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Jewish World Review August 24, 2001 / 5 Elul, 5761

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

In Nebraska, 1,350 boxes of clothes and toys -- WHAT you have done to lift the spirits of the central Nebraska children about whom we have been reporting is, according to a state official, without precedent.

"It's wonderful," said Kathie Osterman, spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. "We have never seen anything like this before. We've never had an outpouring like this."

Osterman was referring to what has been going on in recent days with the children in Hall County, Neb., who, according to police, were tortured by the people they were supposed to trust as parents.

Jamie G. Henry, 24, has pleaded no contest to two charges alleging he used an electrified cattle prod to discipline his 8-year-old stepson and his 5-year-old daughter; in exchange for the plea, Hall County prosecutors agreed to drop six other felony counts in which Henry was charged with beating and tying up the children.

Robert G. Burkhardt Jr., 32, and his girlfriend, Brenda West, 27, are awaiting trial on charges of cruelly punishing West's 6-year-old son. According to prosecutors, the child had cigarette burns on his back, bruising on his upper buttocks, and remnants on his ankles from where Burkhardt had allegedly bound them together. The boy and his 4-year-old sister, according to children's protective worker Carrie Sheldon, had never been taken to a dentist; their teeth "had been rotted down to the nubs of their gums." The boy had to have 12 of his teeth surgically removed; the girl had to have 5 teeth removed.

We are reporting on these cases and following them through the courts not because they happen only in this one Nebraska county -- but because the torture and forced confinement of children is becoming so almost routine in the U.S. that crimes like these are not considered exceptional news. The ultimate ramifications for all of us -- the children who are tortured, and the citizens who let it go on -- are troubling almost beyond words.

In our reporting we mentioned that the children -- three Henry children, three Burkhardt children -- had been placed in state-ordered foster care while their accused torturers were released to walk free in the community, with no bail requirements. The children had nothing -- they had lived in filth and in tatters, and had virtually no toys or learning materials. We printed their clothing sizes, and an address where donations could be sent.

So far, according to Kathie Osterman, more than 1,350 boxes have been delivered to Hall County. Clothing, toys, shoes, coloring books, crayons, dolls, books and school supplies have been sent to the children.

The boxes of gifts, Osterman said, have been sent by readers of these reports in Illinois, Nebraska, Indiana, New York, Minnesota, Michigan, North Carolina, Vermont, Wisconsin, Maryland, Montana, Arizona, California, Texas, West Virginia, Nevada, Ohio, Arkansas, New Jersey, Kentucky, Iowa and Saudi Arabia.

That is an incomplete list; the packages are arriving in such numbers that senior-citizen volunteers at the Grand Generation Center in Grand Island, Neb., are devoting their days to opening them. After the first weekend, a pickup truck full of clothes and toys was delivered to each of the six children.

"They are excited and happy to have these things," Osterman said. "They're not at the age yet where they can fully understand the depth of the feelings of the people who have sent these gifts to them. But I think they know the clothes and toys mean that there are a lot of people they have never met who care about them."

A fund has been set up for the children's future needs; we have emphasized to officials that the people accused of torturing the children must never have any access to the fund -- it must be administered for the good of the children. Checks for the Hall County Children's Fund may be sent in care of Carrie Sheldon, Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, 205 W. First St., Grand Island, NE 68801.

With all the donations coming in, we have suggested to Nebraska officials that overflow clothes and toys be given to other abused and neglected boys and girls whose stories have not been written about. Sadly, there is no shortage of those children.

As heartening in the short term as this outpouring may be for the children, the fact is that one of these days the gifts will be gone. And the news about how the Henry and Burkhardt children are doing -- and what may await them next -- is not anywhere near as happy as the news about your generosity toward them. On Monday, we will report.

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

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