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Jewish World Review August 28, 2001 / 9 Elul, 5761

Bob Greene

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Will they be sent back to the torment?


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- ONCE the current concern and compassion for the children who were tortured in Hall County, in central Nebraska, fades away, what will become of those children?

The requirements of Nebraska law present a chilling possibility. Here is how it was explained to us by Michael J. Rumbaugh, attorney for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services:

When children are removed from their familes' homes, Rumbaugh said, under Nebraska law "the first order of business is to explore reunification potential."

The law, Rumbaugh said, mandates that "We must make reasonable efforts to preserve families, and to reunify children with their families."

But that can't be the case with the Henry and Burkhardt children, can it? Children who have been through what they have -- there is no legal mandate to make them go back to the people accused of hurting them, is there?

Two of the Henry children, as we have been reporting, are alleged to have been tortured with an electrified cattle prod by Jamie G. Henry, 24. The 6-year-old Burkhardt boy is alleged to have been burned with cigarettes and tied at the ankles by Robert G. Burkhardt Jr., 32. In the home that Burkhardt shared with his girlfriend, Brenda West, the children's teeth were reportedly allowed to rot down to the gumline. After the children were rescued, according to officials, the 6-year-old boy had to have 12 teeth surgically removed; the 4-year-old girl had to have five teeth surgically removed.

At one point, officials said, the Burkhardt children were found begging at neighbors' houses for food, cigarettes and beer.

There are three Henry children and three Burkhardt children; they are in foster homes, trying to heal.

Is there really a way they might eventually be sent back to the homes where this was alleged to have been done to them?

Hall County Sheriff's Lt. Jim Castleberry, lead investigator in the Henry case, told us:

"Stranger things have happened."

Government attorney Rumbaugh said there are provisions in state law that, on the surface, might protect the children from being sent back to their alleged tormentors. There are exceptions in the law -- circumstances that allow the state of Nebraska not to be forced to "reunify" certain families.

One of those exceptions is -- this is the word in the statute -- "torture."

So you would think these children might be able to breathe easy, and move on with their lives. Especially in the Henry case: Jamie Henry has pleaded no contest to two counts involving the cattle prod. There's the torture. Right?

It might not be enough to protect the Henry children. Their alleged torture took place in the home Jamie Henry shared with his wife, Billie D. Henry.

Prosecutors originally brought criminal charges against Mrs. Henry as well as Mr. Henry. Billie Henry reportedly handed the cattle prod to her husband before he threatened the children with it -- and sheriff's deputies said she lied about having removed it from the house, when in fact it was hidden under a pile of clothes.

But Hall County Judge David Bush dismissed all charges against Billie Henry before she had to stand trial. Mrs. Henry, the judge reasoned, was not in the room where the children were tortured with the prod -- she had handed it to Jamie Henry before he went into the room. Thus, she was not aiding or abetting in the torture.

So even if the courts are rigid with Jamie Henry, Billie Henry is in the position, under Nebraska law, to bring those children right back into her home. In fact, the law would seem to all but require that an effort be made to do just that.

What are the current plans for what will happen to the Henry and Burkhardt children?

Kathie Osterman, spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, said: "I don't know what the [specific] plans are."

The children almost certainly don't know, either. They wait to learn what their futures hold -- while the people accused of hurting them walk free in central Nebraska. Jamie Henry, Robert Burkhardt Jr. and Brenda West are out on the street, having been required to post no bail after their arrests; Billie Henry is also out on the street, no longer charged with any crimes.

We will report more on Wednesday.



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

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