COLLINGSWOOD, N.J. (AP) When authorities found Bruce Jackson looking for food in a garbage can around 3 a.m. on Oct. 10, he was 4-feet tall and weighed 45 pounds. A typical 7-year-old boy, they thought, giving him one of the stuffed animals the department uses to comfort child victims.
Jackson clutched the tiger close to him with one hand. With the other, he shoveled dry cereal into his mouth, Collingswood Police Chief Thomas Garrity recalled.
Hours later, authorities would learn Jackson was really a 19-year-old man. The story of he and his three brothers, all adopted and starving in their suburban Philadelphia home, would become the latest chapter in the saga of the state’s troubled child welfare agency.
Jackson told authorities his name was Bruce, but didn’t know his last name or where he lived. He was polite, but he wasn’t speaking in complete sentences. His teeth were rotting.
For five hours at the police station and then at a hospital, police did not know who this hungry child was or where he belonged.
At 8 a.m., Garrity said, Raymond Jackson called the police station to report his son was missing.
By noon, authorities had removed six other children — three boys and three girls, all adopted except for a girl who was a foster child — from the three-story house the Jacksons rented.
The boys were taken to a hospital and the girls to foster homes.
Raymond Jackson, 50, and his wife Vanessa, 48, waited. They were so devastated they skipped church that first Sunday, their pastor said.
They visited the boys in the hospital daily, authorities said. The younger boys — ages 9, 10 and 14 — were all fed intravenously, then given solid meals. Within two weeks, they had each gained five pounds.
By last weekend, the three younger boys were released from hospitals to new foster families. On Tuesday, Bruce remained in a cardiac unit for monitoring of his irregular heartbeat.
It had already been a hard month for the couple. Their landlord notified their church that they were close to $9,000 behind in rent, said the Rev. Harry Thomas, the pastor at Come Alive! New Testament Church in Medford.
The church agreed to pay $500 each month toward the back rent and also to pay off the $1,900 in back electricity bills so the family’s power could be restored after several months.
“They were humiliated that I had learned of their financial plight,” Thomas said.
The couple had been a member of the congregation for more than 10 years, attending services almost every Sunday. The children — except for Bruce — sang and danced for the congregation. They were always dressed well, congregants said.
Their adoptive mother home-schooled the children.
“She’s always present and with the kids,” Thomas said. “She’s not a conversationalist.”
Their adoptive father, however, was an outgoing man, a financial consultant who fed the homeless and sang in nursing homes, Thomas said.
When Raymond Jackson found out the pastor knew about his debts, he told Thomas that business had been off since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Camden County Prosecutor Vincent P. Sarubbi said the family’s main income was the stipend from the state to take care of the children. That totaled $28,000 a year until Bruce turned 18 in 2002, and the payments decreased.
Thomas said the Jacksons began adopting the children they had cared for as foster parents because “they didn’t want them to bounce around anymore.”
The four boys came into the Jackson house as foster children between 1991 and 1995 and they were all adopted by 1998. They lived in the three-story beige house adorned with religious icons with two adopted sisters, a foster sister and four of the Jacksons’ five grown children.
Sarubbi said two of the foster children had Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and two had eating disorders. He wouldn’t specify which children had which disorders.
But friends and neighbors who asked about the size of the children — especially Bruce — were told the kids were sick.
“He’s the one that used to eat, regurgitate and swallow it again,” said Mary Romaska, a longtime friend of the Jacksons. “That’s a problem with him and that’s the way they got him.”
She said that’s one reason the family may have kept food from him.
“The people believed what the parents told them,” said Garrity, the police chief. “If someone tells you their child is sick, you don’t want to intrude on that.”
But Sarubbi said the doctors and geneticists who examined the children found their growth was stunted by starvation over at least five years.
They were locked out of the kitchen, authorities said, and fed only peanut butter, jelly, uncooked pancake batter and cereals like oatmeal.
Sarubbi said a hole in the wall of the Jackson home had teeth marks on window sills; the boys told investigators they ate wallboard and insulation and gnawed on window sills for sustenance.
Dr. Janet Squires, director of the Child Advocacy Center at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, said it’s unlikely a child would be so emaciated because of a medical disorder. If that were the case, the child should have been under a doctor’s supervision, she said.
Sarubbi said the children have had no medical care for at least five years.
The parents were charged Oct. 24 with crimes including aggravated assault, failing to feed the boys and failing to provide a safe environment for children. If found guilty of all counts, the Jacksons could each be sentenced to five to 146 years in prison.
The public defender’s office expects to represent at least one of the Jacksons, though no lawyer for either has come forward.
They were being held in the Camden County Jail on $100,000 bail. Sarubbi said if they are able to post bail, he will ask a judge to keep them away from the children.