Babette Feibel photographed on July 16, 2018. (Rob Hardin / Monthly)

Babette Feibel

At 81, she fights for parents and kids in family recovery court

The choice was inconvenient but not difficult. Babette Feibel could stay and tend to the 50-some people gathering at her home for a Fourth of July celebration, or she could excuse herself and rush to the aid of a recovering drug addict desperate to find an open pharmacy that would refill her treatment medication.

"I couldn't tell them what I was doing," Feibel said of her guests. "But I had to go with her."

Feibel's husband, four children and 13 grandchildren are accustomed to seeing their 81-year-old matriarch dash out the door to help someone with needs she considers paramount. An inclination toward aid and compassion has always come naturally to Feibel. Her response to fortune is duty.

"I'm just a person who has to have a purpose," she said. "My life is rich. I don't want to play golf."

Feibel has long taken on some of the toughest volunteer jobs a community has to offer, and she doesn't intend to slow down now. After decades as a foster parent—she and her husband provided care and a loving home to more than 100 young children — Feibel has spent the past several years as a parent advocate in Franklin County Family Recovery Court.

Video by Courtney Hergesheimer

The specialty docket serves drug- and alcohol-dependent mothers and fathers who have lost custody or are at risk of losing custody of their children. Most of the parents have a history of unsuccessful attempts at sobriety; many have a co-existing mental or emotional disorder. Their pasts are pocked with criminal charges and evictions, homelessness and unemployment.

They're the hard cases, court Magistrate Susan House said. The program that seeks to ready them for reunification with their children is intense.

"Our participants don't have any family support anymore," House said. "They have burned all those bridges, or their family members use with them. Babette becomes their support."

She picks them up at home and drives them to all manner of appointments, all over the city. She advocates at health clinics, treatment centers, schools and government offices. She buys lunch. She shares laughter and tears. And when they come back to House to report on their progress, Feibel is in the courtroom, too.

House is in awe of her dedication. Others in Feibel's position—elderly, affluent and with decades of good deeds behind her—might sit back and rest, content to have done so much for so long. They might simply write checks to charity.

"I'm sure she could, and I'm sure she does," House said. "But she just keeps giving in all these other ways. Babette is a gem."

Recovery court personnel regularly sit down with social workers and others, including Feibel, for updates. They pore over urine-test results and employment interviews, apartment searches, utility bills and counseling reports.

Feibel doesn't coddle, but she fights alongside court participants. She tries to tend to snags and missteps before they blow up the case and, along with it, the chance for a child to know the love of a stable, healthy parent.

"When we started this 15 or 16 years ago, we didn't have heroin," Domestic Relations and Juvenile Court Judge Dana Preisse said.

At one point, with the court facing a shortage of providers willing to prescribe opioid-treatment medications such as Vivitrol and Suboxone, Feibel persuaded a reputable health center to step up, House said. Then she offered to drive people there.

Feibel also used her connections to get one of Columbus' top defense attorneys to come to the aid of recovery-court participants. House can't help but laugh a little at the one-sided conversation. "Look. My girl is working hard and doing a good job, but she's got this case...''

Amanda Hopkins and Austin Maselli, recovery-court participants who were working this summer to regain custody of their four children, said Feibel helps people believe in themselves. "She's been there every step of the way," said Hopkins, 30.

Maselli, 24, said Feibel seems to know when to deliver a lecture, when to offer encouragement, and when to step back. "She had faith in us."

Feibel, a former trustee for the Franklin County Children Services board, smiled as she talked about the Hilltop couple's journey. Hopkins is a wonderful person, she said. "She just needs to keep it glued together to get those kids back."

The hard work of rebuilding lives rarely discourages Feibel, who even managed to shrug it off when a distraught court participant punched her as they drove to an appointment. "I wasn't scared," she said.

Only once has the pain become so great that Feibel wasn't sure she wanted to continue. "I had one die of a heroin overdose, and I thought I was going to die at her funeral," she said. "It was so devastating. She had two little boys."

Part of Feibel's passion for volunteerism likely was picked up at the dinner table, her husband said, as she grew up in a family heavily involved in both the Jewish and wider Columbus communities. The rest is a matter of her irrepressible personality.

"Whether it's being a wife or a mother or a grandmother or a community person, it's always all in," said Jim Feibel, 85. "Her attitude is, 'We're only here for a short time, and you might as well make the most of it.' ''

She wasn't quite 3 years old and he was just 6 the first time he saw her, playing in a sandbox with her twin sister. They live on the Far East Side and recently celebrated 62 years of marriage. "We're a team," Mrs. Feibel said.

Mr. Feibel, an attorney, has long donated his services in the community. He helped the recovery court establish a charitable organization so that it could collect donations to benefit participants and their children, and he continues to prepare the annual tax return. Thanks to his wife, Mr. Feibel also has appeared in court to assist recovery-court participants with eviction cases.

He was unsurprised when Mrs. Feibel asked everyone in their family to skip the gifts for her 80th birthday and instead make a contribution to Family Recovery Court. "She's impulsive in a good way," Mr. Feibel said.

Mrs. Feibel has served on the boards of numerous organizations over the years and is grateful for the recognition and awards she's received, even if she's not one to list them. She's more apt to talk about children, about justice and about the difference one caring and determined person can make.

She's still proud that she pushed back, years ago, against the devastating diagnosis given to one of her young foster children. "They thought he was brain-damaged and deaf when he came to me," she said. "And I knew he wasn't."

He made great strides, as did so many of her foster babies. Mrs. Feibel won't stop believing in the potential of the parents in recovery court, either.

"I'm 81 years old, and this energizes me," she said. "My philosophy in life is, I'm going to die with my boots on."