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Hell House Revisited

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The Jackson family, including father Raymond and mother Vanessa. Bruce, 19, is to the right, in the plaid collar.  

Experts like Blinder grant that this sort of concentration of the already rare behavior of rumination defies the odds, to put things mildly: “Somewhere buried in the medical-curiosity literature, you might find another case,” he says. But it’s at least plausible—especially given their uniformly chaotic backgrounds and the increasingly institution-like setting inside the fast-expanding Jackson household. “Can children learn these behaviors? Yes, that can happen,” says Dr. Mae Sokol, a specialist in child and adolescent eating disorders at the Creighton University School of Medicine.

The Jacksons gradually adopted all four boys, as well as a pair of girls who were in much better physical and psychological shape: Keziah, now 13, and Jacee, now 6. Throughout, DYFS inspectors hailed the Jacksons as accomplished foster parents who were “doing an excellent job” and providing a “nurturing, stable environment” for the children placed with them. The children were always well turned out, and the house was always clean. The “Hell House” captured by the New York Post was actually the product of a ham-fisted police search following the Jacksons’ arrest.

“The Jacksons in any other circumstance would have been on the cover of Adoption Weekly. You would have been holding these people up as examples to the community,” says Paul Alexander, a union officer representing DYFS workers in southern New Jersey. “All those kids came with baggage. Man, you’d be having dinners in their honor.”

The indictment says the Jacksons failed to take their children to doctors, and this is true—to a point. Early on, the Ryan report shows, Vanessa brought Bruce to a series of medical services, including a gastroenterologist and at least one therapist. In one year, he had four exams relating to eating abnormalities. The other adopted and foster children also had regular medical checkups until 1997. Since then, however, the appointments stopped. To Sarubbi, this is proof of “extreme indifference to the value of human life.”

It is a hard oversight to explain. According to Josselson, the Jacksons stopped taking Bruce to specialists because they were told his bizarre practices were “behavioral,” which they took to mean a problem of discipline. They felt there was nothing doctors could do to help any of the boys. “From my understanding, the children just weren’t sick,” says Josselson, describing the parents’ way of thinking. This went for the children’s physical ailments as well as their psychological ones. Several of the boys had rotting teeth, a by-product of the rumination, which the parents took as unavoidable. “I know they were advised at some point that essentially nothing could be done to save the teeth because of this continuous rumination, and they kind of just accepted that,” Josselson says.

In her defense, Vanessa Jackson, the mother, says none of the biological children received medical care during this period, either. “I did not do them any different than my biological ones,” she said firmly. She, too, had not seen a dentist in years, and is missing most of her upper teeth, a fact I found startling but significant when we first met. Right or wrong, the Jackson household doesn’t seem to regard the loss of teeth as anything all that exceptional.

All of which restates, in a way, the central dilemma propelling the Jackson case: How do you assess parents’ failure to accommodate the needs of children with demanding developmental challenges? Put differently, where is the line drawn between inept parenting and criminal abuse? Typically, the legal response is to remove the child to safety and leave it at that, experts say. “If the parent is doing the best they can, [and] for whatever reason that’s not enough, that typically is considered civil neglect, not criminal abuse,” says Philip Genty, a Columbia Law School professor of family law. In Camden, the police and prosecutors think that’s hardly enough. “I don’t buy that they didn’t know what they were doing,” says one area law-enforcement official. “They weren’t too helpless to apply for increases in their adoption stipends.” Indeed, the prosecution’s emerging theory about motive in the case is that Raymond and Vanessa kept taking in kids for the subsidy money granted in connection with such placements. Even so, the total yearly payment of about $30,000 to the Jacksons is well shy of a windfall. The family was so strapped the summer prior to Bruce’s hospitalization that their power and gas were shut off for several months, and were only reinstated when Pastor Thomas and Come Alive paid their outstanding balances.

The prosecution team had another reason to suspect the worst of the Jacksons. Earlier in the year, another horrific New Jersey child-starvation case had stormed through the media. In January 2003, the live-in boyfriend of a Newark go-go dancer named Sherry Murphy wandered into the basement of the house they shared and discovered she was keeping two foster sons, ages 4 and 7, in a locked basement room. Both kids were severely malnourished and lying in their own bodily waste. Investigators later found the decomposed body of a third boy in a sealed plastic container. That case, in which Murphy has been charged with attempted murder, kidnapping, and assorted child-endangerment counts, has yet to go to trial, but it sparked an immediate reform of state child-welfare laws and a shakeup of the DYFS system. So when a second starvation case surfaced, involving another foster family, the tabloid press and New Jersey officialdom were primed to react forcefully. Demanding action, Governor James E. McGreevey let it be known that news of the Jackson boys’ condition “angered and shocked” him.

Indeed, the news was shocking. This much is undisputed. On October 10, after two in the morning, Bruce Jackson sneaked out of the third-floor room he shared with his four brothers and slipped outside through an unlocked side door. He reached a blocky apartment complex two doors away and began to comb the garbage cans for food. The clatter alarmed Mike Byrd, a cook, and his wife, Jennifer Spurlock, who lived on the third floor. “I pushed the window up and told the person to get out of the trash,” Spurlock recalled in an affidavit she provided a Jackson-family attorney and confirmed to me. “He yelled back, ‘I am hungry.’ ”

While her husband dialed 911, Spurlock plied Bruce with questions. He responded by saying he didn’t have any family and couldn’t recall his last name. He also said he had walked in his socks from downtown Camden, four miles away, though he was just a few yards from home.

Over the next few days at Our Lady of Lourdes hospital in Camden, Bruce gave a series of interviews to detectives from the prosecutor’s office. What emerged from them was a harrowing portrait of the Jackson home as a Dickensian compound of neglect, abuse, and agony. As Bruce told it, the other children flourished while he and his brothers were locked out of the kitchen, forced to eat uncooked pancake batter, and eventually driven by their desperate hunger to chew on wallboard and fiberglass insulation. (A judge has deemed him non compos mentis, and an appointed guardian did not answer phone calls seeking comment.)


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