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Adoptive parents indicted in child starvation case

From Jonathan Wald

Raymond and Vanessa Jackson, middle, with their children. Their adopted children are bottom row from left: Tyrone, 10: Keith, 14; and Michael, 9. Bruce, 19, is behind his mother, with a plaid collar.
New Jersey

(CNN) -- A New Jersey couple accused of starving their four adopted boys were indicted by a grand jury Wednesday.

Raymond and Vanessa Jackson of Collingswood were each indicted on 28 counts of aggravated assault and endangering the welfare of a child, said Camden County Prosecutor Vincent Sarubbi.

National attention focused on the Jacksons and New Jersey's embattled child welfare service last year when local police found the four emaciated boys at the Jacksons' house.

Raymond, 50, and Vanessa Jackson, 48, face eight counts of aggravated assault "for failing to provide adequate nutrition resulting in growth retardation" and 20 counts of endangering the welfare of a child for "failure to provide medical care, dental care and a clean and proper environment."

The Jacksons didn't pay utility bills last summer, Sarubbi said, leaving the house without electricity for more than three months and without gas for almost a month.

Each charge carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years in prison.

The children's condition was discovered Oct. 10, when a neighbor told police about someone rummaging through trash cans. When they found Bruce Jackson, 19, he was so malnourished police thought he was 10 years old, they said.

Police then found the other three boys at the Jacksons' home.

Prosecutors said Bruce weighed just 45 pounds, his 14-year-old brother, Keith, weighed 40 pounds, 10-year-old Tyrone weighed 28 pounds and 9-year-old Michael weighed just 23 pounds. None of them stood taller than 4 feet, they said.

Entrances to the Jacksons' kitchen were locked, authorities allege, and the boys survived on a diet of uncooked pancake batter and oatmeal.

"We've found evidence, and the boys have also told us, that they were eating portions of the wall and the insulation behind it," Sarubbi said.

The Jackson family received a stipend from the state for their adopted children that peaked at around $28,000 a year. It was reduced in 2002 when Bruce turned 18.

A Division of Youth and Family Services case worker visited the Jacksons every month for two years to evaluate whether the Jacksons could adopt a 10-year-old foster daughter. The case worker never reported the boys' severe malnutrition and has since resigned, state officials said.

Nine employees from DYFS were initially fired for their role in the Jacksons' case, though one has since been reinstated.

Raymond Jackson's brother told The Newark Star-Ledger that the boys "were born with drug addiction and eating disorders. As long as I've known these kids, they've never grown. They've provided everything for them."

However, Sarubbi said doctors who examined the children concluded that "they didn't suffer from any diseases or any genetic defects that would account for their stunted growth."

In addition to caseworkers not reporting the condition of the Jackson children, DYFS officials also failed to notice the youths when a safety assessment of all 14,300 children in the agency's care was conducted as part of a landmark settlement with the child advocacy group Children's Rights. DYFS said 31 children were deemed unsafe but the Jacksons' foster children were not among them.

The Jacksons also have two adopted daughters, ages 5 and 12. Those girls, and the foster daughter are now in foster care.

The couple also have five biological adult children, four of whom lived in their house. Sarubbi said the couple's daughters and biological children appeared healthy.

The four adopted boys are now "doing well and in loving homes," DYFS spokesman, Ed Rogan told CNN.

"Bruce has more than doubled his weight and the other boys have nearly doubled their weight," Rogan said. "After being as malnourished for so long, Bruce needed special attention and has been put in a foster home by himself, and the other three live together in a separate foster home. Bruce regularly visits them."

DYFS has introduced reforms since revelations in the Jackson household came to light. "Children can no longer be home-schooled like the Jackson children were," Rogan said. "And in assessing the suitability of a foster home our inspectors must now interview all children in the house and not just prospective foster children."

In January of 2003 DYFS was criticized for prematurely closing the file on Faheem Williams, a 7-year-old boy from Newark found dead inside a plastic bin in a basement. His brother was locked in an adjoining room.

DYFS is now in a three-year, $320 million reformation that includes the hiring of 1,500 new employees, purchase of new equipment, creation of an academy to train new case workers and increased stipends for foster families.

The Jacksons are free on $100,000 bail each but are not allowed contact with any of their adopted children.

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