Birth mom wants to see DYFS teen


Says 'chubby and healthy' boy taken away from her never had fetal alcohol syndrome

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Most people looked at the chilling photo of Bruce Jackson that appeared in newspapers and on television and said they couldn't believe the youth who weighed less than 50 pounds was 19 years old.

Joanne Principal could.

It had been 11 years since her son was taken away from her by the state's child welfare system, but there was no doubt about the emaciated child in the photo, she said. If anything, he looked as though he had hardly gained a pound since he was 8.

"I knew it was him," Principal said.

But she wishes it weren't.

The photo of Bruce with his adoptive family, widely published after the boy was hospitalized suffering from apparent malnutrition, shattered her hopes that her son had grown up better off without her.

Now that she knows where he is and how he has suffered, she wants back into his life. She tried to see him in the hospital yesterday but was rebuffed.

"I know I can't make up years lost," she said, bowing her head and trying to catch her breath between tears. "I don't know what I would say, where I would begin."

But she wants to try, if he'll have her. "I'm 40 and I am a different person now."

Principal was located this weekend by a Star-Ledger reporter who dropped in unannounced. She has a new family: five children, including three girls, ages 7 through 14, and a boyfriend, Joseph. They share a dim, sparsely furnished apartment in a decaying Camden neighborhood. They live less than five miles from the suburban Collingswood house where Bruce and his adoptive family have lived for years.

"I'm angry, upset, confused. I'm wondering why this had to happen," Principal said of what has happened to her first son.

She's most baffled by what she's read about the Jackson parents, Raymond and Vanessa, arrested for allegedly starving Bruce and three other adopted boys.

"They look like such a happy family," she said, staring at the photo as if it were a puzzle she did not quite understand. There's no mistaking Bruce's gaunt and bony face, which appears, if anything, smaller than the last time she saw him.

"How could they have missed it?" she asked.

Child welfare authorities took the baby she remembers as "chubby and healthy" when he was less than a year old and turned him over to his father and namesake, Bruce Roy, and his mother.

She denied that Bruce was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, an allegation made by the Jacksons' relatives to explain the boy's tiny frame.

According to investigators close to the case, Joanne Principal lacked the parenting skills to raise him. The file indicates Roy underfed and physically abused the child, the sources say. There is no mention of fetal alcohol syndrome.

Principal said she fled what had become an abusive relationship with Bruce's father, and in doing so, left Bruce as well. "I didn't give him up," Principal insisted. "But I know I should have tried harder. I should have asked for help, but at the time didn't know how to."

She says she was never aware that Bruce might have had an eating disorder, but she does remember that the last time she saw him, he was about 8 and looked skinny for his age. The boy's father dropped by unexpectedly, and when they came inside, Bruce asked for something to eat. She remembers the boy's father shooting her son a nasty look. "He looked scared to talk to me."

The state Division of Youth and Family Services placed the boy with the Jacksons in 1991 as a foster child, and five years later severed both parents' rights. That opened the door for his foster parents to adopt Bruce, which they did in 1996.

Principal met another man with whom she would share 14 years, having five more children, including two who live with their father. "I started going to church. I got my life back in order.

"But there was not a time I didn't pray for Bruce," she said.

Principal says she doesn't understand all that's happened to Bruce since she last saw him.

Camden County Prosecutor Vincent Sarubbi described Bruce's case as the worst example of child abuse and neglect he has ever seen. Bruce has become the latest symbol for what ails New Jersey's dysfunctional child welfare system.

Bruce has even been called a liar by his adoptive parents. Speaking on the Jacksons' behalf, the family's pastor told a congressional committee investigating the case last week that the boy's eating disorders and behavior problems made him "a project" to raise.

Principal and her companion, Joseph, who declined to give his full name, say they do not want to being overly judgmental. They are impressed, for instance, that the Jacksons' pastor "would put himself out" by defending them in public, even offering up his home to make the couple's bail, Joseph said.

"The (DYFS) workers must feel bad, too. They're guilty until proven innocent, aren't they?" he said.

Principal hasn't seen Bruce's father in years and doesn't know where he's living. Several attempts to find Bruce Roy for this story were unsuccessful.

Joseph and Principal are raising three of her five children from a previous relationship -- Tina Brown, 14, Amanda Brown, 13, and Tameka Brown, 7 -- in a four-bedroom apartment they share with two dogs and their litter of eight 5-week-old puppies. Her two sons are living with their father and visit often. Principal does not work and relies on public assistance. Joseph also is unemployed.

It was clear that the children who live with her already knew about Bruce, but they were eager for the latest on his condition and peppered a reporter with questions. "I've told them about how their brother was having a hard time," Principal said.

DYFS workers do not supervise Principal's current family, she said, although they have been called to the home over the years on allegations made by "people who don't like me."

"Every time they've come out, they found my kids healthy," she said.

Joseph said the last visit was perhaps a year ago, when he and Joanne's relationship began after they met through friends at church. "They were making sure everything was okay, especially with a new person in her life," he said.

DYFS workers have not been back since, he said. Agency officials will not discuss cases because of strict confidentiality laws.

Principal would like to see Bruce again. Yesterday, she made the trip that she said she has been pondering since she first recognized Bruce weeks ago: She visited the DYFS district office in downtown Camden to ask permission to visit her son in his room at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center. She and Joseph also made the same request at the hospital, but they were not allowed to see Bruce.

"I would like to start visiting him," Principal said. And if DYFS officials tell her no -- that she missed her chance a long time ago to be Bruce's mother -- she won't walk away so easily this time.

"I would go higher."

Principal walked to a dusty shelf against an empty wall to fetch school pictures of her children, including her 15-year-old son, who bears a strong resemblance to Bruce.

"I raised them. They're beautiful," Principal said, a hint of defensiveness in her voice.


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