No one is making a lot of money by doing this. They truly are in it for the children.”
The Obringers, who have been married for 31 years, first tried foster care in 1976. They already had two boys of their own, Doug and Bruce, but were willing to open their house to more children. A third son, Marcus, born in 1978, was named after one of those long-ago foster children who so captured their hearts.
As their biological children demanded more of their time, the Obringers dropped out of the foster care system. Then their boys grew up, and Rose Obringer went on disability, forced out of the traditional world of work by multiple sclerosis. There was one job she knew she still could do: care for children.
“I got bored on disability. I had too much free time,” she said. “I saw an ad in the paper that they needed foster families, and we decided to reapply. I guess I could have taken computer courses instead, but this is a lot more fun.”
The Obringers have seen many changes in the foster system in the last 20 years, they said. At first, foster families were protected by secrecy; biological parents didn’t know where their children had been placed. Now, Rose Obringer said, foster parents are expected to work with biological parents. The aim, whenever possible, is to return children to their birth families.
In addition to the doctor’s appointments and school meetings that all parents juggle, foster parents also keep track of court dates and hearing schedules. The legal world is confusing and contradictory, said the Obringers, who are often frustrated by decisions made over their heads.
But they continue to accept children, who come to the Obringers at unpredictable times.
“Once we accepted three at once, and one of our own boys called us and said, ‘Now I know that you are insane,’ ” said Rose Obringer, laughing.
Each child leaves his or her mark on the house, added Richard Obringer.
“We’ve had some who have chosen to leave our home, but they have all come back later to visit, to talk, or to apologize,” he said. “There was one that I was glad to see go, but I probably missed him the most of any of them. He was ornery but so loving.”
That’s the hardest thing to explain about her job, said Rose Obringer: how it can be so demanding and so rewarding at the same time.
“I feel sometimes that I am almost selfish: I get to love all these children and be entertained by them,” she said. “People don’t understand what we get out of it. They don’t understand the joy that we get out of it. Like at a soccer game, when one little guy with glasses was getting rained on, and he asked me, ‘Can I wipe my windows?’ A little statement like that will stick with you forever.”


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