OGDEN — Just when they thought they had settled into their seats for a presentation by three adult siblings who had been in the Missouri foster care system, Lacy Kendrick Burk tells the adults in the room to collect their belongings and sit down next to a stranger.
"You’re just changing a seat for 30 minutes. Think about that for a whole life," Kendrick Burk said, speaking Thursday at the 11th annual Youth Summit at Weber State University.
The two-day event, sponsored by the Utah Division of Child and Family Services, brought together some 250 youth in foster care and about 15 foster care "alumni" for workshops on self-advocacy, sibling relationships, as well as social activities. Last year, more 4,000 Utah children received foster care services.
Kendrick Burk, her siblings Sunnie Burk and Kolt Kendrick, spoke on the importance of maintaining their relationships, particularly after they and their other siblings entered the child welfare system.
Recently, the three siblings and their brother and sister spent a few days together at Sunnie Burk's tiny studio apartment in Florida.
"We played get-to-know-you games. It kind of sounds dumb because were brothers and sisters, right?" Lacy said.
With the exception of Lacy and Sunnie, who have the same adoptive family, the siblings grew up separately. Kolt was placed with an aunt, uncle and cousins.
Another of their siblings had nine foster care placements. She is no longer close to her siblings.
There are 10 children among the siblings' biological family, adoptive family and step-parents.
"I tried to do a family one time and it was really hard," Lacy said.
When the Kendrick children get together, much of the time is spent filling in the gaps of one another's memories of their childhood, whether it was Sunnie and Kolt playing in the woods of the rural Missouri hometown or the night that they were removed from their home after enduring abuse and neglect at the hands of their parents, both of whom are addicts, the siblings said.
"Even though it’s the same situation, we all have different pieces of the truth," Lacy said.
Dealing with memories
For Sunnie, that night was a blur of flashing lights and being pushed into the back of their grandmother's van.
Initially, the children stayed with their grandparents, but their grandfather was undergoing cancer treatment.
"He was quite a man," she said, explaining that despite his declining health, he made sure the children got to school on time each day and that they had a ride home.
"He pushed it out for us so we could finish the school year," Sunnie said.
But the arrangement didn't last and the children were placed in various foster homes.
While the children still lived at home, Lacy, the eldest, had assumed a parental role. She cooked. She cleaned. She did the laundry. At the age of 13, she was driving her siblings to the school bus stop and other places they needed to go because their parents were intoxicated or not around when the children needed them.
When her siblings went into foster care, she constantly called her caseworker, attempting to find out how her siblings were doing.
At times, caseworkers brought them together for joint visits with their mother, but frequently she didn't show up and the visits ended before they could start.
Knowing now how important sibling relationships are, Lacy has wondered why the siblings weren't allowed to have their own visits.
Lacy, who is now the executive director of a nonprofit organization that advocates for the mental health needs of children, said some states have laws that require child welfare authorities to provide contact information to children in foster care if one of their siblings move.
She encouraged Utah foster children, through their Youth Council, to lobby for similar legislation.
Aside from that, many siblings in foster care use social media networks to keep in touch.
"They group message or constantly have a group thread going," Lacy said. "I have a friend that will wake up to 27 messages."
Even though the Kendrick children make a concerted effort to stay in touch, attend family reunions and take sibling vacations, delving into their shared history and their respective lives has been an ongoing process.
Kolt uses music to help cope with his chaotic childhood. He entered foster care at age 10, initially living in foster home with Sunnie. The children begged to move because their caregiver "was a really weird lady that wouldn't do anything but sit there all day," he said.
He and Sunnie were given a full load of chores, and if they threw any food in the garbage, they were told to take it out of the can and eat it because they could not waste food.
It is unclear to the siblings why the girls were eventually placed together and Kolt went to a kinship placement.
Foster children typically aren't given a lot of information so they've all grown up with unanswered questions about their lives. It's taken them years to talk freely, even among themselves, about what transpired, they said.
"For the longest time I wouldn’t talk to anyone about anything. It just came out in song," Kolt said, playing guitar and singing original songs for the youth and adults attending the conference.
Over the years, the siblings have become better connected. Now in their 20s, the brothers and sisters learn new things about one another all the time. But they are also struck by the similarities in their appearance and, for some, a shared sense of humor.
"All of us," Lacy said, "are stubborn beyond belief."