CAMDEN, N.J. – A couple were indicted by a grand jury Wednesday on charges that they starved their four adopted sons in a case that sparked international outrage and led to increased scrutiny of New Jersey's troubled state child welfare system.
The former Collingswood (search) couple — Raymond Jackson is 50 years old and his wife is 48 — were charged in October after a 19-year-old adopted son was found foraging through a neighbor's trash for food. Bruce Jackson was just 4 feet tall and weighed only 45 pounds — about the size of an average first-grader.
Authorities found three younger adopted boys in the family's home who were also severely undersized.
By the end of February, after they had been placed with other families, the boys had gained between 15 and 33 pounds and grown in height between 1 and 6 inches, authorities said.
It only took one day to present the case to a grand jury, which agreed to move forward with every charge prosecutors had sought, Sarubbi said.
In a news conference Wednesday, Sarubbi would not say how much the boys have grown since the end of February or offer other details of the state's case outside what is contained in the indictment.
Prosecutors said the eight aggravated assault charges stem from the couple's failure to provide adequate nutrition to the boys.
The twenty counts of child endangerment included accusations that the couple failed to provide food and medical attention and inflicted physical or mental pain and suffering upon the four boys, and denied dental care to two of them.
Six child endangerment accounts accuse the Jacksons of subjecting the three minor boys and three girls — two adopted and one a foster child — to a home without electricity for more than three months last year and without gas service for a month. The three girls in the home were of normal size.
Collectively, the charges carry a maximum penalty of 280 years in prison, although it is likely the term would be far less, even if the couple were convicted of all charges.
"My clients are kind of despondent today," said defense lawyer Richard Josselson, who said there is no chance that the couple would be tried separately, although Vanessa Jackson has separate counsel.
Her lawyer, Alan D. Bowman did not return messages left Wednesday by The Associated Press.
Raymond and Vanessa Jackson are free on bail of $100,000 each, but are not allowed contact with the children. The home they rented in Collingswood has a "For Sale" sign in the yard. All seven children were taken from the Jacksons by the state child welfare agency.
The Jacksons have maintained their innocence and said the boys had eating disorders that predated their placement with the family. Their defenders said they took in troubled children no one else would take.
Officials said the boys were locked out of the Jackson family's kitchen, were fed uncooked pancake batter and resorted to eating wallboard.
A state Child Advocate report on the case released in February said that the boys had been starved since the Jacksons adopted them in the 1990s. The dates of the allegations in the indictment mirror that claim.
After the adoptions, the children were removed from public schools and taught at home, so they were frequently shielded from official scrutiny.
The Jackson case, along with the death of a Newark child under the watch of the state Division of Youth and Family Services early last year, became a symbol for widespread problems in the state's child welfare system.
Child welfare workers who had visited the Jackson home dozens of times to check on the foster children never intervened.
Initially, nine DYFS employees were suspended, and the state initiated proceedings to fire them. At least one was reinstated.
Prosecutors subpoenaed 11 DYFS workers to appear before the grand jury investigating the Jacksons in January. But the workers all refused to testify. None has been charged with crimes, but prosecutors said Wednesday the investigation remains open.
This year, state officials have announced wide-ranging reforms to DYFS, ranging from improving access to drug treatment for parents to increasing stipends for foster parents.
An indictment by a grand jury means that the group of citizens impaneled to consider criminal charges believes there is evidence that a crime was committed. Once individuals are indicted, prosecutors are required to share evidence with defense lawyers as the pretrial process begins.
Sarubbi said he expects a hearing to begin exchanging evidence and to set a date for an arraignment within the next six weeks.