[Photo: The Oprah Show]

The Jackson Brothers
Bruce, Keith, Tyrone, and Michael

Suspected Victims of Attachment Therapy Parenting
Collingswood, New Jersey
Rescued, 10 October 2003

Note: This account has been gleaned from published news reports. See the webography for some of the extensive news coverage of this case.
In a case which has shocked south New Jersey, nearby Philadelphia, and eventually Congress, four adopted boys were discovered 10 October 2003 nearly starved to death. The case strongly has elements of Attachment Therapy (AT) involved, implicating New Jersey’s troubled Division of Youth and Family Services, which has a record of supporting, and even promoting, AT.

Bruce Jackson, 19, was discovered by a neighbor in Collingswood, New Jersey, rooting through a neighbor’s garbage can during the early morning hours, apparently in search of food. Bruce did not look his age. Standing just four feet tall, and weighing only 45 pounds, neither the neighbor — who did not know him — nor police called to the scene could believe him when he gave his age. The story checked out, however, when the adoptive father called the police station the next morning to report Bruce missing.

When police went to the Jackson’s rented three-story house in the blue-collar suburb of Camden, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, they discovered six more children, three boys and three girls, all under 15 and all adopted, except for one of the girls, who was a foster child days away from being adopted herself. The girls were apparently well fed and looked after, but the boys mirrored their older brother’s emaciated appearance.

Michael, 9, Tyrone, 10, and Keith, 14, weighed 23, 28, and 40 pounds, respectively. All looked no more than half their true ages to investigators. Ribs were showing, bellies were distended, and limbs were stick-like. They were described as looking very much like Holocaust survivors. Authorities immediately took all of the children into custody and hospitalized the boys.

In addition to malnutrition, the four brothers were discovered to have head lice, and Bruce’s teeth were in very bad shape.

The adoptive parents attempted to account for the boys’ condition by asserting that all four suffered for years from eating disorders as the result of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or sexual abuse in early childhood at the hands of abusive birth families. There was little the adoptive parents could do to deal with it, they said. Bruce was said to be an especially difficult case, with bulimia-like symptoms and rumination. They claimed also that Tyrone, the 10-year-old, suffers from dwarfism.

Years of Poor Treatment

State child-welfare caseworkers had visited the home often, but had only tangentially commented on the boys’ failure to thrive, accepting the parents’ explanations uncritically. With a reported 38 visits in two years, no one seemed alarmed that Bruce, for instance, had lost weight since he was adopted in 1996, and that the others appeared to be faring similarly. The state had not only approved their adoptions, but had assigned “special-needs” status to the children, entitling the family to state and federal subsidies, which reportedly amounted to $28,000 last fiscal year. But there are no records to show that any of the brothers had ever seen a doctor or dentist in at least four years.

Once removed from their parents’ custody, the four brothers related the treatment they had received in the Jackson home, which authorities said the boys accepted as normal. They had been underfed for years, though lately it had gotten worse and hunger had driven them to eat wallboard and gnaw on wooden windowsills.

Vanessa Jackson in court [Photo: Robert Sciarrino/The Star-Ledger]

The boys’ accounts have the familiar ring of AT’s “therapeutic parenting” techniques. They said they were fed a diet of only uncooked pancake batter, peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, and oatmeal — except for the batter, these are favored recommendations of AT “parenting specialist” Nancy Thomas. The family’s kitchen was locked and alarmed in order to keep the boys out; in case that didn’t work, the refrigerator was padlocked. Both of these are recognizable AT tactics used against children.

Food is withdrawn to reinforce parents’ authority in AT, explains Jean Mercer, a professor at Richard Stockton College in Pomona, New Jersey, which is near Camden and Collingswood. “This is a very cruel and ineffective form of treatment,” she told
The Philadelphia Daily News.

None of the other children appeared malnourished, according to police. “The girls were heavy and well-fed,” a neighbor told the
New York Post. Police investigators said the boys told them that the girls had been allowed to order take-out food and eat it in front of them, while they got none. Other times, the boys were not allowed to eat with the rest of the family. Overt favoritism, even in providing basic needs, is often a consequence of AT parenting methods.

Starvation Only Explanation

“What happened to these children is simply unspeakable,” a spokeswoman for New Jersey’s Department of Human Services has said. The Camden County prosecutor, Vincent P. Sarubbi, agreed and charged the adoptive parents, Robert and Vanessa Jackson, with multiple counts of aggravated assault and endangering the welfare of the children. The couple languished in jail for several days until bailed out by the pastor of their church.

What convinced the prosecutor to press charges was the weight gains the boys had been making while in state custody. In the first month of being fed a more or less normal diet, each had gained about 40% of his body weight when first discovered by police. Bruce, the oldest, had even gained an inch in height, and over half his initial body weight after six weeks. During his hospitalization, Bruce never showed the vomiting or regurgitation attributed to him by the Jacksons. All this was clear-cut evidence, Sarubbi told a congressional subcommittee, that the brothers’ emaciated conditions were from simple lack of food — not the result of disease, congenital conditions, or mental disorders.

By Christmas, after two months in protective custody, the boys continued to thrive and grow. Bruce had grown three inches, and weighed over 75 pounds. Keith had grown an 1-1/2 inches and, like Bruce, had gained two-thirds of his initial body-weight. Tyrone had put on only half his initial weight, but had put on an inch in height. The youngest and smallest, Michael, had added an additional 80% of body mass while growing an inch.

The Jacksons’ arrests at the end of October made the case public and an immediate national sensation. Revelation of the treatment and condition of the four boys drew attention from
The New York Times and New York tabloids alike. National newscasts covered the story, and eventually CBS News’s 60 Minutes II did a segment on it. Even a congressional subcommittee held a hearing on the case within ten days of the arrests.

The children were rarely seen, other than going to or coming from church. The boys didn’t go to school; the Jacksons claimed to be home-schooling them up to two hours a day. When they were seen, neighbors suspected medical problems, such as AIDS, accounted for their appearance. One neighbor who noted the boys always had sad expressions, occasionally asked if anything was wrong. He would always get the reply, “No … everything’s fine.”

AT ‘Parenting’ in Evidence

Home-schooling and failing to seek medical/dental care for children can be readily understood in an AT context. Both lower the profile of the family to outsiders. AT parenting specialists warn parents that authorities will not understand their treatment of their children. A similar warning goes for concerned neighbors. The Jacksons kept their blinds drawn.

Socially, families with AT-treated children often withdraw into a small circle of other people who accept what the parents are doing. That apparently was the case with the Jacksons, whose supporters are almost exclusively the pastor and members of the church they attended. That church is 30 miles away in Medford.

One neighbor, though, told the
New York Post that he had seen a few troubling signs. Once he saw the Jackson girls frolicking in a backyard pool at the same time the boys were cutting the lawn with only garden shears. He also observed them washing clothes in a bucket. Chores are assigned by AT-inclined parents for control purposes, and so are often made pointlessly long or difficult to carry out.

AT parenting also has little room for toys or play. At another time, the same neighbor was bothered by not getting thanks for some toys he had given to the boys. Eventually, he asked one of the girls if her brothers liked the gifts, and she replied, “No, they’re not allowed to play with toys.”

There was a period this summer when the family’s electricity was shut off. Police reports say the boys were forced to sit on the floor, immobile, for long periods in front of a dark TV. In AT, such structured inactivity is called “strong” or “power” sitting, and is a preferred disciplinary technique.

Children’s rooms are kept spartan, even bare. A cot or bed for sleeping may be the only furniture, and a few clothes, the only personal possessions, present in the room. This was the case discovered by investigators in the Jackson home.

State Child-Welfare System Fails — Again

Revelation of the boys’ plight has put additional pressure on New Jersey’s troubled child-welfare system. The state’s Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) has been under persistent attack after a series of high-profile failures.

Even before public revelation of the Jackson case, nine employees and supervisors in the Camden center of DYFS were suspended or fired pending further investigation. A tenth, reportedly the last caseworker who visited the Jackson home in the summer, resigned. “It’s inconceivable how a caseworker could go there and not detect these atrocious conditions,” an angry New Jersey Governor James McGreevey told the press when the story broke. “People who made bad decisions will be held accountable.”

“New Jersey is one of the worst systems I’ve ever seen,” declared Susan Lambiase, a lawyer for Children’s Rights Inc., a group that has sued DYFS in federal court over its deficiencies. “Flagrant abuse and neglect are getting ignored in this agency unlike anywhere else,” she added. Children’s Rights recently settled the lawsuit, requiring a significant upgrade in staffing, training, and procedures.

Governor McGreevey directed his newly created Office of the Child Advocate to investigate and report to him on the case. Kevin Ryan, head of that Office, has hired an outside law firm to help with the investigation. In an initial statement, though, Ryan confirmed the governor’s anger at the child-welfare bureaucracy. “The suffering of these children was sobering to me,” Ryan said. “It just shows how broken down DYFS and DYFS families are. It has to change.”

One personnel change came relatively quickly. The head of the Department of Human Services, herself a former social worker and in the top job for just two years, resigned barely a month later, reportedly under pressure from Governor McGreevey.

Other personnel changes were being resisted. Officers of the Communications Workers of America, which represents all state workers in New Jersey, vigorously protested the state’s action in firing DYFS workers. “Caseworkers do not kill children,” said one CWA official at a rally. “We will keep having these tragedies if we don’t deal with the systemic problems.” Later, before a congressional subcommittee, they identified those problems as understaffing, poor training, lack of computer resources, high turnover, foster-home shortages, and underfunding.

A systemic problem apparently not being addressed by either the lawsuit, the Governor, the Child Advocate, or the protesting caseworkers is DYFS’s advocacy of Attachment Therapy, including its implicit belief system and its explicit parenting methods. The Division has a home-study course on AT with a 32-page study guide. Until recently, DYFS had a webpage identifying therapists and institutions offering AT to parents. The Division took down that webpage after being contacted about it by
The Philadelphia Inquirer, but other pages clearly endorsing AT remain on its website. “We’re not ready to distance ourselves from Attachment Therapy because the term gets abused,” a spokesman told the paper. “The moniker of Attachment Therapy goes with some very legitimate outfits, but it is also associated with people who take shortcuts.” He did not identify those who are “legitimate,” or by what standards the Division distinguishes between AT practices and child abuse.

The spokesman’s comments is one reason that the problem of AT is not likely to be addressed in the court-ordered reforms of DYFS. Another is the court-appointed panel of child-welfare experts to monitor the reforms: one of the nine panel members is from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which has been a key backer of AT programs.

‘Blame the Child’

Harry B. Thomas, the minister who bailed out the Jacksons, has ridden to the defense of the accused with a defense familiar in AT-related abuse cases: blame-the-child. “When you examine several incidents that concerned him you realize he’s a liar,” Thomas said of Bruce. When he repeated that at a public hearing in Washington, members of the congressional subcommittee immediately chastised the minister for vilifying the children. “You’ve made the children, the victims, seem like the perpetrators,” said Rep. Donald Payne (D-NJ). “The way you describe Bruce, you make him like he’s a criminal.”

That sentiment was later echoed by the head of New Jersey’s Office of the Child Advocate, Kevin Ryan. “The vilification of Bruce is despicable and I am begging advocates of the Jackson family to stop,”” he told the press.

Rev Thomas subsequently apologized and took down many of the negative comments about the children from a pro-Jackson website, though it still contained links to sites discussing rumination and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

The Jacksons themselves consistently blame Bruce for their troubles. When permitted a visit with the other children before their arrest, they spent their time talking with them about Bruce making up the entire story and blaming him for breaking up the family. “Rather than give their love and attention, they further poisoned these kids’ minds against Bruce,” Prosecutor Sarubbi has charged. That encounter was in part responsible for a subsequent bail condition that prohibited the adult Jacksons from having any further contact with the adopted children. An attempt to lift that restriction for a Christmas-time visit failed.

The blame-the-child defense will continue to be an uphill climb for the Jacksons. Not one defendant has escaped prosecution or conviction in an AT-related case by using it. Just how uphill their climb will be is reflected by comments of the mayor of Collingswood who watched the Jacksons’ biological children use the defense on
60 Minutes II. “If you accept everything the pastor and family say — that these boys were not starved, but had preexisting eating disorders — they still did not take the kids to see the doctor for five years,” said Mayor Jim Maley, a lawyer. “That’s not starvation, but it’s criminal neglect.”

Blaming the child is to be expected when Attachment Therapy is proximately involved in the treatment of a child. AT’s belief system puts all, or nearly all, of the responsibility for change upon the child. Regardless of how they themselves behave or react, parents are almost always seen as victims of the child. It leads the parents to escalate their actions into abuse, while it desensitizes adults to the suffering of the children caused by the adults’ actions.

Child Advocate Ryan has so far not seen AT mentioned in the Jacksons’ files, but Professor Mercer has told
The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether you have garden-variety cruelty or something systematic, but I think there are several things here” that sound like parenting methods gone awry and should at least raise eyebrows.

The family’s apparent subsistence on adoption subsidies has raised some Congressional eyebrows. “It is hard to imagine how adults could intentionally starve children,” Rep. Wally Herger (R-CA) said in a statement announcing the Congressional hearing on the case. Rep. Herger sits on the House Ways and Means Committee, which has oversight on block grants to the states. “It is also hard to accept the grim reality that we, as taxpayers, subsidized their terrible neglect to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars,” he declared before convening a set of hearings by the Human Resources Subcommittee, which oversees federal aid given to adoptive parents.

Some in Congress are also expressing a concern that federal subsidies are acting as an incentive resulting in improper placements in abusive or neglectful homes. If these suspicions are borne out upon investigation, it is likely that investigators will also have discovered that AT beliefs are at the bottom of many abusive situations. Multiple placements in a single household, with many of the children placed being classified as “special needs” for behavior problems, are common AT parenting circumstances.

At its initial hearing, the Subcommittee heard from the prosecutor in the Jackson case, several New Jersey government officials, the Jackson’s minister, a representative for the union representing the fired caseworkers, and the leader of the child advocacy group that had recently settled the federal lawsuit against DYFS. Advocates for Children in Therapy submitted
written testimony pointing out the New Jersey’s role in pushing Attachment Therapy on adopted children and urging the subcommittee to prod federal bureaucrats to do more to remove AT and its abusive parenting techniques from state adoption systems.

‘Blame the Birth Parents’

When not blaming the child, AT-influenced parents blame the birth parents for making the child the way he is. AT urges authorities to get “at-risk” children away from birth parents as soon as possible. That has played out in this case, with the Jacksons’ claiming that Bruce and his siblings are suffering from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, physical or sexual abuse as babies, or were “crack babies.” They all came into the DYFS system at an early age.

Because of adoption secrecy, it is rare that the actual circumstances surrounding a child’s early life comes to light. The adoptive parents’ stories are ordinarily all that is told. But because of the high profile of this case, the birth parents of Bruce Jackson have come forward, and they challenge the Jacksons’ claims about his early treatment and behavior.

Bruce Jackson testifying in court about
the abuse he and his brothers indured
[Photo: Robert Sciarrino/The Star-Ledger]

Victoria Principal, Bruce’s mother, lives in nearby South Camden, and learned of his fate from newspaper accounts, recognizing him from the photos accompanying those reports. She says nothing was wrong with her son at his birth. “His birth was good. There were no complications. He was a healthy, happy baby,” Principal told
The Philadelphia Inquirer. She also stated flatly that she was not involved with either alcohol or drugs during or immediately after her pregnancy.

Bruce Roy, Bruce’s biological father, now lives in Chester, Pennsylvania. He told
The Inquirer that the younger Bruce “ate like a horse. He had a good appetite.” Though when Roy last saw him at age 10, the boy had developed a tendency toward the regurgitation cited by the Jacksons. “He wouldn’t do it when other kids were around, but he’d do it around me,” Roy says.

The birth parents had lost Bruce through charges of neglect, but apparently not of abuse. State records obtained by the
Newark Star Ledger confirm that, and also show that Bruce had exhibited the bulimia symptoms shortly after the state took custody of him at age two, but it is not clear that he had them when he was with either Roy or Principal.

Baffling Case?

New Jersey’s Child Advocate Ryan has said there was no mention of Attachment Therapy in the DYFS documents he has seen, but he admits to being baffled by the facts in the case. As others have asked, what possible explanation other than AT paints such a consistent picture of why the Jackson children were treated as they were and why DYFS turned a blind eye to their situation?


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