A family member maintains the children were not abused, but suffered from medical conditions — including eating disorders — that dated back to their births.
The case has prompted state officials to review thousands of recently completed safety assessments to see if the state is protecting children in its care. Meanwhile, nine child welfare employees were fired Monday, including a caseworker who was supposed to be visiting the family regularly.
Social workers have claimed they visited the home at least 38 times in the past four years. Child welfare administrators now say they doubt whether those visits took place, with the most recent one said to have occurred Sept. 15. Criminal charges were being considered.
"I had staff that were either incompetent, uncaring or who had falsified records," said Department of Human Services Commissioner Gwendolyn Harris. "I have members of this division who have failed children almost to the cost of their very lives."
The four adopted boys — one of them 19 — were found earlier this month at their house in Collingswood, malnourished and weighing less than 50 pounds each. Their adoptive parents, Vanessa Jackson, 48, and Raymond Jackson, 50, were arrested Friday and were being held on four counts of aggravated assault and 14 counts of child endangerment.
Prosecutor made the case public over the weekend.
The 19-year-old remained hospitalized Monday and six other children living with the couple, including the three who were malnourished, were placed in foster homes. The oldest boy, Bruce Jackson, has gained 8 pounds, authorities said. When he was found, he was 4 feet tall and weighed 45 pounds.
Authorities said the boys — the other three aged 14, 10 and 9 — were locked out of the family's kitchen and fed a diet of uncooked pancake batter, peanut butter and jelly and cereal. The boys, who told investigators they also chewed on wallboard and insulation, were found after a neighbor discovered the oldest boy rummaging through trash for food.
Raymond Jackson's brother said the children were emaciated because of medical conditions dating back to their births.
"They were born with drug addiction and eating disorders. As long as I've known these kids, they've never grown," William Jackson said.
Camden County Prosecutor Vincent P. Sarubbi said two of the boys had fetal alcohol syndrome and two had eating disorders, but he said those conditions were not the reason the boys were emaciated.
"It appears the parents convinced the family and neighbors that these boys had eating disorders and everyone accepted that," said Colleen Maguire, special deputy commissioner at the Department of Human Services.
Three girls in the home — two adopted and the third a foster daughter the couple wanted to adopt — all seemed to be in better shape, authorities said. The Jacksons received up to $28,000 a year from the state for their adopted children's care.
"It's inconceivable how a case worker could go there and not detect these atrocious conditions," Gov. James E. McGreevey said Monday. "People who made bad decisions will be held accountable."
Child advocate Kevin M. Ryan, who was named to the post earlier this year after a fatal child abuse case in Newark, will investigate managers with the Division of Youth and Family services who should have been aware of the conditions, McGreevey said.
State officials said they intend to change the policy that licenses foster homes and are considering requiring annual medical exams for children in adoptive or foster situations. An independent panel also will review 14,000 children's cases.
New Jersey's Division of Youth and Family Services came under intense pressure for reform when the body of 7-year-old Faheem Williams was found decomposed in a storage box in a Newark basement. His twin brother and their 4-year-old half brother were discovered alive but emaciated in an adjoining room.
By Tom Bell