DYFS fails 4 starving children
DYFS fails 4 starving children
Camden County couple arrested, 5 state workers suspended in case
Sunday, October 26, 2003
BY SUSAN K. LIVIO AND MARK MUELLER
In what a prosecutor called the most horrific case of child neglect he's ever seen, a Camden County couple has been charged with starving four of their adopted children over several years, leaving them so emaciated and stunted that authorities initially mistook a 19-year-old for a boy of 10.
The discovery of the alleged abuse in Collingswood, a middle-class community bordering Camden, marks a stunning new blow to the state's troubled Division of Youth and Family Services, which approved the boys' adoptions and which has been in close contact with the family. A caseworker had visited the home 38 times in the past two years.
At least five DYFS employees, among them supervisors and managers, have been suspended, and more suspensions are expected, said Micah Rasmussen, a spokesman for Gov. James E. McGreevey. An "angry and shocked" McGreevey has directed the state's newly appointed Child Advocate to investigate the case, Rasmussen said.
Vanessa Jackson, 48, and Raymond Jackson, 50, were arrested Friday, two weeks after police discovered one of the couple's adopted sons rummaging through a neighbor's trash can for food.
The subsequent investigation found that the Jacksons locked up the kitchen of their Victorian home, allowing the boys only small servings of oatmeal and pancake batter, Camden County Prosecutor Vincent P. Sarubbi said.
Two of the boys told investigators they sometimes sated their hunger by eating pieces of wallboard and insulation. One boy gnawed on a window sill for sustenance.
Ranging in age from 9 to 19, none of the four weighed more than 45 pounds. All are likely to face long-term developmental problems, Sarubbi said.
"The children were extremely emaciated," the prosecutor said. "You could see their ribs. They had distended bellies. Their shoulder blades were sticking out from their bodies. They actually looked like children you'd see from third-world countries on television commercials. What happened was an absolute disgrace."
DYFS, in the midst of an overhaul following a series of high-profile failures to protect children in the agency's care, most recently dispatched a caseworker to the Jackson home in early October. The worker was there to assess the well-being of a 10-year-old female foster child the Jacksons were seeking to adopt.
Two other girls, ages 5 and 11, also lived in the home. One of them, state officials said, was the Jacksons' biological child. The other had been adopted through DYFS.
The three girls showed no signs of abuse or malnutrition, indicating a home of haves and have-nots. The girls were well-fed and taken on vacations to Williamsburg, Va., while the boys were denied food and rarely permitted off the property, Sarubbi said. Vanessa Jackson told anyone who asked that the boys suffered from eating disorders, the prosecutor said.
State officials were at a loss to explain why the caseworker did not report the boys' severe malnutrition, which the prosecutor said was obvious. The caseworker has since resigned.
"You can't even fathom how somebody wouldn't notice this," Special Deputy Human Services Commissioner Colleen Maguire said. "I don't know if we are dealing with negligence, indifference or gross incompetence or a combination therein."
DYFS Director Edward Cotton, terming the lapse "totally intolerable," said the investigation suggests the caseworker saw some or all of the boys on her monthly visits to the home on White Horse Pike.
The Jacksons made their first adoption through DYFS in 1995. Other adoptions followed in 1996, 1997 and 2000. Because of the adoptions, the Jacksons received an annual state stipend, which peaked at $28,000 before the oldest child turned 18 last year.
The 10-year-old foster child the Jacksons were waiting to adopt has been with the family since 1999. Before every placement, DYFS found the Jacksons to be capable, caring parents.
"They had cleared every background check every time they adopted another child," state Human Services spokeswoman Laurie Facciarossa said. "The court reports and adoption studies had lots and lots of positive things said about them, about being loving parents. The kids are described as very bright, friendly."
What police found when they were called to the area earlier this month conflicted with the DYFS reports. On Oct. 10, a neighbor of the Jacksons dialed 911 to report someone rooting through her trash at about 2 a.m.
When Collingswood police arrived, they found what they believed to be a child, probably 10, hunting for food, Sarubbi said. The youth, at 4 feet tall and 45 pounds, turned out to be the 19-year-old, Sarubbi said.
The teen led police to his house, where authorities were stunned to find three other severely malnourished boys. A 14-year-old boy weighed 38 pounds. That child's biological brother, age 9, stood 3 feet 1 inch and weighed 23 pounds. The fourth child, age 10, weighed only 28 pounds.
Police immediately notified DYFS, which removed all seven children from the Jacksons' home. The four boys were hospitalized, while the girls were placed with foster families. Just one of the boys, the oldest, remained in an undisclosed hospital yesterday with a heart irregularity, Sarubbi said.
"They've gained more weight in their time in the hospital than they did in seven years with the family," the prosecutor said.
In addition to the malnutrition, the boys had not seen a doctor or a dentist in more than five years. Most of their teeth were rotting, Sarubbi said. All four had head lice. And they had been living without electricity for five months and without gas service for a month, an indication of the family's poor financial condition.
Sarubbi said the couple owed more than $8,000 in rent on their home and had defaulted on their purchase of two vacation timeshares, in the Poconos and Virginia.
The Jacksons are charged with four counts of aggravated assault and 14 counts of endangering the welfare of a child. While the boys did not appear to have been beaten, the aggravated assault counts were warranted because of the "extreme indifference to the value of human life," Sarubbi said.
The couple were held in lieu of $100,000 bond in the Camden County jail. A court appearance had not been scheduled. The prosecutor said the investigation was continuing, and he would not discount the possibility of additional charges, either against the Jacksons or others involved with the boys.
Two adult children of the Jacksons, a man and woman in their 20s, also lived in the home.
With the exception of the foster child, the children were home-schooled, eliminating an additional safety net, and authorities said the boys rarely ventured from the property.
Outside the home yesterday, the brother of Raymond Jackson defended the couple, saying the boys' size was not a function of malnutrition but of fetal alcohol syndrome and the drug addictions of their biological mothers.
"It has nothing to do with being neglected," William Jackson said. "They were born with drug addiction and eating disorders. As long as I've known these kids, they've never grown."
William Jackson said his brother works for a financial company, though he would not provide the firm's name. Vanessa Jackson is a stay-at-home mother.
"They've provided everything for them," William Jackson said.
Sarubbi dismissed that idea, saying physicians, including geneticists and abuse experts, extensively examined the children and found prolonged malnutrition to be the culprit in their failure to physically mature.
"These parents were literally starving their children," the prosecutor said.
Neighbors said they noticed the boys were painfully thin but did not suspect criminal negligence.
"The two boys who were so skinny, I thought they had AIDS," said Caroline DiMattia, who lives next door.
DiMattia and other neighbors said they frequently saw the children performing chores in the yard. At least two people said they saw the boys cutting the lawn with a pair of scissors.
"They were always out here working their butts off," DiMattia said.
The home, beige with red trim, had an American flag at the doorway and yellow ribbons scattered about. A psalm was posted on a window pane in three places.
"As for me and my house, we serve the Lord," it said, a Bible notation beneath.
The case comes at a particularly critical time for DYFS, which is undergoing a thorough overhaul in the wake of several high-profile failures. The process was ordered after the death of Faheem Williams, a 7-year-old Newark boy whose case had been closed by DYFS prematurely.
On Thursday, the agency announced it had completed an innovative new safety assessment in which 14,393 children in foster homes, group homes, and institutions had been visited and deemed safe.
The state was required to perform the unprecedented check under the terms of a lawsuit settlement DYFS reached with a national advocacy group, Children's Rights Inc., on June 23. Children's Rights had sued the state for violating the rights of foster children by putting them at risk of harm.
Yesterday, the State Child Advocate, Kevin Ryan, questioned the veracity of the safety assessments and vowed to launch his own investigation into what went wrong.
"Considering the department's recent determination that a child in this house was safe, despite the fact that the utilities have been turned off for six months, the kitchen was locked and four of the children were starved is just inconceivable," Ryan said.