The Life and Career of Randy Burton: Founder and President, Justice for Children, Houston, TX

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Burton founded JFC, a national nonprofit organization headquartered in Houston, TX, in 1987 in order to open people's eyes to the problems with the way the government was dealing with abused and neglected children. Since then, the organization has expanded to include offices in Arizona, Michigan, and Washington, DC.

"My first job as a lawyer was with the D.A.'s office here in Houston, and I worked my way up to the Chief Prosecutor of Family Offenses," he said. "It was during that experience that I saw something that really disturbed me, and that is that the system that's designed to protect children is failing that task horribly."

Burton's very first case for the D.A.'s office involved a little girl who had been raped by her stepfather for four years; and when she reported the abuse to her school nurse, the nurse contacted Child Protective Services (CPS). However, CPS told the nurse to go ahead and send the child home with her stepfather and said it would conduct an interview the following week. The nurse, not supporting this course of action, took it upon herself to bring in officials, who removed the girl from the home and put her into protective custody.

Burton, who began working on the case after it had been in the system for a couple years, was dismayed one day upon arriving to question his client to discover that the little girl had recanted her testimony and been released to her stepfather.

"This poor child was learning disabled—something that's not all that uncommon in these situations, because this is her stepfather and people tend to take advantage of children that it's more difficult for them to outcry—and there was a beautifully written letter in the D.A.'s file using terms of legal art and so forth, where she had recanted her testimony," he said.

"I believe that it was something that her stepfather's lawyer put her up to and helped her write, and I didn't believe it. It not only flew in the face of all the evidence, but there's a very well accepted theory called the child abuse accommodation syndrome, where children recant because of all the tremendous pressure they're under from family and others to not go through with this for lots of bad reasons like, in this case, the mother didn't want to lose the income string from her husband, who was not the father of the child."

As soon as Burton realized what had happened, JFC issued a warrant and had her picked up.

"She broke down on the stand the next day and tearfully disclosed what had happened to her, and her stepfather went to prison for a lengthy term; but that experience was so outrageous," he said. "I asked the nurses if they'd ever had any other experiences like that, and they said this is the rule, not the exception."

Burton said one of the major challenges he faces is "overcoming bureaucratic inertia with the various governmental agencies" and "overcoming bias and ineptitude concerning child abuse."

"A lot of lawyers, prosecutors, people in the family court, and judges really do not understand the dynamics that are involved with child abuse," he said. "They don't understand the problems with child witnesses. They don't understand why children recant. They don't understand how all the dynamics work, and they don't want to believe—I think a lot of people in the general public don't, a lot of lay people—that a parent or someone in a position of trust with a child would take advantage of that for their own selfish interests."

It was after the death of Jesse Wheeler in 1987 that Burton vowed to create an organization that would do all it could to protect the nation's children. Wheeler, who was two years old at the time of his death, was murdered shortly after being taken out of protective custody and put back into his mother's home.

"CPS had a lengthy history on the family, and he was kind of the poster child for how the system was failing to protect children," Burton said. "So, I called the community together and wrote an op-ed and said, 'Let's formulate some kind of grassroots response.' When the system fails children, there's got to be a safety net or some sort of organization that advocates for their protection. And that's how Justice for Children got started."

JFC currently handles around 10,000 calls a year and goes to court or does other intensive work on about 500 cases a year. Burton and his team of lawyers and social workers start out by building an evidence file to locate where the problem lies. They then begin working behind the scenes to bring about the result they want; and if that doesn't work, they go to court and advocate on behalf of the child or children.

After noticing a pattern with CPS of putting children back into unsafe environments, JFC decided to do some research on the subject, and it found that a 1980 law known as the Child Welfare and Adoption Assistance Act of 1980 actually withheld federal funds from CPS organizations if they did not make reasonable efforts to keep families together. Since it became aware of this, one of JFC's main missions has been to make CPS and the public understand that not all situations merit these efforts.

"It's the so-called 'reasonable efforts' legislation, and our position is that no effort is required when a child's bones are being broken or they're being raped in their home, to preserve that family—that it's already patently unreasonable to leave them in that environment—but that's not the way that it was interpreted by CPS, who already had sort of a predisposition to see if they could perform a social miracle with the family," Burton said.

"And, of course, that might happen in cases of neglect or isolated physical abuse, but chronic or horrible physical abuse or any kind of sexual abuse are not situations where that experiment with the family makes any sense; and it's certainly [at] the child's expense if they decide to engage in that experiment," he said.

Burton said it is still difficult to remove some of the entrenched attitudes at the state level about preserving families, but he believes JFC is making progress. In 1997, the organization helped pass a law called the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 in which certain guidelines were established that helped shift the pro-family focus of the 1980s to a child-protection focus.

"What we said was, in this new law, family preservation in and of itself is no longer the overarching goal of matching federal funds. The overarching goal now is protection of the child," Burton said. "Family preservation is an element that should be considered because we all want to preserve families that can be preserved without risking the child's welfare; but when it can't be, protection of the child should be the most important concern."

"In order to reduce this to almost idiot-proof levels, we established some basic threshold requirements for when children had to be removed; and they included things like if one child in the home has been murdered by a parent, you should remove the other children," he said. "We also said that when one child is sexually abused, that child must be removed from the home, as well as the other children; and in cases where there's been serious bodily injury, you have to remove that child from the home."

Burton knows these guidelines sound ridiculous, but said most people would be surprised by the number of cases in which a murder by a parent is not enough to remove the other children from the home, a reality that JFC is fighting to change.

Burton, who splits his time between The Burton Law Firm, P.C., and JFC, donates between 500 and 600 hours a year to JFC, working as a pro bono attorney while raising money and awareness.

"I would encourage every law student who's interested in protecting children to at least consider donating some time to this cause, whether it's as an ad litem attorney, or donating some time to Justice for Children or another similar worthy cause," he said. "They can work for any kind of law firm and still donate time to protecting children; and if this is something they decide is their life's work, they can go to work as a lawyer for CPS or the D.A.'s office, or they can go to work for us."

"Because I will say there's no work that's more gratifying," he said. "You'll never feel better about yourself and about using your skills than you do in trying to protect a child whose life is at risk if you're not there for them."

The Burton Law Firm


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