Fostering children Family opens its hearts and its home to children in need

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First of two parts

By Eileen Stevens

Correspondent

What do you do if you’re expecting 50 people for the baby shower you’re hosting in your home, the decorations are up, everything is almost ready for the first guests to arrive, and the Department of Children and Families calls and asks if you can take in four children, ages 1 and a half to 6 for the next 24-plus hours?

If you’re Marianne Brouillette of Townsend, you say, “Yes.”

For Brouillette (pronounced Bree-yet) and her husband Rob, calls like that are a regular occurrence, even in the wee hours of the morning. Foster parents for the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) for the past six years, the Brouillettes have learned to be ready at a moment’s notice for when a child is in need of a home. It’s been a six busy years, with over 30 foster children passing through their doors, some just for the night, some for much longer.

The Brouillettes certainly aren’t lacking in experience, with three children of their own: Bobby, now 22, Samantha, 20, and Christopher, 14. There’s a strong ethic of working hard, helping each other out, and making the most of what you have been given in this tightly knit, active family.

“These kids know they’re lucky to have all the things that they have, that there are others with so much less,” Brouillette points out.

It all began when they started opening their home during the summers for children from Russia who came to receive medical care and escape their contaminated environment. Here in the States to recuperate from the long-term effects of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear mishap, these children also get to go to baseball games, the beach, and do the things most of us take for granted. In short, they get to just be kids for a few short weeks.

How did the Brouillettes make the leap from host family for the Chernobyl Children’s Project to foster parents for children under the care and protection of the state of Massachusetts?

“My daughter,” Brouillette is quick to exclaim. “My daughter Samantha attended the Dearborn Academy for school due to her severe dyslexia. (Dearborn) serves children with special needs, including kids with behavioral issues, a lot of whom were in foster care. I got to meet the kids there, some of whom were friends of Samantha. With the Chernobyl Children’s Project, I was used to taking in kids from Russia and other countries and realized there’s a need here.”

“So I picked up a pamphlet [on foster care] and put it on the counter, saying, ‘If it’s still here 48 hours from now, then I’ll know we can talk about doing this.'”

Her husband Rob, who after 26 years of marriage knows his wife well, jokingly said, “Does it really matter?” 48 hours or not, he knew she was determined to do what she could to help. And while Rob might have been a star football player growing up, Marianne is clearly the quarterback on this play.

The whole endeavor is a family team effort. Brouillette emphasizes the importance of everyone being involved in the decision to do foster care. “The whole family has to be on board.”

Part of the family

“When a child enters our home, that child becomes a part of the family,” said Marianne. “If we go away [for a trip or vacation], they come with us. It gets a little hard for family because when we’re invited to a barbecue or a family gathering, they never know how many kids we’ll show up with.”

Rob and Marianne’s extended family, brothers and sisters and parents alike, “are extremely accepting of these kids. At Christmas, our foster kids get gifts from the whole family,” she said.

While the Brouillettes welcome each foster child as a member of their family, at times there may be some difficulty adjusting to a particular foster child in the home. “If after eight or nine months, it’s not working for my children, if they’re feeling uncomfortable or unsafe, these kids have to be moved. The family has to come first,” she said.

All in all, Brouillette believes fostering has been a positive life experience for their own brood. “Our children are very flexible, they’re very accepting,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong, they’re regular kids and can drive you up the wall if they try, but I am very proud of them and who they are.”

Reaching out

In addition to raising her own children and caring for her foster kids, Brouillette works as the Outreach Coordinator for the Ayer Council on Aging, doing everything from teaching classes to the elderly on using computers, doing home visits, organizing monthly breakfasts, and helping elders obtain food stamps and fuel assistance.

“I love my work,” she says. “They are extremely supportive of my foster parenting, not only the people I work with but the people I work for.” If a child is placed in their home during the night on an emergency basis, Brouillette may show up to work the next morning with two or three kids in tow until the DCF social worker arrives to take them to a more permanent placement. “Everyone is really welcoming. They’ll see the kids and say, ‘Oh, you’re with Marianne.'”

Then there’s Rob, the other half of this dynamic duo. Quiet but imposing, when Rob speaks, people listen. His job at the Massachusetts Department of Correction offers a similarly supportive work environment. Employees fostering children can take up to 10 days off for care related to that child, for example, for court dates (there are many), case reviews with DCF (these are routinely scheduled), or the myriad details they agree to take on when they become foster parents.

According to Marianne, that time off makes the first few days and weeks that much less stressful, as there are many things they become responsible for when a child comes into their care. They have to enroll them in school, make sure they’re up to date with routine physical and dental care, even make sure they have clothes, shoes and other necessities.

“Some of these kids haven’t been to the doctor or dentist in a long time,” said Marianne, “so there’s a lot of things to do in the first few weeks. I don’t want to say it’s easier or simpler [to have supportive employers], but with all that support we can accomplish what we want for the kids.”

Back to the baby shower…

So what happened when Brouillette agreed to take four siblings right as the baby shower for her first grandchild was about to begin?

“Don’t worry about it,” her husband said. “I’ll take care of the kids while you hold the shower.”

As if things couldn’t get any more stressful, Marianne began to feel the ill effects of a new prescription she just started. She rushed upstairs, battling the bad reaction to the meds and ending up violently ill just as guests, DCF, and the four children arrived. There was no extra clothing for the children, no diapers for the eighteen-month-old and only one of the children arrived wearing shoes.

Marianne’s husband, kids, and friends swooshed Marianne back upstairs, promising to take care of everything while Marianne collapsed into bed.

She awoke a few hours later, feeling somewhat better. The baby shower was over, the guests had all gone home. The house had been cleaned up after the party.

Marianne wandered through the quiet house, eventually finding her family and the children outside playing in the back yard. The four siblings were all freshly bathed, dressed in new clothes, and all had new shoes.

“My next door neighbor and her mom had gone out to buy everything: wipes, diapers, clothing. Another neighbor took the kids one by one and gave them a bath and got them dressed. Everybody took care of everything.”

In a busy world with so many heartbreaks and challenges, Brouillette is clearly appreciative of the kindness and willingness of others to help in time of need.

“If I didn’t have the community I live in, my family, my work, my husband’s work, if they weren’t as wonderful as they are, I couldn’t do this,” Brouillette said.

You might say that it’s true, and as this family can attest, it really does take a village to raise a child.