Woman in 2003 child-abuse case to go free today
By Jan Hefler
Inquirer Staff Writer
Vanessa Jackson, who was convicted in a notorious child-starvation case in Camden County, is scheduled to be freed today from the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in Clinton, N.J.
Jackson, 54, will have served four years for endangering the welfare of four adopted brothers who were so emaciated they more than doubled their weight soon after they were taken from her. She could have served up to seven years under a sentence handed down in Superior Court.
The case came to light in 2003 when neighbors spotted a severely underweight Bruce Jackson, then 19, rummaging for food in garbage cans outside his Collingswood home. He now is in a state home for the developmentally disabled.
Vanessa Jackson would have been eligible for parole after two years, but was denied early release on two occasions because she refused to "accept responsibility for her actions," said Neal Buccino, parole board spokesman. "She still places blame on the children's medical conditions."
Jackson declined a request for an interview; one of the children said he hoped she would see a picture of him and realize that she was wrong.
"I think it's good she's getting out so she can see how we're doing and what we look like," said Terrell Parrish, now 16, and living with new adoptive parents and the two other boys who had lived in the Jackson home.
"I would like her to see that we put on good weight and have good clothes on, and to see how strong we are," Parrish said. "She doesn't have to apologize if she doesn't want to, but it would be best for her to do that. What she did was very wrong, and how can you do that to someone?"
Prosecutors said the boys, then 9, 10, 14, and 19, were fed raw pancake batter and oatmeal and forced to sit on a step for hours for punishment while their two adopted sisters and a foster daughter were well-treated. Bruce weighed only 45 pounds and stood 4 feet tall.
Another brother, Michael, now 15, said: "I wish her luck and perseverance." He added: "I'm over it."
The fourth boy, Tre'Shawn, is attending college and was unavailable for comment.
James Parrish, a Cumberland County minister who with his wife adopted the three younger boys, said the brothers no longer hate their former mother because they have learned in church they should love others. He said they suffered nightmares and received counseling services, but for the most part they have "blossomed into young men" who all are on the honor roll and are happy.
Still, James Parrish said he was upset to hear Vanessa Jackson won't admit her mistakes. "She should have gotten the same amount of time that Bruce and Tre'Shawn were starved: 14 years. She should have to sit and think about it," he said.
Vanessa Jackson's husband, Raymond Sr., also was charged in the case, but he died of a stroke in 2004. A year later, Vanessa Jackson pleaded guilty to one count of endangering the welfare of a child. During her sentencing hearing, she said only "yes" when asked if she was in charge of their food and "yes" when asked if they failed to thrive.
The defense lawyers argued the boys all had preexisting medical conditions that caused them to be underweight. But they could not explain why the boys gained so much weight and regained their health soon after they were removed from the home.
Marcia Lowry, director of Children's Rights, a New York organization that took up the case in civil court, said she had no comment on Jackson's prison sentence or release.
"Our concern is what happens to the kids and making sure it doesn't happen to more kids," said Lowry.
Her organization won a $12.5 million settlement for the four boys when it sued the state Division of Youth and Family Services for failure to enforce basic rules in foster homes and for ignoring the boys' conditions. It was the largest award in DYFS' history.
Matt Schuman, spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said Jackson will not be under parole supervision when she's freed. She was given credits for good behavior and for her work in a prison sewing program. Normally, he said, inmates don't serve their full term "unless they keep getting into trouble in prison."
The prison's final act, he said, will be to give Jackson "money for the bus" when the paperwork is completed, unless she has a ride.