Prosecutor Says Medical Data Point to 4 Boys' Starvation
Prosecutor Says Medical Data Point to 4 Boys' Starvation
By RICHARD LEZIN JONES
A New Jersey prosecutor said at a Congressional hearing on Thursday that four boys who were found severely malnourished in October had rapidly gained several pounds after their discovery. He said this development bolstered his charge that they had been intentionally malnourished.
The oldest boy, Bruce Jackson, 19, who weighed 45 pounds when he was discovered rooting through a garbage can on Oct. 10, has gained 18 pounds since being removed from the home, said the Camden County prosecutor, Vincent P. Sarubbi.
Mr. Jackson's three adoptive siblings, ranging in age from 9 to 14, have all gained at least eight pounds since their removal, Mr. Sarubbi said. After prosecutors had medical experts conduct a series of tests, including an examination of the boys' genetic makeup, he said, the cause of their condition was traced to intentional starvation.
Supporters of the boys' parents reiterated their argument that the children suffered from eating disorders or a history of abuse before their adoption, not from abusive or neglectful parents.
Mr. Sarubbi said his accusations were backed by medical evidence. ''We enlisted medical experts to evaluate the boys' condition,'' he told the Human Resources Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee. ''These medical experts determined that the boys had been deprived of adequate nutrition and medical care. Based upon these medical assessments and other investigative information developed, I was satisfied that probable cause existed to support criminal charges.''
Mr. Sarubbi has charged the boys' adoptive parents, Raymond and Vanessa Jackson, with aggravated assault and child endangerment in the case, the subject of Thursday's hearing. The subcommittee helps to oversee the way federal officials distribute more than $7 billion to states to help cover foster care and adoption costs.
Subcommittee members said they took the unusual step of calling witnesses to Washington on a local child abuse matter because of the boys' extreme condition and because the case was the latest in a series of high-profile abuse and neglect cases involving New Jersey's Division of Youth and Family Services.
The charges against the Jacksons were announced the same week the state, which has promised to overhaul the agency, announced that it had conducted safety reviews of all 14,000 children in the child welfare system and found that only 31 were living in conditions so unsafe that they had to be removed.
A caseworker visited the Jackson home in Collingswood, N.J., in June during one such review, but the boys were not among the 31. They weighed a combined 145 pounds when they were found four months after that visit.
The hearing was ostensibly a way for subcommittee members to examine whether there are enough checks to ensure the safety of children who receive federal money while in the care of child welfare agencies. The Jacksons received about $28,000 a year from the state to help cover the costs of raising their adopted children. For the 2002 fiscal year, New Jersey received about $100 million in one type of federal aid for child welfare, about a quarter of it earmarked for adoption.
The half dozen witnesses who appeared before the subcommittee offered some of the most detailed public accounts so far of the progress of the Jackson children and the status of the investigation into their adoptive parents. Mr. Sarubbi said the investigation would take about three months to complete.
He said investigators had the boys tested for genetic defects, thyroid problems and other medical conditions that could have kept them from gaining weight. All tests were negative.
He said Bruce Jackson required two blood transfusions after he was found because of serious iron deficiencies. Mr. Sarubbi said the boys gained weight without the use of growth hormones or other means. ''It should be noted that this progress was achieved simply through proper diet and vitamins,'' he said. Bruce Jackson is still hospitalized. The other three boys are now in foster care.
Another witness, the Rev. Harry L. Thomas Jr., the pastor for the church the Jacksons attended, testified on their behalf, challenging the validity of the weight gains. Mr. Thomas, who has led a vigorous campaign in defense of the Jacksons and has accused Bruce Jackson of lying, said that anyone who was placed in a hospital, with 24-hour care and a goal of gaining weight, could do so.
''I seriously question it,'' Mr. Thomas said of the weight gains, adding that he would like to know more about the way the children were fed and the answers to queries like, ''Did they have shoes on when they were weighed?''
The pastor described Bruce Jackson as a severely troubled child who had urinated on the floor of the Jackson home on the day he arrived in 1991; stolen schoolmates' lunch bags, eaten the food and vomited it into the bags; tried to eat dog food, drywall and cat feces; and once vomited on a teacher. ''How many of us in this room would have taken a project like Bruce?'' Mr. Thomas asked the subcommittee.
Mr. Thomas was scolded for his comments by Representatives Mark Foley, a Florida Republican, and Donald Payne, a New Jersey Democrat, and Kevin Ryan, who was recently named state child advocate, a new position. ''The public vilification of these boys,'' Mr. Ryan said, ''particularly characterizing any of them as being liars, is despicable, and I think it needs to stop.''
Another witness at the hearing, Marcia Robinson Lowry, the executive director of Children's Rights Inc., an advocacy group based in Manhattan, called on Congress to enact federal minimum standards for child welfare agencies in areas like accountability and training. Children's Rights sued New Jersey over its foster care system and won wide concessions in a settlement deal.
Carla Katz, president of Local 1034 of the Communications Workers of America, which represents nine workers who have been dismissed for their roles in the Jackson case, also called for more training for adoption workers.
Representative Mike Ferguson, a New Jersey Republican, questioned the reliability of information submitted to federal regulators about the state's child welfare agency and said he would demand a federal investigation of the agency if its overhaul fails.
Colleen Maguire, special deputy human services commissioner, said such talk was premature and vowed to fix the state's child welfare system.