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Published: Thursday, 10/11/2007

Ohio House OKs shield on foster parents


COLUMBUS - Lawmakers argued yesterday that they want to crack down on abuse in foster homes, but first they voted to block public access to information on those parents.

"When a child is removed from a home, as you can imagine, the birth parents aren't always happy about that decision,'' said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Jeff Wagner (R., Sycamore), a former foster parent.

"If they knew where their child was, some would have gone to get their children back, sometimes through violent means,'' he said. "We can't always prevent that, unfortunately, but keeping the names and addresses of foster parents not part of the public record makes it harder for birth parents to track down where their children are.''

The bill now goes to the Senate.

Current policy of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services and their county agencies is to deny requests from journalists and others for information on foster parents. That policy is being challenged in court by the Cincinnati Enquier in the wake of last year's death of Marcus Feisel, 3. He died when his foster parents locked him in a closet in 80-degree temperatures so they could attend a family reunion.

Officials later learned a routine background check for sports volunteers had flagged a domestic violence arrest for one of the parents. The private agency that placed the boy with them was never alerted.

"I fail to see how shielding foster parent information would make the system safer for children,'' Rep. Jennifer Garrison (D., Marietta) said. "If it was not the policy to exempt this information, you have to wonder whether the Marcus Feisels would still be here.''

She argued that the press could do what the private placement agency did not in the case of Marcus Feisel: use information garnered from the public record to run background checks.

She said she supports a proposed compromise offered by the Ohio Newspapers Association that would allow access to foster parent names, dates of birth, counties of residence, and certification dates, as well as the gender of children removed from foster homes and the reasons for their removal.

Mr. Wagner added the language yesterday to his own bill increasing training requirements for typical foster parents from 24 hours to 36. The amendment passed by a largely party-line vote of 52-44 with Republicans more likely to support it and Democrats more likely to oppose it.

"If [foster parents] are allowed to be picked apart and criticized for every mistake they made 20 years ago or whenever it might be, the simple fact is we're going to have less foster homes in this state ,'' Mr. Wagner said.

"Marcus Feisel was a loud and noisy tragedy, but each one of these would be a silent tragedy,'' he said. "We're not to read about these tragedies.''

The final bill went on to pass, 87-9. The sole negative vote from northwest Ohio on final passage came from Rep. Peter Ujvagi (D., Toledo).

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