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Oversight Blamed in New Jersey Starvation Case

Child welfare workers had reported no red flags in the home of four malnourished boys.

October 28, 2003|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Officials took swift action Monday on the latest scandal engulfing New Jersey's child welfare agency but conceded that the discovery of four emaciated adoptees in a suburban home revealed monitoring and oversight problems that could not be cured overnight.

Although state caseworkers reportedly visited the victims' home 38 times in the last two years, most recently in June, they reported nothing amiss to their supervisors, officials said. The lead caseworker, whom officials would not identify, has since resigned, and nine other agency employees were fired Monday in a widening investigation.

"People who made bad decisions will be held accountable, because it's inconceivable how a caseworker could go there and not detect these atrocious conditions," Gov. James E. McGreevey told reporters Monday. "What happened in Collingswood is unforgivable," he said, referring to the blue-collar suburb where an adult male and three boys were found with rotting teeth, lice, distended bellies and other health problems.

Authorities said the victims -- ages 9, 10, 14 and 19 -- had been starved by their parents, Raymond and Vanessa Jackson, who adopted them several years ago through the state's Division of Youth and Family Services. The four collectively weighed 136 pounds, and Bruce, 19, stood only 4 feet tall, police reported.

Showing evidence of what investigators called "dramatic growth retardation," the victims were removed from their home near Philadelphia on Oct. 10. Police arrested the Jacksons on Friday after a two-week investigation, charging them with assault and endangerment and holding them in Camden County Jail on $100,000 bail apiece.

Investigators reported that the victims had been locked out of their family's kitchen and were given a diet of peanut butter, uncooked pancake batter and cereal. The victims also told police that they had eaten wallboard and insulation for nutrition. Officials said utilities in the home had been turned off for the last six months.

Two adopted girls, along with a third girl whom the Jacksons had been seeking to adopt, were also found in the house, but in good health, officials said. All of the children were removed to new foster homes.

The Jacksons were unemployed and had no income beyond the $28,000 in annual child welfare stipends they got from the state, investigators said. The couple home-schooled their children and told authorities the males had eating disorders.

McGreevey's vow to correct such problems echoed statements he made in January, when 7-year-old Faheem Williams was found dead in the basement of a rotting Newark apartment. Child welfare officials, it turned out, had prematurely closed the case of the boy, who had been a suspected victim of abuse.

Since then, state officials have revamped the troubled Division of Youth and Family Services, placing it under the direction of a five-member panel of child welfare experts and appointing a statewide child advocate. In June, the state also settled a lawsuit filed by a battery of child welfare groups, promising to improve the treatment of children in its custody. Child welfare advocates said they were studying whether the Jackson case represented a breach of the state's promises under the settlement.

"This is a system that's been broken for 25 years," McGreevey said in response to questions about the similarity of the Jackson and Williams cases. "It's not going to get fixed in 25 hours."

The Jackson case came to light, prosecutors said, when a neighbor spotted the oldest boy rummaging through a dumpster for food at 2:30 a.m. and reported his physical condition to police. Although some neighbors said the Jacksons seemed to be pleasant people, others said the couple were reclusive and revealed little to outsiders.

"This case apparently just fell through the cracks," Camden County Prosecutor Vincent P. Sarubbi said Monday on ABC's "Good Morning America." "I know that sounds simplistic, but it's still too early to tell [what exactly happened]. We're going through voluminous records, and it's going to take time to go through this."

Police said three of the boys' physical condition improved after they were taken to a hospital, and they had been subsequently released; the 19-year-old, however, remained hospitalized in a cardiac unit.

Kevin M. Ryan, the state's newly appointed child advocate, voiced the anger and incredulity of many who thought New Jersey was on its way to reforming its child welfare programs.

"We have a caseworker who went to a house 38 times in two years," he told reporters. "And many of those times she saw all the children, and she reported in the case record that those children were all safe, despite the fact that the kitchen doors were locked shut and the four boys were obviously starving."

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