National Edition

When the growing gets tough: Why some kids emerge resilient and intact against chaotic backgrounds

By Lois M. Collins and Marjorie Cortez

Deseret News

Published: Friday, Feb. 14 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

Arvie Burgos, 17, is on track to graduate from East Hollywood High charter school despite growing up with drug-addicted mother and absent father. Photo taken at East Hollywood High School in West Valley, Utah, on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Arvie Burgos would be hard-pressed to pinpoint the moment his family fell apart. He thinks it was probably always broken, the result of his mother’s drug addictions and his father’s perpetual absence.

As he tells the story, he’s sitting in a small cafe near his West Valley City, Utah, home, sipping a beverage, trying to assemble the facts of his chaotic life into something concise and easy to tell.

He lived first with his grandmother, whom he adored, while his mother wrestled with addictions and mental health issues. He met his father just once, though he’s had some phone and mail contact.

Later his mother moved in with them and the two women clashed constantly. By age 12, Burgos struggled with temper, depression and truancy. In juvenile court for those issues, he asked to be removed from home. “They were always yelling. I needed a break from the chaos,” he recalled.

Now 17, he’s a veteran of change, disappointment, loss — and hard-won triumph, too.

It’s a story that bears both similarities and differences to that of Lacy Kendrick Burk, born a generation before Burgos in a different geographic region of the country. She, too, had a childhood that would stop most people cold.

Kendrick Burk grew up in rural Missouri in a series of households that featured an array of “parents.” The biological version divorced when she was 6, replaced by various combinations of one parent and step-parent or partner.

She’s known hunger, deprivation and neglect.

Before entering foster care at 15, Kendrick Burk was largely responsible for the emotional and physical well-being of her siblings. Her drug-addicted father's second marriage had ended and he had moved on to a live-in girlfriend. Her mother drifted in and out of the picture.

"They were not parenting. That's when I had to take over," she said. At age 13, she took charge of the household, even driving her siblings to school and appointments.

Child welfare experts, from teachers to developmental specialists, have long debated what factors enable some children to rise above seemingly impossible circumstances and flourish while others flounder. Nowhere is the lack of stability or the failure of parents more evident than in the American child welfare system, where kids suffering from the most severe parental lapses end up. That makes it a good place to explore what makes some children, like Burgos and Kendrick Burk, so resilient.

Daunting challenges

Children face all kinds of disruptions and transitions over which they have little control, from families that divorce or never form to the crisis of drugs and alcohol or abuse. Family instabilities create degrees of chaos, from merely inconvenient to life-altering. While the effects are hard to quantify, the data do give hints about different types of common situations.

For example, 64 percent of children under age 17 lived with two married parents in 2012, down from 77 percent in 1980. Fewer adults today marry or, if they do, it is later in life. Census figures say that of children who live with two parents, most live with their biological parents, but 10 percent live with a biological parent and a step-parent. Nearly a quarter of children live only with their mothers while 5 percent live only with their fathers.

An estimated 1.7 million minor children, about 2.3 percent of the nation’s under-18 population, have a parent in prison. More than half of state inmates and 63 percent of federal inmates have minor children.

Meanwhile, more than 400,000 children are in the nation’s foster care system, another 93,000 in a juvenile detention facility. One-fifth of adolescents have a diagnosable mental health disorder.

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