Jewish World Review Sept. 10, 2001 / 21 Elul, 5761
of a child's spirit
That's not why I had gone there. My trip to Nebraska was to do reporting and research for a new book I'm working on, about one of the most inspiring and uplifting stories I've ever encountered. I told myself that during my time in Nebraska, I was going to concentrate fully on that research, and not pull away to do any newspaper reporting at all.
That lasted for about three hours. I had flown to Omaha, and was on the highway halfway to the distant town I was intending to visit, in the western part of the state. I stopped for lunch at a sandwich shop in Hall County, in the city of Grand Island.
That is where I heard people talking about the case of a man who had been arrested for allegedly torturing his 8-year-old stepson and 5-year-old daughter with an electrified cattle prod. It was news to me; it was difficult for me to comprehend that such a terrible act of cruelty to children apparently had not been considered a story beyond the county line.
So that is how these weeks of reports from Nebraska began. I have tried to emphasize: The purpose of these reports has not been to single out Nebraska as the only place these crimes against children occur. The purpose has been to show that if you can find this kind of torture and cruelty here, in the quiet middle of the country, you can find it anywhere.
And the lesson in these reports, I hope, is that if we continue to treat these crimes as no big deal - as paltry incidents, to be nodded at and quickly forgotten - then we are doing a profound disservice not just to the children who are being tortured, but to ourselves, as a nation and as a people.
Something is very wrong when, in a matter of days in a sparsely populated state like Nebraska, you can find the case of Jamie G. Henry, arrested for the alleged torture of the children with the cattle prod; the case of Robert G. Burkhardt Jr., arrested in connection with the alleged binding with tape of his girlfriend's 6-year-old son, and the reported burning of the child's back with lighted cigarettes; the case of Harold J. Trotter, his manslaughter conviction thrown out by the Nebraska Supreme Court although testimony had shown that Trotter held the face and arms of his girlfriend's 15-month-old son against the metal grate of a wall-mounted heater that reached temperatures of up to 180 degrees; the case of the 6-year-old son of double murderer Kimberly Faust, facing court-ordered sleepovers in a state prison at the request of Faust, who had stabbed and burned one victim, and shot to death a man who tried to rescue the bleeding and burning woman; the case of Sean Von Eric Marshall, arrested after allegedly forcing his 7-year-old son to touch a dead body as punishment, dragging the child by a rope down a gravel road to the gravesite of the child's cousin, tying the child to a chair by his hands and feet for two weeks, and taping the child's mouth shut so he could not try to chew through his ropes. . . .
Something is very wrong when, in one state, you can quickly find all of that. But it is not just in Nebraska, of course. It was in Wisconsin where the case of the 7-year-old daughter of Michael and Angeline Rogers being forced to live in a basement dog cage took place; it was in Indiana where the case of the 6-year-old son of Joseph Grad being caged, chained and urinated upon in a tiny bathroom broom closet took place; it was in Ohio where the early release from prison of the killers of 3-year-old P.J. Bourgeois took place. No big deal. These crimes happen all the time, all over the place, and they seem like no big deal.
They are treated as no big deal because the children have no spokesmen, no lobbyists, no press secretaries or public relations people. They're not politicians; they're not movie stars; they're not business leaders. They are little boys and girls who are tortured and tormented and forced into confinement, and if we don't find them and report their stories, they can't find us. They can't complain. Their voices will never be heard.
It reaches everywhere. I hadn't intended to write a single newspaper story while I was in Nebraska; I wanted to work on something much more pleasant. Yet the last of these stories I have been reporting started in the parking lot of the Wal-Mart across the street from the Quality Inn in Lincoln County where I was staying. The stories are so common that they can be that easy to find. Right across the street.
Until and unless we vow never to allow these stories to be no big deal, then we are in danger of being lost. It always, for me, comes back to a thought best expressed in a quotation attributed to the late author Erik H. Erikson:
"Someday maybe there will exist a well informed, well considered and yet fervent public conviction that the most deadly of all possible sins is the mutilation of a child's spirit."
Until then, this will always be with us. Inside the county line, no matter the name
of the county where your travels take