New Jersey Failed Basic Checks As Boys Starved, a Report Finds
New Jersey Failed Basic Checks As Boys Starved, a Report Finds
By RICHARD LEZIN JONES
A state investigation has concluded that four New Jersey boys who were found severely malnourished last fall had been systematically starved by their adoptive parents, while state child welfare workers, in a bewildering series of errors, failed to make the most basic checks on the children over a dozen years.
In a case that prompted national headlines and outrage from Trenton to Capitol Hill, the investigation into the parents, Raymond and Vanessa Jackson, found that state workers did not follow their agency's own guidelines when visiting the Jacksons' Camden County home, when obtaining routine medical records for the boys and when checking the family's unsteady finances, according to a report released Thursday by the state's independent child advocate, Kevin Ryan.
In fact, the report said, the state's child welfare policy in general is so poorly understood or ignored by workers that it is ''almost meaningless.''
The Jacksons, who are free on bail while they face charges of neglect, have claimed that the boys' scrawny bodies and brittle health stemmed from birth defects and eating disorders. But the state found that the children were unmistakably starved.
Detailed medical examinations showed no evidence of disease or disorders, Mr. Ryan said at a news conference here Thursday, and all four boys have made remarkable gains in both weight and height since their discovery on Oct. 10, when a neighbor of the Jacksons in Collingswood, near Philadelphia, noticed the oldest boy, 19, rooting through the trash for food.
The report amounts to the latest and perhaps most damning portrait of a child welfare system that Gov. James E. McGreevey and others -- including the agency itself, the Division of Youth and Family Services -- conceded last year was broken almost beyond comprehension. The death of Faheem Williams, a 7-year-old foster child whose body was found hidden in a Newark basement in January 2003, spurred widespread calls for change and led Mr. McGreevey to create the post of child advocate.
Although the state eventually agreed last June to a complete overhaul of the agency to settle a federal lawsuit condemning its foster care system, the new report raises serious questions about a key component of that effort: the agency's claim, days before the Jackson boys were discovered, that it had visited all 14,000 children in its care, one of the terms of the settlement.
''Our investigation has concluded that in a substantial number of cases, including the Jackson case,'' Mr. Ryan said, ''DYFS simply did not require or conduct face-to-face safety assessments for hundreds, if not thousands, of children.'' He noted that those instances involved children being supervised by the state's nine Adoption Resource Centers, regional offices that had monitored the Jacksons at various times.
Taken in sum, Mr. Ryan said, the report raises questions about the effectiveness of policy reform at the agency, and leads to ''the very unsettling conclusion that policies designed to protect children are not strictly adhered to at DYFS and have not been for many years.''
''They're not even fully understood in the DYFS offices,'' he continued, ''and this raises inevitable questions that concern whether this system is too debilitated to support its own policies.''
Marcia Robinson Lowry, the leader of the group that sued the state over its foster care system, said her organization was so troubled by the revelation about visits never made that it would step up its oversight.
''I am really shocked,'' said Ms. Lowry, executive director of Children's Rights Inc., an advocacy group based in Manhattan. ''Either people were purposely flouting a federal court order or the depths of their incompetence was so profound that people didn't know what they were supposed to do.''
The leader of the union representing many of New Jersey's social workers, Hetty Rosenstein, said Thursday that workers in the Adoption Resource Centers were told that they did not have to conduct face-to-face visits with children in their adoptive homes, but could base safety reviews on previous visits. She said the agency was overburdened and needed more staff members, training and technology to do a proper job.
James M. Davy, the acting commissioner of the State Department of Human Services, which includes the child welfare agency, said he planned to meet with Mr. Ryan to discuss the report and had ordered an immediate review of the visits questioned in the report. Any child whom workers had failed to check up on will be visited, he said.
''I am satisfied that the safety assessments we are currently doing are being done in person and are being done correctly,'' Mr. Davy said in a statement.
The report spells out in disturbing detail how caseworkers failed to recognize the severity of the Jackson boys' condition.
Although child welfare policies called for the boys to receive annual medical checkups, Mr. Ryan said, workers had not enforced those guidelines since 1991 and none of the Jackson children had visited a doctor since 1997.
Mr. Ryan said that there had been previous reports of malnourishment in the Jackson home and that each boy began losing weight soon after he was placed there. One boy, Mr. Ryan said, lost almost 10 pounds within a year of being placed with the Jacksons. Another child, 9-year-old Tyrone, weighed the same when he was found last October -- 28 pounds -- as he did when he was first placed in the Jackson home as a 17-month-old toddler.
Despite those signs, Mr. Ryan said, child welfare officials took no action.
''In every case, these signs were all dismissed, ignored or overlooked by the State Department of Human Services and the State Division of Youth and Family Services,'' he said.
Many friends of the Jacksons and members of their church rallied around the couple after their arrest. Some said that when asked about the slight stature and low weights of their children, the Jacksons said they suffered from fetal-alcohol syndrome and eating disorders.
Citing those same ailments, the couple locked the refrigerator door -- for fear, they said, that the children would eat the food and regurgitate it -- and fed the boys a diet of uncooked pancake batter, peanut butter and cereal, the authorities said. Shortly after the police discovered the Jackson children, investigators found evidence that someone had been gnawing on the windowsills and walls of the family's home.
Mr. Ryan said doctors consulted in the investigation had conducted tests down to the genetic level, and had found no evidence of any ailments that could account for the children's condition. Indeed, he noted, since the boys were discovered and placed in various foster homes around the state, each has made significant gains in weight and height without the use of steroids or other means, but simply with a regular diet and vitamins.
The results have been remarkable, he said. Bruce Jackson, the 19-year-old found rooting through the garbage, weighed 45 pounds and was 48 inches tall in October. He now weighs 82 pounds and stands 54.5 inches. Keith, 14, who was 40 pounds and 48 inches when found, is now 73 pounds and 49.75 inches. Michael, 9, who was 22 pounds and 37.5 inches tall, is now 43 pounds and 39 inches. Tyrone, 10, who is Keith's biological brother, was 28 pounds and 38 inches, and is now 43 pounds and 41 inches tall.
Mr. Ryan's investigation, which involved a review of more than 20,000 pages of documents as well as interviews and sworn depositions by senior child welfare officials, also found that the agency had failed to verify the family's income when the Jacksons sought to renew the $28,000 adoption subsidy they received annually to help care for the boys and two girls they had also adopted. The household also included the Jacksons' two adult children and a foster child. None of the other children were malnourished, officials have said.
Although one caseworker reported that the family earned $80,000 in 2002, investigators discovered that the Jacksons reported about $11,000 in income on their tax returns the year before. In the months before the Jackson boys were found, some utilities had been shut off for nonpayment and, the authorities said, Mr. Jackson was unemployed.
The Jacksons are free on $100,000 bail each. Mrs. Jackson's lawyer, Alan D. Bowman, declined to comment on Mr. Ryan's report, as did Mr. Jackson's lawyer, Richard M. Josselson.
The Camden County prosecutor, Vincent P. Sarubbi, said he would not comment on the report while he waited for the Jacksons' case to be presented to a grand jury. In a statement, he said his office was still investigating whether any state workers acted criminally. Nine Division of Youth and Family Services workers connected to the case have been suspended, one has been reinstated and the agency is seeking to dismiss the others.
In his report, Mr. Ryan recommended that child welfare officials revise their safety assessment program, set up medical centers in their offices and keep better track of children's medical histories. He also urged the state to set up a quality assurance division to audit the agency's performance.
Such reviews are intended to close what Mr. Ryan said were troubling gaps between the child welfare agency's policies and its performance.
''The gaps call into serious question DYFS's past ability to ensure that its self-imposed regulatory requirements are properly interpreted and applied by the workers and supervisors responsible for enforcement,'' Mr. Ryan said. ''And those questions remain today.''