Anna Osip's home is warm and welcoming, like the smell of baking bread.
It's a place of family feasts, art projects and children's growth spurts tracked in pencil on a wall. A place of coming and going, going and coming -- of her children, her children's children, and their children, too. Plus her current foster kids, a few former foster kids and, now and then, some of these kids' moms or dads who've put things right in their lives and now have them back.
Just the other day, two sisters Osip mothered for four years came for a visit and a sleepover.
"Oh my goodness, gracious. Look how tall you're getting. You look so teenagerish."
Their dad popped in to say hello, too.
Osip, 67, may live in Alaska's largest city, but her house, with all these generations and all this extended family going "in and out, in and out, in and out," as she puts it, feels more like the way houses are in a village.
This home she and her husband, Adam, provide not only keeps kids safe, but connected to their culture in ways that go unspoken, and in ways that can't be missed. It's not just the Native masks on the wall, the salmon strips on the table or the bowl of akutaq (Eskimo ice cream) in the fridge, it's also the seal-skin ball dangling by rope from the cathedral ceiling in the middle of her living room.
The two kids she's fostering now are working on their one-foot high kicks, a Native game said to once be a signal from a hunting or whaling crew to villagers in the distance that a whale has been harpooned, or that caribou are near. Sixteen-year-old Andrew Demientieff is kicking just over eight feet now, and is headed to the Arctic Winter Games in Alberta this spring.
The ball started off hanging in his room.
"That was more peaceful for us," Osip said. "But his bedroom has an eight-foot ceiling and he began to put holes in it, so we had to move it out here."
Osip's home is just the kind the state needs more of -- Native homes for Native kids.
The numbers are wildly disproportionate. Alaska Native and American Indian children represent 25 percent of the state's population between the ages of 0 and 17, yet of the roughly 2,100 children currently in state care, including those placed with relatives in unlicensed foster homes that meet certain criteria, 1,300 are Native, or 62 percent.
State and tribal agencies have been putting their heads together for years in an effort to reduce these numbers. One relatively new program is the Alaska Native Family Preservation Unit, an unprecedented partnership among the Alaska Office of Children's Services, Cook Inlet Tribal Council and the Native Village of Eklutna to provide culturally grounded intervention before things get to a breaking point.
The goal of all involved is to keep kids from ending up in the system, according to Tracy Spartz Campbell of OCS. But when home life is deemed too unsafe, OCS makes an "active effort" to place Native kids in its care with relatives or extended family members or at least within their own communities, an effort demanded by the federal Indian Child Welfare Act.
Given the skewed numbers, there just aren't enough Native homes to go around.
That's why Rep. Les Gara, once in foster care himself, initiated the push for a statewide television ad campaign to recruit Native foster parents. The Legislature approved funding of this $30,000 project, and the ads are currently airing. Although foster parenting can be a huge challenge, the campaign comes with a simple message: Help these kids stay connected or much can be lost.
Kids placed outside their culture stand to lose their identity, says James LaBelle, child welfare liaison at Cook Inlet Tribal Council.
"That's the whole reason the (Indian Child Welfare Act) was passed. We were losing Native children at alarming rates. They would be adopted out, never to be returned home.
"When you lose a child in a culture, you're losing the future of that culture."
LaBelle thinks one reason there aren't more Native foster homes is a historical distrust of the system, going back to boarding schools and beyond. And the bureaucracy has a specific idea of what a licensed foster home should look like.
"It's not only because of that historical distrust, but the bureaucracy is very culturally unfriendly," LaBelle says.
In many cases, children can be placed with relatives without licensing, as long as they pass criminal and child-protection background checks. In terms of licensing, OCS works with its tribal partners to help homes qualify, Spartz Campbell says. And there is a variance process for licensing foster homes in villages where, for instance, running water isn't even an option.
Even so, LaBelle says, "it's hard to get people to commit to that level of scrutiny."
Under the Knowles administration, the state and tribes forged an agreement to allow tribal licensing of their own foster homes. But that agreement was nullified by the Murkowski administration, and that's how it stands today.
LITTLE THINGS MATTER
The reasons so many Native kids end up in state custody are complex and infinitely painful, as Marge Nakak explains it. The loss of what once made life meaningful. Drugs and alcohol. She has much to say and feels deeply about this.
As cultural programs coordinator for the Alaska Native Heritage Center, the mother of two adopted boys, and one who fostered a 16-year-old for a short time, Nakak feels strongly that Native kids, especially those from the village, suffer when placed in non-Native homes or facilities.
There's just too much potential for misunderstanding, she says. Take, for instance, the role of silence.
"In the village, you just pop in and have some tea and strips, and you don't even have to say a word. It's a process of non-spoken language. It's a body language of expressing appreciation and acknowledgment and love of extended family and friends throughout the village."
Western culture interprets silence much differently.
" 'Why don't you talk? What's the matter?'
"They mean to be caring and comforting but at the same time it's intrusive."
And especially in Yup'ik culture, she says, it's not right for children to look adults in the eyes when they're being talked to. That would be arrogant.
"These are little tiny things," Nakak says, "but they're big to us.
"This style of behavior has been on going for thousands of years and it can't change overnight. Or even in 100 years."
PERFECTION NOT REQUIRED
Placing kids in culturally appropriate homes doesn't guarantee things will go smoothly. Osip has been taking in foster kids for about 10 years, and has had plenty of rough moments.
"I don't know how to put this so I don't hurt anybody," she said, "but I didn't know kids would come with as much baggage as they do. I've been socked, punched, sworn at. It takes a while for them to calm down and become who they are.
"I try to give them a little of their childhood back."
"It's a really tough job," says Aileen McInnis, who's worked with Osip through the Alaska Center for Resource Families. "People don't have to be saints and they don't have to be perfect to be foster parents."
Their hearts, however, have to be in the right place. Osip's is, most definitely, McInnis says.
Osip grew up in Dillingham, one of 11 children, with her fondest memories of fish camp along the Snake River. She moved to Anchorage in the 1960s, and raised seven children of her own before taking in those of others.
In most cases, fostering eventually means saying goodbye. Osip recently had to part with a 7-year-old girl who was returned to her family.
"I'm so happy for her, and I'm so happy for her parents. But at the same time I sure miss her, and I'll miss her always. She was my little girl for nine months.
"She was the dickens, boy was she."
The best part of foster parenting, Osip says, is when problems get worked out enough for kids to go home to their families.
"The kids are the heroes. Some of the things they've gone through, and some of the things that have happened to them...
"It's just amazing that some of these kids can bounce back the way they do. They must be made of super epoxy."
By DEBRA McKINNEY