Four boys to share $12.5M settlement in starvation case

Date: 2005-10-01

Four boys to share $12.5M settlement in starvation case

Payout is Jersey’s biggest for child abuse lawsuit

Saturday, October 01, 2005
Star-Ledger Staff

The four boys found starving inside a foster home in Camden County two years ago will receive $12.5 million to settle their lawsuit against the state child welfare system, the largest payout New Jersey has ever made for a child abuse case.

The state and the attorneys representing the children are expected to announce as early as next week that Bruce Jackson — found eating out of his neighbor’s trash can in Collingswood — will receive $5 million, while his three younger brothers will each receive $2.5 million, said Laurie Facciarossa, spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services.

The agreement averts what would likely have been an embarrassing trial for the Division of Youth and Family Services, whose staffers failed to properly monitor the four boys as they went without proper nourishment or medical care for years. None of the boys weighed more than 45 pounds when they were discovered by police in 2003.

The settlement will enable the brothers to acquire whatever treatment they need as they try to recover from the mental and physical trauma of years of abuse in foster care.

Bruce Jackson, who is now 21, "is going to need that money to sustain him for the rest of his life," said his pro bono attorney, Michael Critchley of West Orange. "With that amount of money, he will be able to provide for himself a comfortable life despite the trauma and injuries he has sustained."

Bruce Jackson’s money will be placed in a trust fund, overseen by a court-appointed guardian, Critchley said.

The legal guardian for the minor children, Marcia Robinson Lowry of the national advocacy group, Children’s Rights Inc., declined to discuss the settlement yesterday. "There isn’t a signed agreement," she said last night, declining to elaborate.

A source familiar with the negotiations says Lowry and the children’s attorneys from the law firm of Dwyer & Dunnigan of Newark were expected to sign the settlement early next week.

Only one issue remains unresolved: the legal fees of the minor children’s attorneys, Critchley and Facciarossa said. The parties agreed to let the judge decide how much they would be compensated.

Even though the case will never go to trial, the lawsuit broke legal ground for not only the Jackson brothers but for all foster children. A federal judge ruled in April all children under direct DYFS care are entitled to food, clothing, housing, medical care and education, and can sue if those rights are denied.

By all accounts, the three youngest brothers are healthy and doing well, Facciarossa said.

Two of them, 15-year-old K.J. and 11-year-old T.J., live together in one foster home, geographically close to 11-year-old M.J., who is with another foster family, sources familiar with their case said.

"There is an extraordinary effort to keep the children in contact with each other," Facciarossa said. The foster families plan to adopt the boys, she said.

Bruce Jackson lives in a private residence and is under the supervision of another government agency, the Division of Developmental Disabilities, officials have said. Critchley refused to provide any details to protect his client’s privacy.

"He’s doing as well as anyone can under the circumstances given what he went through. The trauma left permanent scars that will never go away, and physical injuries he will live with for the rest of his life," Critchley said.

The boys’ adoptive parents, Raymond and Vanessa Jackson, were indicted on 28 charges of aggravated assault and endangering the welfare of children for allegedly withholding food and medical care. The longtime foster and adoptive parents denied abusing or neglecting the children, and claimed they suffered from developmental delays and eating disorders.

Raymond Jackson died following a stroke late last year. Vanessa Jackson, 50, is awaiting trial and is scheduled to make a court appearance Oct. 12, said Bill Shralow, spokesman for the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office. The judge overseeing the case has urged Jackson to seek a plea bargain, but none has been offered, Shralow said.

When told of the settlement, state Child Advocate Kevin M. Ryan said he was "enormously grateful the children will be spared a civil trial."

Ryan’s office examined the state’s role in placing the boys in the Jackson home as foster children, and their eventual adoption. The report, eventually used as the basis of the brothers’ lawsuit against DYFS, found state employees failed to investigate the children’s gross undernourishment and stunted growth. The scathing report also said state officials misled the public when they said a DYFS employee had gone to the Jackson household to assess the safety of another foster child there.

"I hope the settlement, whatever it is, helps them to build a brighter future," Ryan said. "And I hope and pray we never see the likes of this depravity and social indifference again."

Staff Writer Rick Hepp contributed to this report.


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