The oldest never seemed to grow, and the four rarely left the house except to cut the grass with shears, said Kristine Kordacki, who could see the boys' yard from her window.
But now that the children's adoptive parents, Vanessa and Raymond Jackson, have been charged with trying to starve them, residents of this Philadelphia suburb say they wish they had acted differently.
"Now I'm like, why didn't I call?" Kordacki said.
Adding to the horror is that one of the children isn't a child at all — he's a 19-year-old man, who was 4 feet tall and 40 pounds when authorities found him rummaging through a neighbor's trash on Oct. 10. He is now hospitalized.
Three other boys, ages 14, 10, and 9, also were removed from the home and hospitalized after being found dramatically underweight. They were released into other foster placements, authorities said.
Pete D'Amico, who lives a few blocks from the Jacksons, said if more neighbors had known what was happening, they would have become involved.
"So help me God," he said, "I did not see the physical facts, or I would've been there."
The children are the latest in a line of high-profile problems for the Division of Youth and Family Services, New Jersey's child welfare agency. The Jacksons adopted the boys through DYFS between 1995 and 1997.
Raymond Jackson's brother said the children were in such bad shape because of problems with their mothers' pregnancies.
"It has nothing to do with being neglected," William Jackson told The Sunday Star-Ledger of Newark. "They were born with drug addiction and eating disorders. As long as I've known these kids, they've never grown."
The Jacksons' biological son and daughter, both in their 20s, also lived in the home, authorities said. Three other girls in the home — two adopted and the third a foster daughter the couple wanted to adopt — all seemed to be in good shape, authorities said.
State officials are investigating why a case worker visiting the family as it tried to adopt the girl did not intervene. That case worker has resigned, and eight to 10 other DYFS workers have been suspended with pay, state officials said.
Raymond Jackson, 50, and Vanessa Jackson, 48, were arrested Friday and charged with four counts of aggravated assault and 14 counts of endangering the welfare of children.
They were being held Sunday in the county jail on $100,000 bail.
In January, Gov. James E. McGreevey ordered emergency measures to overhaul DYFS after authorities found the decomposing body of a 7-year-old boy in a Newark basement. Two other boys were found near-starved in an adjacent room.
By Geoff Mulvihill