Photo: DHHS.

From the Department of Health and Human Services:

Teenager adopted just before 18th birthday: ‘I just felt at home’

Walking into the Bieniek’s house in Fortuna, the smell of a home-cooked dinner permeates the air. From the front door there is a clear view through the living room and into the kitchen where three sisters are cracking eggs, cutting vegetables and mixing pancake batter. Amid the banter, 17-year-old Katelynn stops and hugs her dad Chris.

As an infant, Katelynn was removed from her home. What followed were years of moving between family and foster placements. And then, two years ago, she was placed with Chris and his wife, Alicia. “She had no one left on the planet who loved her,” Chris said. Katelynn said from the beginning she knew she wanted them to adopt her.

Humboldt County Department of Health & Human Services Adoptions Specialist Nicola Wilson said she had discussions with Katelynn over several months to make sure this was what she wanted. “She told me, ‘For someone to say they want me and really mean it — I am going to take that.’ The feeling for her was her whole life she’s always wanted a family. She feels complete acceptance.”

On April 13, exactly one month before her 18th birthday, Katelynn’s adoption was finalized. “They were kind and loving, and I just felt at home,” she said.

Having just come from a job interview at a nearby fast food restaurant, the high school senior is giddy. She’s graduating soon and after taking a semester-long break she plans to enroll at College of the Redwoods next year. And finally, Katelynn feels like she has certainty. “Even if I mess up, they’re here for me,” she said.

“She’ll always have a place to call home,” said Chris. “No matter what is going on in her life she can always come home. There’s nothing she can possibly do that could take that away.”

The house is full with Katelynn, two teenage boys and next month, the Bienieks will start the adoption process with 11-year-old Tait and 14-year-old Issy who have been with them for the past three years. Currently Chris and Alicia are their legal guardians.

The couple has always taken in children who needed them. When her boys were young, Alicia said Chris adopted them. Twelve years ago, the Bienieks became licensed foster parents. Since then they have adopted two children together.

“As a foster parent, adoption just comes naturally,” Chris said.
“I’m just naturally a mom,” Alicia said, and Chris nods his head in agreement.

While they have occasionally fostered young children, the couple says they focus their energy on older children and teenagers, inspired years ago when Alicia met regularly with residents at juvenile hall to talk about her faith. The couple said they visited one teenager who had been in the system since the age of 9. He was being released soon. “He had no solid place to go when he left,” she said, adding that he was distraught about it.

Shortly after the teenager was released, he was killed. Chris started to tear up as he talked about it. “We saw a real need there,” he said, adding that maybe if the boy had been with them things would have ended differently.

“We could have been the difference. We all have greatness inside. We all have the potential to rise up and be great.” But, he said, unfortunately there are often circumstances and situations that prevent people from reaching that potential.

“You have these kids who have gone through unimaginably terrible things,” Chris said. “You have these kids who have been traumatized, abandoned and neglected.”

Chris said when children come into their care they tell them, “I believe in you. You can do it. You can be a success. You’re beautiful. You can trust me because I’m not going to hurt you.

“Those are simple parenting techniques,” he said. “It doesn’t take a groundswell to save these kids.”

“All you have to do is love them,” Alicia said, adding that some of the children have never had that experience.

Alicia also takes time to teach them responsibility and real world skills like how to cook, stay safe and not let others take advantage of them.
For Alicia, who used to teach classes on discipline and trauma to new foster parents, having a deeper understanding of why a child or teenager is acting out is important so that the foster parent can respond and not react.

She said some foster parents feel like the children in their care should be appreciative of what they are providing and take it personally when children act out.

“This kid has lost everything,” Alicia said. “What do they have to be grateful for? When they’re yelling or cussing, that has nothing to do with you.

“For me fostering teens is easier,” she said, adding that being able to stay in contact with the children who have gone through their home is very important to her. “We stay connected with these guys. They know they can come back. It doesn’t matter if they have our name or don’t. No matter how old you are you have to feel like you belong.”

There are many children and teens in Humboldt County looking for a place to call home. For more information about how to become a foster parent, call the Foster Parent Hotline at 707-499-3410.