Safe haven on Longfellow: Dot woman named state's best foster parent

Since 1990, Juana Rodriguez has taken into her own home- and been a foster mom to- 75 children. She has cared for some of the most troubled children and young adults in the Department of Social Services's (DSS) Boston region, and turned many of them around into better students and successful adults. She has even had one young woman give birth to a child right on the couch in her Longfellow Street living room.

Through it all, she has opened her heart to the children sent to her home, and now she has been recognized by Governor Deval Patrick and DSS as the Foster Parent of the Year.

"[I do it] to open my house to these children and to give them my love," Rodriguez says in Spanish as her daughter Judy Rodriguez translates. "I have loved them and I have been loved."

Rodriguez came to Boston from her native Dominican Republic after a short stay in New York, where she met her husband. She raised three children of her own, all while taking in up to four foster kids at a time. Right now she has four children with her: two brothers, Willie, age 12, and Cornelius, 14, and two sisters, Yahaira, 17, and Noemi, 14.

Judy Rodriguez said that as soon as Yahaira showed up she felt like she had found someplace she could be happy.

"I can tell you that she got here and was immediately like 'this is home, they can try the best they can but they aren't going to take me out of here'" recalls Judy, who, after growing up around foster kids, has now decided to become a foster parent as well, adding to her own family of four children. "It's a family tradition now. Hopefully my kids will grow up to do the same."

Rodriguez is very proud of the fact that her daughter took up the legacy, but she says that she only hopes she can provide a sanctuary for kids that have a rough life.

"I give them a place to live, a way to finish studying, and protection. I make sure nothing bad happens to them," she explains of her work. "Education is most important because that's their future for tomorrow, their way to become something."

The rules in the Rodriguez house include a 6:30 p.m. curfew during the school year &endash; though they must first come home right after school and then can go out. The kids can get an extra two hours on the weekend. They must hold up a good report card, mostly A's and B's, though C's can be accepted under the right conditions. And they must be respectful.

The workers at DSS love Rodriguez because she always takes the kids that have been trouble for others, even if she doesn't technically have the space. Her family resource worker, Melissa Delay, said that DSS thought they would have to split up Willie and Cornelius before Rodriguez agreed to take them both in.

"She has taken into her home some of the department's most behaviorally challenged children and done well," says Delay. "I have worked with her for several years she is a great foster parent, very nurturing and caring, and overall I think she is a fantastic human being."

It was Delay who nominated Rodriguez for the award she received from the Governor in May, saying that she "is the epitome of being a foster parent."

Rodriguez has had so many foster kids come into her house she cannot even keep them all straight, but some of them have stood out either for the relationships they developed or the incidents that happened while they were there.

There was Marissa, who cried when she had to leave the house and tried her best to resist leaving. Angel, a great student who was there an entire ten years, also stands out in her mind. And Julie, who was very pretty but a little forgetful when she first arrived, though she left as a very good student, as Rodriguez remembers it. But there have been many more in her 17 years of service to the state's social services, and many of them still keep in touch.

"They call her all the time, and they all come stop by," says Judy of her mother's former foster kids.

And it has been relationships like those that have made it a cherished 17 years for Rodriguez, who says their progress is what makes it all worth it.

"I know that I am doing the right thing when they can have responsibility," she says, and now that she has been honored on a high profile stage, she is very honored. "It feels good that they have recognized the work I do, and appreciate the things I do."

But just because she has been honored doesn't mean she has any intentions of stopping the work she does. In fact, Rodriguez has no plans to stop as long as she is able to do it.

"As long as I have this house and my health and as long as God is willing I will keep taking children into my home."