CAMDEN, N.J. – Bruce Jackson walked into court Friday with a swagger, 15 inches taller and nearly 100 pounds heavier than the 45-pound teenager found foraging through a trash can for food less than two and a half years ago.
With anger in his still high-pitched voice, the 21-year-old took the stand to confront the woman he and his three adoptive brothers say went for years denying them not just food, but the chance to grow up like normal kids.
"You were mean to me for my whole life," Jackson told his adoptive mother, Vanessa Jackson, before she was sentenced to seven years in prison for child endangerment. "You took my childhood. I'm so disappointed I will never get that back."
It was the first time Bruce Jackson and his younger brothers had appeared in public since their ordeal became national news in October 2003. All four are thin, but nothing like the gaunt figures investigators found after a neighbor spotted Bruce rummaging through the garbage.
They told the judge about childhoods Vanessa Jackson wrecked by not taking them to a doctor, serving them only water for dinner sometimes, not letting them play outside and even not letting them bathe.
The three younger brothers, testifying in videos they had recorded before the sentencing, spoke of being accused of stealing when they went into the kitchen to get food, being beaten with belts and shoes and being given meals such as dry oatmeal and tonic water.
"We each had our own bowl we ate from," said Keith Jackson, now 16. "Sometimes they didn't wash it out. This woman, I don't know why she did it."
Vanessa Jackson sat motionless throughout the 2 1/2-hour court proceeding and chose not to speak.
Bruce Jackson, who spent 12 years under Vanessa Jackson's care, told about how he and his adoptive brothers were forced to sit on stairs in the family's Collingswood houses while the Jacksons' biological children, two adopted daughters and foster daughter were allowed to lead more normal lives.
"You wouldn't let us go to bed when we wanted to," he said. "You made us stay up until 12 a.m. You wouldn't let us get up when we wanted to. You made us stay in bed until 1 or 2 p.m."
The boys were removed from the home of Vanessa Jackson and her husband, Raymond, who were each charged with 28 counts of child endangerment and aggravated assault. Raymond Jackson died a little over a year later.
Vanessa Jackson struck a plea deal with prosecutors in November, admitting guilt to one charge of child endangerment and agreeing to a prison term of up to seven years. She could be eligible for parole in about two years.
Her lawyer, Alan Dexter Bowman, argued that she deserved a shorter sentence because the state Division of Youth and Family Services sent them foster children that he said had "a history of complex problems."
DYFS has acknowledged failing the children because caseworkers who visited the family to check on a foster daughter did nothing to get the boys help. The state agreed last October to pay the four boys a total of $12.5 million.
Four of Vanessa Jackson's biological children told Judge Robert G. Millenky that the accounts from the adopted sons were wrong and pleaded that their mother not be sent to prison.
"We went to church events. We went outside. We went to stores," said Raymond Jackson Jr. "We went to my grandmother's house and ate."
The Rev. Harry Thomas, founding pastor at a church the family attended, said the boys suffered from an eating disorder, but prosecutor Donna Spinosi noted that all four boys have more than doubled in weight since leaving the Jacksons' home.
Millenky lectured Vanessa Jackson, especially for not taking the boys to doctors.
"Had you simply taken them to a doctor, a doctor would have told you what was wrong," he said.