Starved At Home?

N.J. Parents Face Criminal Charges For Starving Their Adopted Sons

When the story first broke last fall, it shocked the nation. A boy who weighed only 45 pounds was found eating food out of a garbage can. Incredibly, he turned out to be 19 years old.

Authorities allege that four adopted boys in New Jersey were being starved by their parents. The boys, ages 9 to 19, weighed 136 pounds all together.

Earlier today, a grand jury indicted the parents, Raymond and Vanessa Jackson, on multiple counts of child endangerment and aggravated assault -- each count carrying a possible 10 year prison sentence.

When 60 Minutes II first broadcast this story last November, we had mostly questions. How is it that the Jackson's five biological children, and three other girls in their care, were all healthy -- while the four boys were all allegedly starved?

Now, as Correspondent Dan Rather reports, there are some answers.

Vanessa and Raymond Jackson have followed their lawyers' advice not to talk to 60 Minutes II for this update. So we'll include the little they told us back in November, shortly after their four adopted boys and three foster children were removed from their home.

"I do want to say…we miss our children," says Raymond Jackson. "Really … We want our children back."

"I miss my kids," adds Vanessa Jackson. "A lot."

The story broke on Oct. 10, 2003, when a neighbor made a 911 call to Collingswood police, just before 3 a.m., claiming that "a very young kid" was eating out of a trashcan.

The boy eating garbage was not a young kid, but a 19 year old who identified himself as Bruce. He weighed 45 pounds and was 4 feet tall. The neighbor who made the call sounded distraught: "He says he's 19. He can't be 19. Oh, Bruce, I'm about to start crying. It's a shame."

Police went to the house and found not just Bruce, but his three adopted brothers, who also looked underfed. A family picture was published coast to coast showing Michael, 9, and 23 pounds; Tyrone, 10, and 28 pounds; and Keith, 14, at 40 pounds.

Authorities were quoted as saying the boys allegedly "were locked out of the refrigerator," and fed only "peanut butter, uncooked pancake batter and cereal." Bruce was said to be so hungry that he "chewed on wallboard."

The adopted boys were removed from the home, and their parents were briefly jailed.

Raymond and Vanessa's explanation is that the children had eating disorders predating their adoption -- allegedly evident in a home movie where Bruce apparently regurgitated the food he swallowed, and then chewed it again.
Love for the parents was also expressed by their biological children, including LaRae, Renee and Raymond, who told 60 Minutes II, in the only interview they've granted, that the adopted boys were not starved.

"I mean, we would have, like, the same meals. We'd eat breakfast, lunch and dinner and stuff together," says Raymond Jackson.

"The facts are I was one of the main cooks, also. I would make huge pots of like beans and rice," says Renee. "And Bruce, he would sit with me. He told me how much he even loved my casseroles, my tuna casseroles."

What was their explanation for the condition of their adopted brothers?

"That would be medical. But I mean, I'm not, like, a doctor to tell you in detail what's wrong with them," says LaRae. "But I know it's medical, because I know for a fact, I mean, I live in the house. I know that they eat."

Finally, the biological children offered more than words. They showed home movies of a happy family, with smiling faces along with the thin bodies of the adopted boys.

Now, more than five months after that 911 call to police, a lot has been learned about what really happened inside the Jackson home -- and why danger signals were missed by authorities entrusted to care for the children.

This information was revealed in a scathing report issued earlier this year. The report was written by Kevin Ryan, New Jersey's Child Advocate, with help from Latham & Watkins, a law firm working without a fee. Ryan has been investigating the Jackson case since the story first broke.

Ryan believes that the children were starved, and his report reveals that the boys barely grew in all the years they lived with the Jacksons. Bruce weighed almost 44 pounds in 1991. When removed by police, in October 2003, Bruce weighed 45 pounds.

Keith weighed 38 pounds in August 1996. He weighed only two pounds more seven years later. And Michael weighed 17.5 pounds as a 17 month old. But by last October, the now almost 10-year-old boy weighed less than five pounds more.

And how about Tyrone, whom Ryan calls TJ? "TJ enters Mr. and Mrs. Jackson's home in March of 1995, and he weighs, as a 17 month old, 28 pounds. In October of 2003, TJ weighed 28 pounds," says Ryan. "He had not gained any weight in all those years. Having been a 17 month old to a 10 year old. Can you imagine, he had gained not a single pound?"

60 Minutes II can't show you how TJ and other boys now look, because they are living in undisclosed new foster homes.

But Ryan was eager to reveal evidence of the physical changes of the boys in the first four months since leaving the Jackson home.

"The children have gained substantial amounts of weight," says Ryan. "The children, just being fed a normal diet, and being served vitamin supplements on a daily basis, have all grown both in height and weight, and they're beginning this long road to recovery."

And they've done more than grow in four months. According to Ryan's report, they've sprouted. Less than four months after being removed from the Jackson house, Keith has gained 33 pounds and had grown nearly 2 inches. Michael had gained 21 pounds, and grown 2 and one-eighth inches. And Tyrone had gained 15 pounds and has grown 3 inches.

Contrary to the claims of the biological children, doctors found that the four boys' "low weight and small stature were not caused by any medical condition."

60 Minutes II can't show you how Bruce now looks, but it asked the Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services Lab at LSU to draw pictures of how Bruce might look with his added weight. The lab works with law enforcement agencies to illustrate how missing people change with age.

Forensic artist Eileen Barrow took a picture of the undernourished Bruce. Using his exact facial features, she created a picture showing how Bruce would look four months later.

This is a startling picture, but perhaps more startling is what Ryan learned about The Department of Youth and Family Services -- the agency that is supposed to protect foster and adopted children.

The report title tells it all: "An Examination Of Failures Of New Jersey's Child Protection System And Recommendations For Reform."

"What we're really dealing with here is an agency that missed scores of signs that these children were in trouble," says Ryan. "And time and time again, these signals went either unnoticed, or not followed up on."

Ryan found a long and sorry list of missed signals for Bruce - whom Ryan calls BJ. There is a story from BJ's case file in which a case record reveals that the caseworker had a conversation with BJ while driving one day:

"…in which he begged her to go to McDonald's. And she said no. And then he begged her to go to Dunkin Donuts. And she said no. And he begged her to eat. And she said no. And he found a cookie in her glove compartment. And he quickly snatched it up and ate it, and he spent the rest of the drive, according to the caseworker, begging her not to tell Mrs. Jackson that he had found this cookie and eaten it. And the caseworker eventually agreed that she would not tell Mrs. Jackson. She records that in the case file and it's never again referred to."

"I, for the life of me, just don't understand how common sense seems so elusive in this case," says Ryan, who reported that the child agency ignored its own regulations, including one requiring annual "medical reports" and "in-person interviews" of everyone in the Jackson home since 1997.

Those never happened, and "likely prevented discovery of the boy's medical condition."

Another troubling discovery concerns caseworkers who repeatedly visited the Jackson home. Their sole job was to check on the children before adoption --while they still were in foster care.

In the last four years, caseworkers visited the home 38 times to see foster child Brianna, and reported nothing wrong with the adopted boys.

The Caseworkers Union took to the street last fall to say they were not to blame. "This is a family that had adopted six children who were seen by everybody as wonderful people," says Hetty Rosenstein, president of the Caseworker's Union Local, who claims the agency is underfunded and the caseworkers are overworked.

"That was the mindset. Just because you saw a child run past, say, 'Gee, that child looks a little disabled. Or that child seems small.' You wouldn't think that that means that the parents who seem loving and wonderful are starving them."

Today, it was the Jackson parents who were indicted. And down the road, it may be child agency personnel facing charges for not protecting the children.

Meanwhile, New Jersey officials hope that a tragedy like the Jacksons is not repeated. They've asked for approximately 1,500 new caseworkers, and $141 million of additional funding.

For now, the Jackson home sits empty and for sale. What remain are a religious sign on the front door, and the lingering question - why?

Why did Raymond and Vanessa Jackson allegedly starve their four adopted boys? Only the parents know. And maybe now, in court, we will hear the full story.