95 Pounds Heavier, Angry Son Faces Mother Who Starved Him
By RICHARD LEZIN JONES
CAMDEN, N.J., Feb. 10 — Bruce Jackson rose in a packed courtroom here on Friday, 95 pounds heavier and 15 inches taller than he was 27 months ago when he was found rummaging through a neighbor's garbage can looking for food.
He looked directly at his adoptive mother, who was about to be sentenced to seven years in prison for systematically starving him and his three younger brothers in a case that drew national attention to the failures of New Jersey's child welfare system.
"You would make us eat pancake batter, dried-up grits and oatmeal, uncooked Cream of Wheat, and raw potatoes instead of cooked food," Mr. Jackson, now 21, told her and the crowded courtroom. "You didn't take us to any doctor's appointments. You wouldn't let us watch TV or play with our toys. You wouldn't let us take a shower when we were dirty."
He read from a piece of paper in a calm and determined voice betrayed by a slight slur.
"You yelled at us, cursed at us, hit us with brooms, rulers, sticks, shoes and belt buckles; I still have the marks to prove it," he told Vanessa Jackson, 50, who took him in as a foster child when he was 7 and later adopted him.
"I want to see Ms. Jackson go to jail for life," he said. "You were mean to me my whole life, so you deserve the same thing you did to me for the rest of your life. You took my childhood."
In a wrenching, angry series of personal statements that brought onlookers to tears, Mr. Jackson and his three brothers described publicly for the first time the horror of their life in Mrs. Jackson's Collingswood, N.J., home. Prosecutors said they were at a loss for a motive as to why the four boys were starved and abused while five other children in the house were allowed to live normal lives.
"If we knew why these kinds of things happen, we would be able to put ourselves in the shoes of defendants, in the shoes of mass murderers, in the shoes of people who do horrible things to young children," said Vincent P. Sarubbi, the Camden County prosecutor. "We'd have to become them, and that's why it's impossible in some circumstances to truly understand what may motivate people."
Ms. Jackson sat impassively in her chair, staring straight ahead, as the boys recounted their life with her and her husband, Raymond, who died in late 2004: their sparse diets of raw food, how they were beaten with brooms and belts and forced to stand on the occasions when they were allowed to eat. They never saw a doctor or dentist, and were never allowed to bathe. Bruce Jackson said his teeth became so rotten they had to be removed.
Mr. Jackson's brothers, who now live with adoptive or foster families, were present in the courtroom but their testimony was presented on videotape played on a monitor in the courtroom. They spared none of the details of what was visited upon them in Ms. Jackson's home. Nor did they hold back their anger.
"When my new mom asked me what I thought, I told her that Ms. Vanessa could die for all I care," said Keith Jackson, 16. "I thought she should have gotten jail for life or the electric chair because she starved us and almost killed us. And she can't repay us."
Tyrone Jackson, now 12, recalled how he once threw up a dinner of white rice because he had been forced to go so long without food. "Man, I just wanted to kill you, I was so angry," he said. He ended his statement with a smile, telling her, "Good luck, and have fun in jail."
None of the children looked remotely as they did the last time Vanessa Jackson saw them.
Keith, who was 4 feet tall and weighed about 41 pounds when the boys were found in October 2003, is now 5 feet 2 and 126 pounds. Tyrone, who was 3 feet 3 and 28 pounds, is now 4 feet 4 and 66 pounds. Michael, now, 11, was about 3 feet tall and 23 pounds; he is now 4 feet 3 and weighs 63 pounds.
The most striking gains have been made by Bruce Jackson, who lives on his own in a residential complex. He is now 5 feet 3 and weighs 140 pounds. Ms. Jackson's daughter Vernee was among her four biological children who spoke in her behalf.
She said that the case had torn her family apart, and that her mother did not deserve to go to jail. She and her mother sobbed briefly before Vanessa Jackson regained her composure and resumed her stoic stare.
The Rev. Harry L. Thomas, the pastor of the Medford, N.J., church that the family attended and who has remained steadfast in his support of Ms. Jackson, also testified for her.
"I've known these people as very loving people," Mr. Thomas told the court, "people who have a heart for children and they have a heart for God."
But Judge Robert G. Millenky of State Superior Court was unmoved. He said Ms. Jackson deserved the maximum seven-year term because her conduct "fits the description of cruel activity."
"You had boys who clearly needed help," Judge Millenky said. "To do nothing in the face of serious problems demonstrates an absolute failure to recognize fundamental obligations."
He also faulted the child welfare agency, but deflected the attempts by Ms. Jackson's lawyer, Alan D. Bowman, to blame the system for the children's plight. "They in no way provide an excuse for the decision made with regard to these children."
Several of the brothers' foster and adoptive parents also addressed the court. Keith's adopted mother, whose identity was not given to protect the child's privacy, described how the boys had to be hospitalized when they first came to live with her because "their stomachs were so small and not used to having substantive food in them."
She sobbed as she recalled how Tyrone, presented with a choice for breakfast, asked for tap water and dry oatmeal, and how the children would hoard food and "eat so much so fast the other kids would be afraid of not getting anything to eat. I assured them that there would always be enough food for them all."
She noted the progress that the boys had made through therapy and the help of social workers. "They are overcomers instead of being overcome," she said. "Victorious, not victims."