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Jewish World Review August 8, 2001 / 19 Menachem-Av, 5761

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

The heartbreak is that it is not unusual -- GRAND ISLAND, Neb. -- Sometimes it seems there is no end to this.

Jamie G. Henry, 24, pleaded no contest last week to two felony charges that stemmed from the torture of his 8-year-old stepson and 5-year-old daughter with an electrified cattle prod meant to shock 2,000-pound bulls into obedience. In exchange for the plea, Hall County prosecutors agreed to drop six other felony charges, each arising from Henry's alleged beating of the children.

Sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 24, but sheriff's officers and prosecutors have told us that a continuing investigation into other areas of the alleged abuse by Henry and his wife, Billie D. Henry, 25, may lead to new charges before that date.

Meanwhile, another appalling case of the mistreatment of children is unfolding in this same largely rural county. The heartbreaking thing about these cases is not that they are rare, or even unusual - the heartbreaking thing is that the torture and forced confinement of children is, if not routine in the United States, then at least so common that police officers and child protection workers encounter it on a regular basis. What should be shocking is instead matter of fact.

Here in Hall County, Robert G. Burkhardt Jr., 32, has been charged with cruelly punishing a 6-year-old boy. Additional charges of Burkhardt's mistreatment of a 4-year-old girl and a 20-month-old girl were dismissed by a Hall County judge.

According to court testimony at a preliminary hearing, the 6-year-old boy - the son of Burkhardt's girlfriend, Brenda West, 27 - had cigarette burns on his back and significant bruising on his upper buttocks. His ankles bore the remnants from where Burkhardt had allegedly taped them together because the child did not obey in a way that satisfied Burkhardt.

(This kind of punishment was similar to what Jamie Henry allegedly did to his 8-year-old stepson, whose wrists and arms were reportedly bound tightly by Henry, and who reportedly was locked outside of the house during winter and tied to a tree while barefoot. These alleged offenses against the child were among the charges dropped by Hall County prosecutors as part of their plea agreement with Henry.)

In Burkhardt's case, police and children's protective workers said his 4-year-old daughter had dime-size red marks on her back, and bruises on her buttocks. They said the younger girl - also his daughter - had a gash on her forehead; her hair was matted with dried juice.

What especially upset police and children's protective workers was what they saw when the two older children opened their mouths.

"Their teeth had been rotted down to the nubs of their gums," Carrie Sheldon, of the Hall County office of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, told us. "The children had never been taken to a dentist in their lives, and their teeth had just rotted away. It hurt them when they tried to eat.

"After we removed the children from the house, we took them to a dentist. He said it was the worst thing he had ever seen; he said that there was no hope other than to surgically remove the children's teeth. The children had to be put to sleep because the dental surgery was so extreme. The boy had 12 of his teeth removed; the girl had 5 teeth removed."

In Hall County Court, Burkhardt - like Jamie Henry - was required to meet no bail requirements. He was released on his own recognizance. Bail, a Hall County deputy prosecutor told us, is required only for people who are considered to be flight risks, or a danger to the community.

Sometimes it seems as if there is no end. At the Grand Island Wal-Mart, on a 99-degree afternoon, a man and woman walking near a pickup truck in the parking lot heard a child's cries.

Locked inside the hot truck was an 8-month-old girl, sobbing, pulling at her hair, and banging her head. One of the people who had noticed this went into the store and had the owner of the truck paged. No one responded to the page.

So the two people used a coat hanger to slip into a crack at the top of the truck's window and unlock it. They also called the police. The child was taken to St. Francis Medical Center for treatment.

When the owner of the truck - the girl's mother - came out of Wal-Mart, she was with her three older children. She told police she had forgotten the baby was in the truck.

Will this kind of thing ever stop? We will follow the cases of Jamie Henry and Robert Burkhardt as they work their way through the justice system - not because they are so unusual in the U.S., but, sadly, because they aren't. What are we to think of a nation in which crimes like this are not even considered important enough to be stories beyond the county line?

As for the children: If you'd be willing to help them out, in tomorrow's column we will have some suggestions on how you can do that.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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