for the clearest writing I have seen on the topic of children that need and deserve help within our community. Today’s Star Tribune Article, below.

He shares a letter from an 8 year old outlining his plans to escape with his toddler brother should the parents reunite (the swearing & fighting are violent & unbearable).

I’ve written about the 7 year old that hung himself and left a note & the 4 year old I visited at the suicide ward in Fairview hospital (as a volunteer guardian ad-Litem).

Judge Burke quotes letters from children that are not in the child protection system & draws our attention to the needs (and I would offer “civil rights”) of the large numbers of children that suffer because their communities don’t offer effective child protection services.

There are millions of U.S. children that are not deemed worthy of child protective services but need and deserve help.

Nowhere in America is a child watching his mother beaten or raped qualify for CHIP’s protection.  20 years ago MN voted to allow these children to receive services, but this statue was abandoned because the caseloads doubled & saving children from this hell was deemed too expensive.

As a CASA guardian, I have seen too many cases of children living through these violent traumas as a regular part of their life.

The World Health Organization defines torture as extended exposure to violence and deprivation.  My experience as a guardian ad-Litem is that every child I met inside the system had spent way too long being made crazy/tortured by violent or otherwise truly dysfunctional parents (the average is 4 years for the oldest child).

Again, Judge Burke is writing about children deserving help who do not today qualify for child protection & the numbers are staggering.

In America, 3 million children a year are reported abused or neglected (and fewer of them are receiving services today than they would have five years ago – budgets are tight).

He draws attention to the value of guardians ad-Litem for children not in the CHIP’s system and argues that these kids need a guardian ad-Litem champion.

I offer that a guardian ad-Litem should be a civil right for all children living in traumatic environments.

We are not saving any money by denying these children of a chance to lead normal lives.

Instead, generation after generation and their children cost our community a fortune as preteen moms & adolescent felons and decades of crime, violence, & institutionalization.

This is a moral issue as well as a burden to our schools, courts & communities.

Early childhood programs & concern for other people’s children will make our community a much happier place to live.

  • Article by: KEVIN BURKE
  • March 4, 2012 – 5:33 PM

The letter was to the point: “Dear Judge, I am 16 and self-reliant. I have been employed in some way for nearly a year. I have been emotionally and psychologically damaged from the events surrounding and the aftermath of my parents’ divorce. Although I believe I am healed (not fully of course) there is an excess of emotional trauma I have to cope with. I have night terrors, anxiety, paranoia, depression, and insomnia and have trouble paying attention in school. These symptoms have all built up on each other since I was in sixth grade. Now I deal with pent-up repressed emotions. I am technically ‘homeless’ at the moment. I have been a pawn in this ridiculous legal battle between my parents for years and I am ready to voice my opinion and wishes. I would like to be emancipated, gaining full rights to myself.”

Over the past two decades, a mass of information has been developed about the effects of stress on children. A certain amount is natural, but extreme and persistent stress can affect brain development in lasting ways. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard explained, “This condition literally interferes with developing brain circuits, and poses a serious threat to young children, not only because it undermines their emotional well-being, but also because it can impair a wider range of developmental outcomes including early learning, exploration and curiosity, school readiness, and later school achievement.”

The letter from the 16-year-old is not an isolated example of what we put children through. There is an 8-year-old who experienced the recent deaths of a grandparent, a dog and a younger brother. The child now assumes a caretaking role within the family, reporting that it is his “job” to keep his toddler brother safe. He says that he is “strong enough” to do so. He describes a volatile relationship between his parents, including fighting, yelling and lots of swearing. He is adamant that he does not want them to ever reunite and has a detailed escape plan in the event they do that involves taking his younger brother in the night to go stay with his aunt so that they will both be safe.

We need a goal: Minnesota must be the best place in the nation for a child to live. It won’t be achieved overnight, but failure is unacceptable.

A centerpiece of Kathleen Blatz’s tenure as Minnesota’s chief justice was the Children’s Justice Initiative. It focused on improving how Minnesota dealt with child protection, or CHIPS, cases. It made the legal system quicker and provided that there were guardians ad litem in every case. Neither the child who wrote the letter nor the boy with the escape plan is in the child-protection system. More often than not, children’s fates are determined not in CHIPS cases but in a private custody battle or perhaps never in a court proceeding. A recent Legislative Auditor’s report illustrates we can do better in CHIPS cases. Common sense says we must do better with a lot of children who will never be in the CHIPS arena.

Things have actually gotten worse for many kids. The Legislature, for example, repealed the requirement that counties provide neutral custody evaluations. Every county but Hennepin eliminated the service. The legal process is too slow and can be too acrimonious. Mediation of custody conflicts is good, but few counties outside of Hennepin have the service. Children in homes plagued by domestic violence or high levels of conflict need a champion. There are guardians ad litem in virtually every CHIPS case and only 9 percent in the custody battles.

Parental conflict can hurt children’s performance in school, increase anxiety and short-circuit social skills. The solutions, however, are decidedly not found in jingoistic calls to “save the family.” Lots of parents never did get married, and their children are entitled to effective parents, not necessarily married parents. Not all parents learn how to cope in a way that keeps them from being a burden on their children.

For this to be the best state in which to be child, several things must occur. The Children’s Justice Initiative should be promptly expanded; judicial, human-services and educational leaders can make that happen. Custody disputes take too long and too often never really end; political, legal and judicial leaders can make that improve. There can be access to mediation and counseling for family units in trouble. The Legislative Auditor’s report on the flaws in child protection cannot succumb to “this is the new normal” due to budget constraints.

We need no more letters from 16-year-olds asking to be freed from their parents, nor from 8-year-olds with an escape plan.

Kevin Burke is a Hennepin County district judge.



1 Comment

  1. Thanks very much for your kind words. As I said to some friends this week: Children need more champions. Kevin Burke

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