Family Grows From 9 to 30
When Eric first met the Jackson family and covered them as an associate producer for "48 Hours," they had a total of 18 children. Now they have 30. Eric wanted to share his thoughts on the story with Public Eye:(click the picture to watch this morning's update).
When I first met the Jackson family five years ago, my leg was in a cast due to a mishap in a recent soccer game. In the Jackson home my cast and crutches meant I fit right in. Within the household were children with a range of ailments: a prosthetic leg, club foot, clef palate, arms that literally bent the wrong way, and a host of past emotional traumas.
At the time, Mary-Jo and Michael Jackson had 18 children. In total, there were 12 still in the house - 11 adopted and the youngest Jackson biological child who would be leaving for college the next year. But it was clear even then that this family would continue to grow.
The Jacksons first came to my attention when a photo of the family appeared in a national magazine article about "mega-families." Back then I worked for the CBS News broadcast "48 Hours," where an upcoming hour would feature a number of incredible families. The Jacksons seemed a natural fit.
The magazine article brought the family quite a bit of attention from network news programs so I drove out to Lancaster, Penn., to persuade Mary-Jo and Michael to grant CBS News their exclusive story. We talked for hours. Within a couple of days, the Jacksons agreed to go with CBS News and "48 Hours."
To me, their story seemed so rich because it offered something fascinating for the audience to watch but at the same time, raised so many questions.
Almost everyone I know reacted to the story the same way when I talked about it. Usually, people would be suspicious. The top questions: 1. Why? 2. How do they afford all those kids? Which would quickly be followed by: Do they get money from the state? (answer: no) 3. Are they very religious? 4. Are they crazy?
But after watching the segment, almost everyone would be won over by two people who are clearly among the most giving parents in the world. All in all, the family seemed so loving, so giving, and so supportive that the questions were muted.
For five years I've kept in touch with the Jacksons - mostly via e-mail and by checking in on the family Web site Onehugefamily.com. Every time I learned of another adoption I had to wonder: Is this getting to be too much?
At what point - at what number of children - do the Jacksons stop being "that incredible family in Pennsylvania" and start seeming, well, to be blunt: odd?
When the Jacksons reached 30 children - 7 biological, 22 adopted, and one living with them under a guardianship - a wave of new questions came flooding into my head. My own internal Dr. Phil was going into overdrive -- especially when I learned that two of the adopted children had left the family upon reaching legal age and, at least for the time being, had severed contact.
Was this an experiment falling apart? Were Mom and Dad stretched too thin?
If some children had left, isn't that a sign it's time to stop adopting and hunker down with the kids already there?
I walked into the Jackson home two weeks ago to say hello. It was the night before the shoot I'd planned for an update of the 2001 story - this new piece would be for "The Early Show." Twenty-one children now lived in the house - nine more than on my first visit. Some of the kids remembered me and said I looked older. One said my hair looked better - that kid is now my favorite.
Some of the new kids - as they ask almost everyone who walks into the house - asked if I was staying. All of them were inviting.
The Jacksons have always focused on adopting hard-to-place children - feeling it would be wrong, after having seven healthy biological children, to pursue healthy newborns.
But it seemed to me they were upping the ante. Physical handicaps are nothing new among Jackson children ... But now there is one child, wheelchair- bound, without the proper use of her arms. She needs help eating and bathing. Another child needed both legs amputated. One child has issues with communicating.
And I had to ask myself - are the parents testing themselves? Are they seeing just how far they can go?
On the day of our shoot, the Jacksons had to go to court in order to finalize the adoption of three more children. I was told ahead of time it would be a formality, but the drama junkie in me wondered if the judge might pull a surprise. Would he look at the 18 brothers and sisters watching along and decide, whoa, enough is enough? Would he admonish the parents for taking their passion too far? Would he sign the papers but warn it would be the last time?
No. He lavished praise on the Jackson family for what they do. So did the social worker who testified on behalf of the parents in support of their petition to adopt. The judge, in fact, expressed sorrow that it would be his last time approving a Jackson adoption now that that the family is moving to upstate New York.
Personally, I couldn't get over how well all of the kids were behaved in the courtroom.
And then, I couldn't get over how well behaved they were at lunch, and swimming in the backyard, and watching TV in the family room and so on. Sure, there are the typical sibling spats over the volume on the TV or what to watch ... but that normalcy is part of what makes the family incredible.
As does the way the children help one another. Mary-Jo is quick to point out that the family isn't dependent on the older kids to watch out for the younger. She would stop adopting, she says, if she had to impose on the older children to be assistant parents. But everywhere you look, these kids look out for their brothers and sisters. Those more physically able help the ones with handicaps. The older kids do keep an eye on their younger siblings the protective way any older brother or sister would. And natural leaders have emerged.
The Jackson parents bristle a little at the suggestion that they've created another orphanage. Well, it's one thing to hear them say they are a family - but to hear 16-year-old daughter Amy speak, sums it up.
"In an orphanage, while you are closer to each other than anybody else you are nowhere near that close. So you are pretty much always looking out for yourself," she said. "In a family, you don't have to watch your back all the time, 'cause you have got lots of people watching your back."
I came away from my most recent visit with the Jacksons much the way I did after first meeting them in 2001. Not all of my questions were answered. While I think I understand why they've chosen to adopt, I can't say that I understand why they adopt so many.
But it's not as if Mary-Jo and Michael woke up one day and decided to have 30 children. The family has grown gradually, adapting along the way. So is 30 kids too many? Is 29? 28? 20? 15? What is the number where this incredible giving family crosses the line? I don't have an answer to that question. I know that what the Jacksons do, while certainly not for everyone, works for them.
And when I start to think about the 30 children the Jacksons have provided with a home, a future, and most of all, a family, I end up with one question that trumps them all: could I pick out one to send back? Could you?