N.J. fires nine workers in case of starved kids

Lead caseworker resigns

adoptees 9-19 recovering

parents remain jailed

October 28, 2003|By Josh Getlin | Josh Getlin,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Officials took swift action yesterday on the latest scandal engulfing New Jersey's child welfare agency, but they conceded that the shocking discovery of four emaciated adoptees in their suburban home revealed monitoring and oversight problems that could not be cured overnight.

Although state caseworkers reported they had visited the victims' home 38 times in the past 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 yesterday 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 yesterday.

"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 allegedly been starved by their parents, Raymond and Victoria 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 four feet tall, police officers reported.

Showing evidence of what investigators called "dramatic growth retardation," the victims were removed Oct. 10 from their home near Philadelphia.

Couple arrested

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 to stave off hunger.

Officials said utilities in the home had been turned off for the past 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 they were 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 revealed.

They home-schooled their children and told authorities the males had eating disorders.

McGreevey's vow to correct such problems echoed statements he made 10 months ago, 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.

Efforts to improve

Since then, state officials have revamped the troubled Division of Youth and Family Services, placing it under the direction of a new five-member panel of child welfare experts and appointing a statewide child advocate.

In June, New Jersey also settled a lawsuit filed by a battery of child welfare groups, promising to improve the treatment of children in its custody.

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 reporter's questions about the similarity of the Jackson and Williams cases. "It's not going to get fixed in 25 hours."

The case came to light, prosecutors said, when a neighbor spotted the oldest boy rummaging through a trash container 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 was reclusive and revealed little to outsiders.

"This case apparently just fell through the cracks," Camden County Prosecutor Vincent P. Sarubbi said yesterday 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."

Oldest still in hospital

Police said the three 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."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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