|Metropolitan Museum of Art|
Back then, the Burkes were controversial because they had become foster parents to a black child, "Baby T," and the child's biological mother, finding out the powerful couple caring for her baby thanks to her own neglect and, sensing opportunity, tried to claw the poor kid back.
The city desk sent me out to cover a speech by Judge Burke, and this resulted. Note: the Burkes eventually got the child back, and raised him to maturity. Those looking to condemn the Burkes in all things often lump in their decision to care for a foster child, as if it were somehow disreputable, as if they had kidnapped the boy for their own nefarious ends, rather than saved him from a life of neglect.
That's ridiculous. I never doubted her good intentions, and think of it now that the couple are receiving general scorn. I find it mitigating, as the lawyers say, and remember having tea with Anne Burke after this. By the time she was done lauding the importance of foster parentage, I was ready to go out and sponsor a child myself. I soon recovered my true, much smaller nature. But I'll never forget the passion and sincerity with which she spoke about the need to help others.
"No story," he said. "The thing exploded and I couldn't find the poodle."
I made that up, long ago, to illustrate the way reporters, intent on one story, sometimes miss another.
It happened again, almost, Saturday night, when State Appelate Court Justice Anne M. Burke spoke to a dinner given by Uhlick's Foster Parents United, a foster parents group.
Burke was herself a foster mother, raising the child known to the public as Baby T, until the original mother, a former drug addict, reclaimed the child after a court fight.
Burke never had spoken publicly about the situation. This speech—my editor said—delivered to foster parents, might be the opportunity she was looking for to open up.
I noted that judges are not known for their unwise personal revelations—unwise because the case has not yet completely played itself out, and any grabs for public sympathy might not be well-received by the judge. But it was a quiet Saturday night, so I went.
The dinner was in a small room in the basement of the Hyatt on Ashland Avenue. Taped music. Balloons. Nothing fancy.
Burke and her husband, Ald. Edward Burke, came in. They sat and chatted, then Burke was introduced.
She spoke, not about herself, but about foster parenting.
"Through your love and generosity, the lives of the most vulnerable and fragile children are strengthened and protected," she said. "Being a foster parent is both a unique responsibility and an incalculable act of love."
"Love" was a word she used again and again. She urged the foster parents to not let whatever bureaucratic problems they encounter sidetrack them.
"It is so critical for us to continually remind each other what the real focus of our attention is—to love and not to count the cost," she said. "Everything else is irrelevant—even the unflattering publicity."
That's the closest she came to talking about herself_negative publicity surely can't be a very big problem for the average foster parent, though it certainly was for the Burkes, who were rewarded for quietly sheltering a child and loving him by having their home picketed.
Still, it was not enough. Not personal enough. No story. I capped my pen and listened.
"When we love like that, we change the world for that fragile infant, for that shy little child, for that bright and gifted toddler who looks to us for safety," she said. "To be able to make the world safe for another is a great gift. A sacred trust. I believe it comes from what is deepest and most substantive in each one of us. It arises out of that pool of goodness that is in the heart of each of us. Such power is transformative. It heals and makes whole."
Burke said that the good news is that children all over the state are succeeding because generous adults open their hearts to them. The bad news, she said, is there aren't enough adults for the swelling numbers of children in need. It is a tough job and only the rare person is willing to try.
"Loving is not always easy. It has a price. But that has always been the case. For each of us, the generous people who made a difference in our lives are the ones who didn't stop to total the cost," she said. "It is no accident that households built on love thrive and grow. It is no accident that homes fashioned by a generous spirit are filled with hope. It is no accident that families bound together in love survive the unexpected surprises in life."
She finished her speech. The foster parents applauded heartily. Burke was given a plaque. I slipped out and found a phone and called the office.
"No story," I said.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 29, 1999