Guilty Plea in Camden Child Starvation Case
By TINA KELLEY
Vanessa Jackson, whose four emaciated children put faces on the problems in New Jersey's child welfare system, pleaded guilty yesterday in Camden to endangering the boys' welfare, the Camden County prosecutor said. She admitted failing to provide each child with proper medical care and nourishment.
The prosecutor, Vincent P. Sarubbi, said Ms. Jackson, 50, could be sentenced to as much as seven years in prison on Feb. 10, though the sentence could be shorter under a supervision program. She and her husband, Raymond, who died last November, were charged with 28 counts of aggravated assault and child endangerment.
The plea agreement will keep her four adopted sons - Bruce, 21; Keith, 15; Tyrone, 11; and Michael, 11 - from having to appear in court at her trial, Mr. Sarubbi said.
"One of the things that weighed heavily on our mind," he said, "was the fact that the children were spared the horror of having to testify and confront their tormentor, Vanessa Jackson." Mr. Sarubbi said the children's guardians and a child psychologist believed it would be harmful for them to testify.
The boys' plight became public in October 2003 when Bruce, who was 19 but weighed only 45 pounds, was discovered by a neighbor rummaging for food in a garbage can at 2:30 a.m. Officials said that the boys ate pancake batter, cereal, wallboard and insulation to assuage their hunger, and that the parents locked the refrigerator for fear that the boys would binge on the food inside, then regurgitate.
A caseworker overseeing the planned adoption of a foster daughter of the Jacksons, who would have been their seventh adopted child, did not request that action be taken regarding Bruce Jackson's physical condition, nor did other caseworkers who visited the home. Nine social workers were fired in the case, including the adoption worker.
The Jacksons had attributed the boys' small size to an eating disorder in Bruce's case, and to fetal alcohol syndrome in the younger boys' cases, but the prosecutor said their accounts only supported his contention that Ms. Jackson had failed to obtain proper medical attention for the children.
Mr. Sarubbi noted that all four boys had grown significantly in both height and weight since being removed from the Jacksons' home in Collingswood. One has been adopted, another is awaiting adoption, and they are all doing well, he said. Bruce is now 21 and living on his own.
Mr. Sarubbi said he did not believe it would be appropriate for Ms. Jackson to receive only probation, considering the seriousness of the charges.
In October, lawyers for the four boys announced that they had settled their lawsuit against the state for $12.5 million, one of the largest settlements in the nation for a child-neglect case.
Joe Delmar, a spokesman for the Department of Human Services, said the agency did not usually comment on guilty pleas.
Calls to Ms. Jackson's lawyer, Alan D. Bowman, and Bruce Jackson's lawyer, Michael Critchley, were not immediately returned late yesterday.