ANCHORAGE – According to the Office of Children’s Services (OCS), there’s an unprecedented need for foster families in Alaska.
Five hundred more children need out-of-home-care than this time last year. Statewide that’s 2,800 kids, and there are only about 1,400 licensed foster care homes in Alaska.
“It’s a lot of pressure because you can’t close your doors,” said Tandra Donahue, a foster care licensing manager with OCS. “Every family deserves to be served and every child deserves to have a safe place to stay.”
Donahue said the number one priority is reuniting kids with their birth parents. When that’s not an option, staff count on foster families they hope will become forever families.
That’s exactly what happened to Darrell and Katrina Berntsen.
The couple first opened their home a decade ago. Darrell was working as an elementary school teacher and one of his students needed a home over the holidays.
The couple now has four biological sons: Caleb, 15, Tristan, 12, Talan, 9 and Brody, 6. Their two daughters, Cara, 4, and Brooklyn, 2, were foster children they adopted. They’re also currently caring for a six-month-old they hope to adopt as well.
“We both come from large families. My wife had eight siblings; I had five. It’s a great opportunity for us to give back. If we have room, we’ll take kids in,” Darrell said.
As a foster family they’ve taken in almost a dozen kids, all of whom ended up going back to their biological parents or were adopted by different families.
The Berntsen’s kids have always grown up with foster children in the house. Katrina said it’s difficult when foster kids leave.
“But it can’t harm you or them to give them love,” she smiled.
OCS said something that makes the Berntsens unique is that they’re Alaska Native. Darrell is Aleut from Old Harbor on Kodiak Island.
There’s a large disparity between the number of Alaska Native kids in the system — 60-percent — and the number of Alaska Native foster care homes.
The goal is to keep kids connected to their culture.
The Berntsen’s girls are part Yupik, and the baby they’re fostering is Yup’ik Eskimo.
“I’d love to have my kids grow up in the village,” Darrell said. “Since we can’t grow up in the village we bring the village to them. They learn about hunting, fishing and pride in their heritage.”
Katrina said the family is looking for a larger house to make sure their door is always open for children in need.
“I think there’s always that desire to help more and take in more, so I don’t think we would stop,” she laughed.