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Randy Burton: Founder and President, Justice for Children, Houston, TX [by Charisse Dengler] A Southern boy with a heart of gold, Randy Burton has devoted his career to advocating on behalf of those too young to fight their own battles. As Founder and President of Justice for Children (JFC), Burton is striving to make the world a safer place for children.

Burton founded JFC, a national nonprofit

“This poor child was learning disabled—

“overcoming bias and ineptitude concerning

organization headquartered in Houston, TX,

something that’s not all that uncommon

child abuse.”

in 1987 in order to open people’s eyes to the

in these situations, because this is her

problems with the way the government was

stepfather and people tend to take advantage

“A lot of lawyers, prosecutors, people

dealing with abused and neglected children.

of children that it’s more difficult for them to

in the family court, and judges really do

Since then, the organization has expanded

outcry—and there was a beautifully written

not understand the dynamics that are

to include offices in Arizona, Michigan, and

letter in the D.A.’s file using terms of legal

involved with child abuse,” he said. “They

Washington, DC.

art and so forth, where she had recanted her

don’t understand the problems with child

testimony,” he said.

witnesses. They don’t understand why children recant. They don’t understand how

“My first job as a lawyer was with the D.A.’s office here in Houston, and I worked my

“I believe that it was something that her

all the dynamics work, and they don’t want to

way up to the Chief Prosecutor of Family

stepfather’s lawyer put her up to and helped

believe—I think a lot of people in the general

Offenses,” he said. “It was during that

her write, and I didn’t believe it. It not only

public don’t, a lot of lay people—that a parent

experience that I saw something that really

flew in the face of all the evidence, but

or someone in a position of trust with a child

disturbed me, and that is that the system

there’s a very well accepted theory called

would take advantage of that for their own

that’s designed to protect children is failing

the child abuse accommodation syndrome,

selfish interests.”

that task horribly.”

where children recant because of all the tremendous pressure they’re under from

Burton’s very first case for the D.A.’s office

family and others to not go through with this

involved a little girl who had been raped by

for lots of bad reasons like, in this case, the

her stepfather for four years; and when she

mother didn’t want to lose the income string

reported the abuse to her school nurse, the

from her husband, who was not the father of

nurse contacted Child Protective Services

the child.”

(CPS). However, CPS told the nurse to go ahead and send the child home with her

As soon as Burton realized what had

stepfather and said it would conduct an

happened, JFC issued a warrant and had her

interview the following week. The nurse, not

picked up.

supporting this course of action, took it upon herself to bring in officials, who removed

“She broke down on the stand the next day

the girl from the home and put her into

and tearfully disclosed what had happened

protective custody.

to her, and her stepfather went to prison for a lengthy term; but that experience was so

Burton, who began working on the case

outrageous,” he said. “I asked the nurses if

after it had been in the system for a couple

they’d ever had any other experiences like

years, was dismayed one day upon arriving to

that, and they said this is the rule, not the

question his client to discover that the little

exception.”

girl had recanted her testimony and been released to her stepfather.

Burton said one of the major challenges he faces is “overcoming bureaucratic inertia with the various governmental agencies” and

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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.

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LAWCROSSING

THE LARGEST COLLECTION OF LEGAL JOBS ON EARTH

LAW STAR

www.lawcrossing.com

1. 800.973.1177

Burton and his team of lawyers and social

sense; and it’s certainly [at] the child’s

Burton knows these guidelines sound

workers start out by building an evidence file

expense if they decide to engage in that

ridiculous, but said most people would be

to locate where the problem lies. They then

experiment,” he said.

surprised by the number of cases in which a

begin working behind the scenes to bring

murder by a parent is not enough to remove

about the result they want; and if that doesn’t

Burton said it is still difficult to remove

the other children from the home, a reality

work, they go to court and advocate on behalf

some of the entrenched attitudes at the

that JFC is fighting to change.

of the child or children.

state level about preserving families, but he believes JFC is making progress. In 1997,

Burton, who splits his time between The

After noticing a pattern with CPS of putting

the organization helped pass a law called

Burton Law Firm, P.C., and JFC, donates

children back into unsafe environments,

the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997

between 500 and 600 hours a year to JFC,

JFC decided to do some research on the

in which certain guidelines were established

working as a pro bono attorney while raising

subject, and it found that a 1980 law known

that helped shift the pro-family focus of the

money and awareness.

as the Child Welfare and Adoption Assistance

1980s to a child-protection focus. “I would encourage every law student who’s

Act of 1980 actually withheld federal funds from CPS organizations if they did not make

“What we said was, in this new law, family

interested in protecting children to at least

reasonable efforts to keep families together.

preservation in and of itself is no longer the

consider donating some time to this cause,

Since it became aware of this, one of JFC’s

overarching goal of matching federal funds.

whether it’s as an ad litem attorney, or

main missions has been to make CPS and

The overarching goal now is protection of

donating some time to Justice for Children or

the public understand that not all situations

the child,” Burton said. “Family preservation

another similar worthy cause,” he said. “They

merit these efforts.

is an element that should be considered

can work for any kind of law firm and still

because we all want to preserve families that

donate time to protecting children; and if this

“It’s the so-called ‘reasonable efforts’

can be preserved without risking the child’s

is something they decide is their life’s work,

legislation, and our position is that no effort

welfare; but when it can’t be, protection

they can go to work as a lawyer for CPS or

is required when a child’s bones are being

of the child should be the most important

the D.A.’s office, or they can go to work for

broken or they’re being raped in their home,

concern.”

us.”

patently unreasonable to leave them in that

“In order to reduce this to almost idiot-proof

“Because I will say there’s no work that’s

environment—but that’s not the way that it

levels, we established some basic threshold

more gratifying,” he said. “You’ll never feel

was interpreted by CPS, who already had

requirements for when children had to be

better about yourself and about using your

sort of a predisposition to see if they could

removed; and they included things like if

skills than you do in trying to protect a child

perform a social miracle with the family,”

one child in the home has been murdered

whose life is at risk if you’re not there for

Burton said.

by a parent, you should remove the other

them.”

to preserve that family—that it’s already

children,” he said. “We also said that when “And, of course, that might happen in cases

one child is sexually abused, that child must

On the Net

of neglect or isolated physical abuse, but

be removed from the home, as well as the

Justice for Children

chronic or horrible physical abuse or any

other children; and in cases where there’s

Firm, P.C. Texas Department of Family and

kind of sexual abuse are not situations where

been serious bodily injury, you have to

Protective Services

that experiment with the family makes any

remove that child from the home.”

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The Burton Law


Randy Burton: Founder and President, Justice for Children, Houston, TX