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Jewish World Review August 27, 2001 / 8 Elul, 5761

Bob Greene

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Official version aside, they are not 'doing well' -- THE official version is that the children who were tortured in Hall County, Neb., are "doing well."

The children are in state-arranged foster care; Kathie Osterman, spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, is the official who says they are doing well.

Osterman should probably not be criticized for her characterization of the children's condition. They are alive, safe, clean and being fed regularly. That should probably be considered as doing well, compared to how they were living when they were rescued.

And Osterman and her colleagues are severely limited in what they can say about abused and neglected children. In Nebraska, it is a crime for state officials to divulge detailed information about the condition of children who have been abused and placed in state care. If officials say too much, they are subject to arrest.

Michael J. Rumbaugh, attorney for the Department of Health and Human Services, said that under Nebraska statute, if a person is found to be "permitting, assisting or encouraging" the release of certain information about how abused children are faring, that person is subject to criminal prosecution. Which places significant restraints on what the public is allowed to know about what has happened to the young victims of torture and abuse.

So in Hall County, the people accused of torturing the children walk the streets free, without a judge placing any bail requirements on them. Jamie G. Henry, 24, who pleaded no contest to charges that he tortured his 8-year-old stepson and 5-year-old daughter with an electrified cattle prod, is walking free until his Sept. 24 sentencing; Robert G. Burkhardt Jr., 32, accused of burning his girlfriend's 6-year-old son with cigarettes and tying the child's ankles together so he could not move, was required to post no bail after his arrest, either, and is free.

Yet if concerned and troubled officials, knowing the results of the mistreatment by the accused torturers, talk about the help the young victims desperately need, the officials could be arrested.

Thus, the official word: The three Henry children and the three Burkhardt children are "doing well."

We can report that at least some of those children are doing about as far from "well" as a child can possibly do.

This should come as no surprise. Children who have been subjected to the kind of mistreatment that the Henry and Burkhardt children endured often carry the aftereffects for a lifetime. And in the case of some of these children, the torture already reported is only a small part of what law-enforcement officials believe was done to them. Additional charges are expected to be filed in at least one of the cases.

We have spoken to persons with firsthand knowledge of how the children are doing in the wake of their torture. The details about some of the children -- we will not explicitly describe those details here -- are enough to make you weep. The effects on the children are perfectly understandable in light of what was reportedly done to them -- when a child has known nothing but torment and abuse, he or she begins to think that is the way of the world.

But people in Hall County who know the children, and who know how some of them are reacting after being removed from the Henry and Burkhardt homes, become almost ill when describing it. Something has been done to the very core of these children's souls -- and this is the heartbreaking result. They need -- quickly -- the best help that can be found for them.

"Doing well"?

They're alive. They are no longer being tortured. That will have to suffice.

The people accused of tormenting and confining them will, in the weeks and months ahead, move through the Hall County justice system. We will report what happens in court; already, as we have reported in these columns, there have been signs that they may be treated leniently.

Meanwhile, the children will be expected to move on with their lives.

And one of the first things they will learn -- even as they are trying to take the initial steps toward healing -- is that there is a very real chance they may be required to attempt to "reunify" with the people accused of hurting them.

We will report on that Tuesday.

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

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