Jackson family confounds even child-abuse experts

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Contradictions & opposites abound

Every day around 5 a.m., Raymond Jackson awakened his four adopted sons for an hour of Bible study and prayer.

Under a hot summer sun, a neighbor saw the two older frail wisps of boys, dressed in long-sleeved shirts and pants, cut overgrown grass for hours with hand-held clippers.

With sunken faces, they scrubbed clothes in a bucket outside their three-story home in Collingswood, N.J., where on both sides of the front door a sticker read: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” – Joshua 24: 15.

This house that sits on a bustling section of White Horse Pike is quiet these days. Raymond and Vanessa Jackson, both out on $100,000 bail for allegedly starving their adopted four sons, have stayed with relatives since Bruce, 19, was found rummaging in a neighbor’s garbage looking for food scraps.

That night of Oct. 10, Bruce stood 4-feet tall and weighed 45 pounds. Today he eats regular meals in Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden and has gained at least 23 pounds, more than half his body weight, according to N.J. child advocate Kevin Ryan.

And yesterday, West Orange, N.J., attorney Michael Critchley was appointed as Bruce’s legal counsel.

While the boys’ condition improves daily, even seasoned child- abuse experts are baffled by the Jacksons, a family of contradictions and opposites.

A lock on the kitchen door and alarm on the refrigerator were for the adopted boys only, not for the six girls and one biological son who lived there too, an investigator said.

While the girls were well-fed, the boys, all malnourished, lived on mostly uncooked pancake batter, raw oatmeal and peanut butter. They shared an attic loft where investigators found a gaping hole in the wall. Cops believe Bruce ate drywall and insulation.

The girls apparently were taken regularly for doctor exams; the boys hadn’t seen a doctor in at least four years.

“There were two different worlds,” said one investigator.

Unlike some accused child abusers, the Jacksons were not addicted to drugs or alcohol. Nor did they keep the boys sheltered from family friends or social gatherings.

The Jacksons frequently fed the homeless on Camden streets and near the Ben Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia. They regularly attended Come Alive New Testament Church in Medford and always sat in the front row for services. They took part in church picnics and the boys sang gospel on stage.

To dozens of friends and acquaintances, the Jacksons were model parents who adopted troubled children with a host of medical problems, children no one else wanted. They believed that it was their duty and that Jesus would guide them, friends said.

Last winter at a church prayer meeting for men held at a campground, Raymond Jackson broke down, said Chris Cascarella, who has known the Jacksons for 10 years.

“He was crying and started to pour his heart out,” Cascarella said. “He seemed really concerned about his children’s conditions. He asked God to have mercy on them and heal them.”

Child-abuse experts suspect the Jacksons used food deprivation and strict, misguided discipline techniques to encourage the boys to bond and obey them.

“They seemed to be doing this all for a reason – a belief that this would be good for the boys,” said Frank Cervone, who heads the Support Center for Child Advocates in Philadelphia.

“They seemed to work with a moral compass, but it was a warped compass,” he said.

Raymond and Vanessa Jackson, who were high school sweethearts, have five biological children. Their daughter, Jere, now 20, reportedly suffers from epilepsy and is mentally disabled. Caring for her helped inspire them to adopt.

The Jacksons ended up adopting six children: Bruce; Keith, 14; Tyrone, 10; Michael, 9; Keziah, 12, and Jacee, 5. They also planned to adopt a 10-year-old foster child, Breanna.

By all accounts, the boys had rough beginnings. Bruce had a severe eating disorder, and two other boys have fetal alcohol syndrome.

Bruce’s biological father has said his son started regurgitating food when he was very young. Confidential records at the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services show that by age 2, Bruce regularly gorged on food and vomited, according to the Newark Star-Ledger.

He received medical and psychiatric help when first placed with the Jacksons as a foster child. But after he was adopted in June 1996, there is no record that treatment continued.

The Jacksons received an annual subsidy of about $30,000 to care for foster and adopted children. In addition, Jackson worked as a financial consultant, but they were behind in rent and utilities.

Since 1999, DYFS social workers visited the Jacksons’ home 38 times, but none noted suspected abuse.

Neighbor Pete DiMattia, 39, figured social workers were monitoring the case. He also thought Bruce and Keith were 10 years old.

“I used to see them cut the grass in the front with hand clippers for days,” he said one recent night.

“Those two boys did all the chores outside. One of the elder kids would be supervising,” he said.

“They used to take the trash cans to the street. They’d have to stop a couple of times to get their breath. I used to say, ‘Is everything all right?’ And their response was, ‘Yes, Mr. Pete.’ “

“The Jacksons showed no love to those kids, just work,” said DiMattia, who lives with his wife and 7-year-old son.

Fellow church members, however, paint a different picture of the Jacksons.

“I’ve never been so shocked” to hear the accusations, said Joan Sink, Sunday-school director at the church. “It would be like telling me my sister did this. They’re a loving family. It’s very surreal.”

Dan Hutchins said that for almost five years, the Jacksons regularly baby-sat his children, now 6 and 10.

He ate dinner at their house dozens of times, and often rough-housed with the boys, but rarely with Bruce.

“Bruce would usually hang back. It took him a long time to warm up,” he said. “You knew he was special-needs by the way he talked, the way he carried himself…I’d sometimes tickle him to get him to smile.”

“He was a unique person,” said Hutchins. “He did unique things. But he was never treated differently. He was hugged like the rest of them.”

Many times, he saw the kids eat. “None of them ate like it was their last meal,” Hutchins said.

“The truth is those kids ate. There’s no denying it.”

Dr. Jean Mercer, a psychology professor at Richard Stockton College in Pomona, N.J., couldn’t stop reading about the Jackson case. The details sounded hauntingly familiar.

Mercer has studied a controversial, unorthodox form of therapy – often called attachment therapy – that is used to help build a bond between parents and children. Mercer is a staunch critic of these methods, which can include food restrictions, holding children so tightly they can’t move, even pinning them to the floor, and forcing them to do meaningless, difficult chores as punishment.

She co-authored the book “Attachment Therapy on Trial: The Torture and Death of Candace Newmaker,” describing the suffocation of a 10-year-old girl during a therapy session in Golden, Colo., in April 2000.

Other cases include a Saratoga Springs, Utah, couple who will be tried next year on charges of starving their two adopted Russian children.

Those who adhere to this therapy believe that children form emotional attachments to their parents because they give them food, Mercer said. Food is withdrawn to reinforce parents’ authority.

“This is a very cruel and ineffective form of treatment,” Mercer said.

Based on descriptions of the Jackson boys, Mercer strongly suspects their adoptive parents followed this therapy method. “The Jacksons may have thought this was a good idea, that they had to do it for the children’s sake…I’m pretty convinced this is the case.”

New Jersey child advocate Ryan said there was no mention of attachment therapy in DYFS documents he has seen.

Why the boys were treated so differently from the girls still baffles him. He said he’s never seen parents treat children so differently within one family based simply on gender. “They could have been a couple who were overwhelmed or simply cruel,” he said.

Some experts also wonder if at least one or two of the Jackson boys suffered from “psychosocial dwarfism,” a condition in which children are so emotionally starved for so long that their growth hormones shut down. These children often eat from garbage cans, gorge or vomit, said Dr. Cindy Christian, who heads the Center for Child Protection and Health at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

“If you remove them from those environments, their growth takes off, often rather dramatically,” she said. Keith and Tyrone Jackson live in rehabilitation facilities. The youngest brother, Michael, described by family friends as lively and intelligent, is in a foster home. Together the brothers have gained more than 58 pounds.

A grand jury is expected to convene early next year to hear testimony in the case, and the Jacksons’ staunch supporters are convinced they will be vindicated.

But neighbor Pete DiMattia feels sick inside when he gazes at the dark house where the boys used to live.

“The last time I saw them, their complexions looked gray. They never smiled. They had a troubling look, a look of despair.

“That look will never leave me.”

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Philadelphia Daily News, USA
Dec. 2, 2003
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