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Hell House Revisited

Vanessa and Ray Jackson are being prosecuted for starving their adoptive sons. But the kids may have starved themselves—as the state of New Jersey looked on and did nothing.

(Photo credit: Michele Asselin)

A few weeks ago, Raymond and Vanessa Jackson—the New Jersey couple accused of starving their four adoptive sons—received a plump envelope from the state’s Division of Youth and Family Services. The Jacksons are used to such communiqués. The state is seeking to terminate their adoption rights over the four boys; it has also removed two adopted girls and a foster daughter from their large home in Collingswood, a comfortable village near Camden. But the envelope contained none of the now-familiar legal notices or court filings. Instead, the Jacksons found four handmade greeting cards forwarded from Keziah, 13, one of their adopted girls now living with a foster family. The cards marked events long past: Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, an anniversary, and a birthday. It’s been more than a year since the Jacksons have seen Keziah, whom they adopted when she was less than a week old. As a condition of bail, a judge ordered them not to communicate with any of the children or come within 500 yards. It had taken the state this long to forward Keziah’s greetings.

“We couldn’t answer the letters, because of the restraining order,” Raymond Jackson told me earlier this month, going public for the first time since the couple’s legal odyssey began. “She has no idea how much these meant to us.” He reached for the envelopes, which were festooned with heart-shaped stickers and girlish affirmations like MISS YOU! and SUPER PARENTS!

“She wrote, ‘Have a good Father’s Day without me. Don’t worry too much about me, I’m doing great,’ ” Jackson read out loud, his voice breaking noticeably. “ ‘I still love you very much. Sometimes I cry about you. Hugs and kisses, Keziah.’ ” He reached for another card, on which Keziah had written, “I still love you very much, no matter what happens—I love you till the day I die.”

Keziah’s package has arrived at an especially charged moment. Indeed, in the next few weeks, a family-court judge is expected to sever parental rights over the adopted children. And sometime next year, the Jacksons will stand trial on 28 counts of assault and child endangerment. They could spend the rest of their lives in prison.

The star witness against them will be their oldest adopted boy, Bruce, who launched the Jacksons into tabloid infamy last year when he slipped out of the family home on a late-night mission to scavenge food from neighborhood trash bins. He was disoriented, shoeless, cold, and extremely malnourished. At the time, Bruce Jackson was 19 years old, but no one knew it to look at him. When Collingswood police officers arrived on the scene, they estimated he was 7 years old; he stood only four feet tall, and once they took him to a local hospital, they learned he weighed all of 45 pounds. Later, when police arrived at the Jackson household, they found three other stunted and scrawny boys. The combined weight of all four—Bruce; Keith, 14; Tyrone, 10; and Michael, 9—was just 136 pounds, about as much as a full-grown Rottweiler. Some had head lice and badly rotting teeth.

As investigators looked more deeply into the Jackson home, the pattern of maltreatment appeared to take on a malicious cast. Everybody else in the very crowded, Evangelical household was obviously well-fed, in some cases even overweight. State officials soon surmised that this was a gruesome, Cinderella-like story: In a scheme to bilk adoption subsidies, the adopted boys were being systematically deprived. “This is the most horrible, most significant child-abuse case we’ve ever had,” Camden County prosecutor Vincent Sarubbi said this summer when he announced the indictments. The parents argued that the boys suffered from eating disorders that kept them from developing properly, but the media discounted that scenario in favor of the more lurid, and seemingly more empirical, one of perverse parental neglect. After a reporter for the New York Post peered into the disheveled Jackson home, a headline writer there delivered the bywords that have stuck to the case ever since: INSIDE HELL HOUSE. Even the usually sober New York Times jumped right past journalistic convention, confidently bypassing “allegedly” to assert in an editorial that the four Jackson boys “had been systematically starved by their adoptive parents over a period of years.”

State inspectors hailed the Jacksons as accomplished foster parents who were “doing an excellent job”and providing a “nurturing, stable environment.”

But if this were so, why would an adoptive daughter—also deemed a “neglected child” in the indictment because of conditions in the home—still think of the Jacksons as “super parents”? It could be a vicarious instance of Stockholm syndrome—unwarranted emotional identification with her brothers’ captors and tormentors. Or the 13-year-old might have been party to the Jacksons’ alleged scam, blissfully gorging herself as her brothers starved.

But a sustained look at the Jackson case suggests that the parents’ initial explanation of events—and Keziah’s portrait of the mood within the family—may be closer to the truth. Adoption records and medical documents indicate that the boys—Bruce most of all—were placed with the Jackson family in part because they already suffered from the very medical and psychological traumas the parents now stand accused of causing. Interviews with numerous family friends—including a lawyer, a doctor, a child-welfare advocate, and a police officer who saw the children every week—all dispute the prosecutors’ case down to its smallest particulars. There is no denying that the boys were grievously malnourished. But there’s a world of difference, in the view of the Jacksons’ allies, between the deliberate starvation and neglect that Raymond and Vanessa Jackson stand accused of and the inept struggles of two well-meaning foster parents who were in way over their heads, tasked with caring for needy children in an overcrowded household of limited resources.

“I know some people had doubt” about the Jacksons’ claim to innocence, says Ellen Beckwold, a friend from church. “But I didn’t. No, there’s no way this is possible.” Other parishioners say that just weeks before Bruce’s escape in October 2003, the family attended a church buffet, filling their plates without any signs of desperation, fear, or pathology.

Harry Thomas, pastor for the Evangelical Come Alive New Testament Church in nearby Medford, New Jersey, where the Jacksons worship, considers them a model family. Still, he concedes the children apparently lacked appropriate medical care. Thanks to the coordinated attention of physicians and psychiatrists, Bruce has since gained more than 50 pounds and shot up to five feet; his brothers have scored equally dramatic gains. “If they were malnourished, they were malnourished,” Thomas says. “But were they purposely starved? Was an anorexic person purposely starved? A bulimic person purposely starved? No. They may do it to themselves. But it’s certainly not their parents’ fault.” The fault, he believes, resides with the Division of Youth and Family Services, or DYFS (pronounced “DYE-fuss”). DYFS officials pushed 35 foster-care children through the household in a decade and permanently placed difficult kids there without providing special training. Vanessa has a high-school diploma, and Ray’s only higher education is from the Camden County Police Academy, for a former job as a sheriff’s officer. “It’s kind of like dropping off an anorexic girl at your house,” Thomas says, “and saying ‘Just love her like you do the rest of your kids.’ And then coming back ten years later and saying ‘You’re starving this girl!’ ”

Today, the Jacksons live in a small and extremely tidy one-story house south of Collingswood. On the refrigerator door are layers of family snapshots, and hanging on the wall in the living room are several framed portrait photographs of the Jackson clan. Since the day they were arrested, Raymond and Vanessa have remained silent, on the advice of attorneys, but they invited me to their home one evening recently with Pastor Thomas’s encouragement, believing their silence has done little to counter the perception of their guilt. “We did this for the state,” Raymond Jackson says, explaining why they took in so many children. “I believe it’s a responsibility to mentor some kids . . . And then all of a sudden, for the state to say that I would do harm to some kids?” He shakes his head. “We don’t like boys, they said? Well, if we hated boys . . . ” The idea strikes him as so impossible that he can’t complete the sentence.

The couple began taking in foster kids in 1991, following the example of Vanessa’s mother. Seven-year-old Bruce Roy II, as he was known then, arrived that December. He was their third foster child, and like the others he was considered an emergency placement, expected to stay only a few days, Raymond Jackson recalls. It was immediately clear that Bruce was a damaged child. He was very small and didn’t make eye contact, but instead stared at the kitchen floor and laughed to himself inappropriately. “He wasn’t crying. Most kids would,” says Jackson. “He was standoffish. But the thing that made me notice he really was different was when he went to the bathroom on the kitchen floor—he peed on the kitchen floor.”

The boy’s language skills also seemed delayed. The Jacksons’ biological daughter LaRae was 10 when Bruce turned up in the house. She recalls how he fixated on an illustrated place mat, pointing out a banana and asking what it was. “You’d go, ‘Banana,’ and he’d go, ‘Oooh, you said that word!’ ” she says. “Then he’d put up another picture, and he’d be like, ‘What’s that?’ ‘Telephone.’ And he’s like, ‘Oooh, you said that word!’ ”