Hell House Revisited

(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.”

Stateinspectorshailed theJacksons as accomplishedfoster parentswho were“doing anexcellent job”andproviding a“nurturing,stableenvironment.”

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!’ ”

From top: Bruce, Keith, and Tyrone being interviewed by police.Photo: Courtesy of the Office of Camden County District Attorney

The reasons for Bruce’s state of arrested development were no mystery. His childhood had been hijacked by chaos and abuse. Social workers separated him from his mother when he was just 5 months old, citing her for neglect. From there, he went to live with his paternal grandmother. But before long, DYFS accused his father of abusing the infant. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Bruce Roy Sr. fled to North Carolina with his son in tow, apparently evading the DYFS charges. DYFS workers followed and returned the child to New Jersey. (Citing a court order, DYFS officials refuse to comment on Bruce’s past, but Bruce told police that his father’s abuse was sexual in nature.)

As Bruce settled into the Jackson household, his strange behavior persisted—and grew more elaborate, says Richard Josselson, the high-profile Haddonfield attorney spearheading the defense. Throughout his teen years, Josselson says, Bruce wet his bed. He was disruptive at school, where he reportedly stole other kids’ lunches, and once before ran away from the Jacksons’ home.

But most of Bruce’s odd conduct involved food. The boy would rampage through the house’s cupboards on bulimic-style binges, devouring food in such quantity that he would vomit. “He would come down, and he would eat practically everything he could eat that was edible,” Raymond Jackson says. “There it would be, all around—peanut butter and jelly and milk and cookies and bread … He would eat so much he threw up.” Bruce would also gorge himself on things of no nutritional value—raw rice, kibble from the guinea pig’s cage, tubs of cocoa butter, Jackson says.

Several of the Jacksons’ biological kids, who joined the interview along with their mother, Vanessa, say they noticed the same behavior. “He’d eat whole tubes of toothpaste,” says 21-year-old Verneé, a recently certified medical assistant. “We never used to keep toothpaste upstairs in our bathroom,” agrees Raymond Jr., 19, “because he would eat it. He would eat the whole tube.”

The bingeing got so out of hand, the Jacksons say, that they introduced remedial measures, including an alarm system on the kitchen door—a measure that the county prosecutor calls a lock, and points to as key evidence of the elder Jacksons’ perverse cruelty. “This was strictly for Bruce,” says Raymond Jr. “To keep him from bingeing.”

But the Jacksons say the more damaging eating disorder occurred between meals. Bruce apparently suffered from what doctors eventually diagnosed as “rumination.” Throughout the day, he would surreptitiously draw the contents of his stomach back up into his mouth, re-chew the regurgitated food, and swallow it again. “Bruce would put his hand over his mouth like this,” Raymond Jr. explained, tightly clenching his lower face with his hand. “But you could still see his cheeks expand.”

The family videotaped him doing it, hoping to shock the boy out of the behavior by showing him how awful it looked. The footage is surreal—all the more so because Bruce appears to be regurgitating his food almost unconsciously. His cheeks puff and sink as the acidic contents fill his mouth, and a look resembling satisfaction comes over his glassy eyes.

According to one of the nation’s foremost experts on infantile eating disorders, Dr. Barton J. Blinder of UC Irvine, little is known definitively about rumination. It typically occurs in children who suffered early-life traumas like abandonment, mistreatment, starvation, or lack of attachment with a parent. “There definitely is a relationship between attachment and the development of competence in feeding and appetite regulation,” he says. “In extreme cases, it can be part of a complex psycho-neuro-endocrinologic disturbance, where the child’s appetite-regulation system is not shaped up, doesn’t consolidate, because of a lack of contact.”

Standard therapy involves careful behavior modification in a hospital setting, sometimes accompanied by hypnosis, antispasmodic medication, or electroshock. If not treated early on, experts say, it can readily lead to something called “nonorganic failure to thrive,” a condition in which a child may not gain weight or height, despite ingesting normal amounts of food. If Bruce’s condition fits that general pattern, no other cause may be necessary to explain it. However, prosecutor Sarubbi has discounted all psychological or medical explanations, saying that genetic tests have ruled out such disorders—even though, in turn, medical experts maintain that eating disorders are not accompanied by any known genetic markers in the first place. In a recent telephone interview, Sarubbi expressed doubt that any of the boys had ever been officially diagnosed with any sort of eating disorder. If doctors note otherwise in the boys’ medical records, Sarubbi says, they did so at the prompting of Vanessa Jackson. When she informed them of an alleged earlier such diagnosis, they merely carried it forward, he contends.

But the record, at least in Bruce’s case, seems unequivocal. Bruce’s biological father, Bruce Roy Sr., told the Philadelphia Inquirer last year that Bruce started regurgitating as a very small child: “He wouldn’t do it when other kids were around, but he’d do it around me.” In a Newark Star-Ledger interview, he went on to claim that Bruce was hospitalized six times for food-related reasons—all before his arrival at the Jacksons’ home in 1991. According to the Jacksons’ defense team, however, the family never was certified as a special home service provider—the classification that would qualify them to foster medically unstable children. Such a classification would have triggered specialized training for the Jacksons, and an additional level of support from DYFS.

Instead, in one nine-month period in 1995, DYFS placed three other at-risk boys in the Jackson home. According to a thorough review of the boys’ medical histories compiled by the New Jersey State child advocate Kevin Ryan earlier this year, all three had early growth issues. Michael was already in one of the lowest percentiles for height before he arrived in the Jacksons’ home; DYFS noted Michael’s stature in files, calling it “genetic,” but soon a doctor would suspect the stunting effects of fetal alcohol syndrome, according to the Ryan report. This is consistent with what Vanessa and Raymond have told people about Michael.

Keith, who arrived in the household a few months later, is Michael’s biological brother, though they had been separated for some time. According to his medical records, Keith “presented with some of the stigmata of possible fetal alcohol syndrome,” and had been diagnosed with failure to thrive, eating “issues,” and small stature—all before setting foot inside the Jackson home.Finally came Tyrone. Born prematurely, he spent his first few months in a foster home for medically fragile children; there was one other placement before he was transferred to the Jacksons as a seemingly healthy and normally developing 18-month-old. However, within six months, his growth stalled, and a year later a doctor noted apparent fetal-alcohol-related symptoms and diagnosed “failure-to-thrive syndrome” three times before his adoption was finalized, in 1997.

The Jacksons claim that the three younger boys further complicated their preexisting conditions by starting to mimic Bruce’s rumination soon after they arrived on the scene. Photos seem to show them pulsing out their cheeks just as Bruce did. Eventually, their disabled biological daughter, Jeré, 22, also took up the behavior. “I know exactly what it was; I know exactly how to do it, “ she told me, holding her hands awkwardly in the air. “I asked Bruce. He said, ‘It comes up like throw-up.’ ” Verneé Jackson also admits she would ruminate on occasion.

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

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.)

In a videotape of one interview, a copy of which was given to me by a friend of the family, he seemed extremely logy and confused as he told a detective he never left the house to play, suffered a near-permanent sentence of time-out on the stairs while the rest of the family frolicked, and was forced to cut the lawn manually with shears. He went on to say his mother frequently hit him with belts and choked him with her bare hands when he regurgitated. He acted out his mother’s choking method by placing his own hand tightly around his throat in clawlike fashion. “With her nails,” he said. “Dug it in my neck.”

The detective, Eric Wren, pressed Bruce for more details. “What was your normal meal? What would you usually eat at the Jacksons’?”

“Stuff that’s not cooked,” Bruce told him weakly. He compulsively scratched his arms in the manner of a street person, and his eyes were mostly shut.

“Stuff that’s not cooked?” Detective Wren repeated. “Is that what they would feed everybody? Or just you?”

“It’s me and my three other brothers,” Bruce answered. “Keith, Michael, and Tyrone.”

One can easily understand how police were disposed to take Bruce at his word, given the horrifying condition they found him in. They arrested Raymond and Vanessa Jackson and held them in jail until Pastor Thomas posted their bail.

The problem is, none of the other kids has corroborated the most disturbing parts of Bruce’s testimony. In fact, in their own videotaped interviews, even the three boys allegedly kept on starvation diets openly contradicted Bruce’s account. Michael told his police interviewer a regular day consisted of three meals plus two snacks; his menus included lasagne, casseroles, pancakes, and Lunchables. Keith said he usually ate three meals a day. Tyrone did say that his mother would sometimes forget to give him dinner, and also mentioned eating uncooked pancake batter, one of Bruce’s more dramatic allegations—“It’s nasty,” he said. But he perked up when asked to describe his typical lunch fare, which he said includes peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.

The adopted daughters weighed in with detailed descriptions of their brothers’ propensity to vomit in ways consistent with the stories the parents told me. “Weird brothers,” a shrugging Keziah explained to the officer who questioned her. “My mom would try to get them to get strong, be like healthy and stuff—she would feed them vegetables, mashed potatoes … ”

If Bruce is right, if life in Collingswood was in fact Dickensian, then everybody else in the family—and everybody in the extended community of the Come Alive congregation—is simply wrong. Or else they’re in on the scam. Increasingly, that’s just what prosecutors suspect.

One law-enforcement official says a novel theory is gaining ground there to suggest the whole Come Alive community suffered from a kind of religious mania, whereby the Jacksons’ fellow parishioners unwittingly egged them on to child endangerment as a sick form of spiritual theater: “Let’s say the Jacksons kept the boys sickly so that at church they would get praise for being good Christians—for ‘taking in the ones nobody else wanted.’ When in reality they were the reasons the boys were sick in the first place.”

While the Jacksons are, by most accounts, devoted congregants at Come Alive, nothing suggests they’d be possessed by this sort of crazed spiritual one-upmanship. They attend Sunday services just 60 percent of the time, says Pastor Thomas, who reviewed attendance rolls; Raymond also attends Wednesday-night Bible-study meetings. Early news accounts made a great deal of the elder Jacksons’ rousing the children for morning prayers at 5 A.M., and wall hangings that acquired an ominous aura in the context of the breaking scandal—e.g., an admonition outside the kitchen door to “Stop and think and pray before entering.” Yet Come Alive appears to be a fairly standard-issue nondenominational suburban pastorate. Evangelical music is its main stock-in-trade—Pastor Thomas started out as a “Jesus music” D.J. in the seventies, and the music-heavy liturgy was what originally drew Raymond Jackson, who had a brief career as a gospel singer in the late seventies and early eighties, into the fold.

The only respect in which the Jacksons stood out in the congregation had little to do with their devotional intensity or their sideline in foster care: They were among the few black members in a mostly white fellowship of some 350 souls. Nevertheless, the church was the main focus of the family’s social life, and nearly everyone there vigorously disputes the prosecution claims that Raymond and Vanessa were neglecting their children, let alone starving them systematically.

“I sat three rows behind the Jacksons every Sunday,” says Frank Jacobs, a parishioner who has funded two health clinics in Haiti. “Distended stomachs? I never examined them, but no, I never saw anything like that at all … When you first see the Jackson kids, you could tell there was something wrong. As far as what my wife and I knew, the Jacksons would take in foster kids who were pretty bad off.” Dan Hutchins, another parishioner, dropped his own kids off at the Jacksons’ for informal day care on as many as six days a week for five years. “No way, shape, or form were my kids in harm’s way there,” he says. “My thought on it is this: If that was the case and [the Jackson boys] were starved, they would be afraid or something. There would be some fear tied into it, and [they] wouldn’t have been as open or outgoing. And none of that was ever there. They were very outgoing, never afraid, always laughing and having a good time.”

Still, the Jacksons did act in one way that placed the kids further out of the orbit of monitoring by public authorities: They homeschooled their children, once their adoptions went through, which is legal and completely unregulated in New Jersey. Though Come Alive members regularly dropped by the Jacksons’ home or visited with the children in church—or saw them dance in church special events, for which the clan was locally famous—they weren’t tracking their milestones or comparing them with other children. As a result, the boys’ failure to grow often escaped notice. Up to last fall, for instance, Keith, Tyrone, and Michael were all in the same third-to-fourth-grade Sunday-school class, even though their ages were 9, 10, and 14—correlating, respectively, to grades four, five, and nine. “I don’t know why they were in that class. I can’t answer that,” says their Sunday-school teacher, Joan Sink. “I thought they were very much younger.”

DYFS, meanwhile, continued not to notice anything amiss with the Jackson boys. Once adoptions are finalized, children move out of the agency’s jurisdiction. But because the Jacksons had a foster daughter in the home, Division of Youth and Family Services agents made regular visits there—38 times in the past three years, in fact—without growing alarmed.

As I sat across the kitchen table from Raymond and Vanessa Jackson one warm night, I found it hard to picture them as perpetrating the sort of cruel and systematic abuse they’re accused of. Mainly, they seem bewildered by the past year’s dramatic turn of events—and still dazed by the loss of their adoptive children, all of whom were sent back into foster care following the couple’s arrest. Their biological daughter LaRae struggles for the right metaphor to express the strangeness of it all: “It’s like you’re a dog and everyone’s saying you’re a cat. But you know that you’re a dog. This is weird.” For his part, Jackson won’t entertain any personal resentment, even as exasperation edges into his voice: “I know Bruce loves us, I know he does,” he says. “But sometimes I think about how my life is completely turned around. And it’s because he told a lie. He told a lie on me. He told a lie on us.”

Hell House Revisited