Tammy Cutchen with five of her 14 children.
Chaotic, crazy, and happy: That's how Tammy Cutchen describes her household in Brunswick. She's got 14 kids. "I no longer know what normal is," she laughs. "You know, I have no perception of that anymore."
Four kids are biological. Six are adopted, and another four are foster. They range from age 7 to 27. And this morning she's taking a few to the dentist - though others would like to tag along.
Child one: "Can I go?"
Tammy Cutchen: "No. You're staying home with Ambi, okay?"
Child two: "Mom - can I go with you?"
Tammy Cutchen: "I'll be back - will you be all set?"
Cutchen always wanted to provide a home to foster children after getting a degree in special education. But she and her husband wound up adopting foster children when the kids couldn't reunify with their families.
Many have special needs, including nine-year-old Wahid (above right, with Cutchen and Gracie) who Cutchen is imploring to get ready to leave. "Wahid, I've asked you to get on your slippers and come in the kitchen," she says. "We need to go get your teeth brushed and you need to take your pills."
Cutchen says Wahid has brain damage from prenatal exposure to drugs. He has PTSD from early childhood, as well anger, impulsivity, and other issues - even a disorder called Pica, which makes him want to eat non-food items. "So you're constantly vigilant," Cutchen says, "and that's hard to sustain."
But Cutchen says she does have a life saver: the Family Respite Program. It provides a worker 16 hours a month to help with Wahid.
"I mean, it's a crucial part of being able to do what I do," she says. "It allows me to spend time with individual children. It allows me to have down time, some time of my own to sort of recharge myself. Occasionally, my husband and I actually go out somewhere and remember that we're married."
Two respite care providers help Cutchen. One takes Wahid to karate lessons every week. Another - Mary Booth - fills in when needed. "A lot of people believe that - you know, they're like, 'Oh, so a glorified baby sitter?' And I'm like, 'No,'" Booth says.
Booth, like all respite care providers, has special behavioral training to work with special needs kids and their families. She says she's careful not to take over responsibilities and leave a void when she's not around - "how to help the family be supportive without being over-supportive," she says.
The Family Respite Program gets $1.5 million in funding through the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, and it's administered by the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Maine, or NAMI. Executive Director Jenna Mehnert says the challenge is that not many people know about it.
Halfway through the fiscal year, fewer than half of the allocated 100,000 hours of service have been used, "because these are families that don't have any other point of contact with the system," Mehnert says. "It's not a child welfare program at all. In fact, kids in the child welfare system are not eligible for these services - there's a different respite program for them. So this is just every and any family out there that is raising a child with a diagnosis, or up to two or more developmental delays."
Mehnert says it's a rare program in that it provides early intervention and support, and families get to choose which respite care provider to work with to ensure a good match. She knows there are more families out there that could use help - just like Tammy Cutchen's.
Standing in the kitchen, Wahid is finally brushing his teeth. Despite the sometimes chaotic nature of her household, Cutchen says it's a happy one, and she attributes the health of the whole family, in large part, to the Respite Program.
"Those types of things are really, really important, because the well runs dry, and you've got to fill it back up and nurture yourself a little bit too, you know?" Cutchen says. "I mean, living with a child like that, the other siblings - you know, you've got to fill their wells up too, because it drains the family as a whole, and the respite is a crucial piece of that."
Jenna Mehnert of NAMI says they distribute brochures and posters about the program. Between those advertisements and word of mouth, she's hoping word will spread.
Photos: Patty Wight.