On October 19, 2003, a man called 911 at 2:30 a.m. to report a small child was digging through the trash in search of food . "He had to be under 10," the man said in the 911 call. "He's very little, a very young kid."
That child was actually 19-year-old Bruce Jackson. Bruce and his three younger brothers were nearly being starved to death by their adoptive parents, Raymond and Vanessa Jackson. At 19, Bruce weighed only 45 pounds. Fourteen-year-old TreShawn weighed 40 pounds—a typical 14-year-old weighs 115 pounds. Ten-year-old Terrell weighed 28 pounds, when he should have weighed 70 pounds. Nine-year-old Michael weighed 23 pounds instead of the 60 pounds an average child his age should weigh. At the average weight of an 18-month-old toddler, Michael wore baby clothes.
When police arrived at the home, they found a lock on the refrigerator and an alarm on the kitchen door. The Jacksons claimed their four sons were so small because they suffered from eating disorders. The boys told police they were given only raw oatmeal and pancake batter to eat. One boy told authorities he chewed on window sills and wall plaster because he was so hungry, and bite marks were discovered around the house to prove it.
When authorities removed the boys from the home, they were filthy, had rotted teeth and itched from head lice. "This is by far the most horrific case of child abuse and child neglect that we have seen over the years," county prosecutor Vincent Sarubbi said.
Vanessa and Raymond Jackson were charged with 28 counts of aggravated assault and child endangerment. Raymond died of a stroke during the investigation.
Vanessa pleaded guilty to one charge of child endangerment in exchange for a reduced sentence. She served four years of a seven-year prison term and was released in February 2010. She continues to deny she ever starved or hurt the boys, and her daughter says she has no interest in speaking to The Oprah Winfrey Show.
At the trial—nearly two years after he was found scrounging for scraps—Bruce faced Vanessa in court. He had grown more than a foot taller and gained nearly 100 pounds. "You yelled at us. You cussed at us and hit us with brooms, rulers, sticks, shoes and belt buckles. I still have the marks to prove it," he said. "You took my childhood. I will never get that back."
Since leaving the Jackson home, Bruce has lived in a 24-hour care facility. His attorney says he is safe, in the constant care of professionals and loves and misses his brothers very much.
TreShawn says if it wasn't for Bruce, none of them would be alive. "He's a hero."
On the outside, Vanessa and Raymond were a churchgoing couple and appeared to be loving parents who opened their home to foster children in need.
The boys say they were well cared for when they were first placed with the couple in 1994. The boys say things changed when the Jacksons adopted them in 1996. After the adoption, social services was no longer required to check the boys' welfare. "That's when the Vanessa Jackson that we know now started coming out," TreShawn says.
At the time the boys were removed from the home, there were five other children living in the house—two girls the couple adopted from the foster care system, a 10-year-old foster daughter who was in the process of being adopted and two of the couple's adult biological children. "They were treated differently," Terrell says. "Well fed. Clothes on their backs. Nice rooms. Everything."
TreShawn says the Jacksons' home was a house of horrors. "Anything you did, they would punish you for it. You [were told to] sit on the step," he says. "Out of my whole 10 years being there, you can say I spent seven years being on that step."
The boys say they never knew when they would receive their next meal. "One time, she gave me baby food because she said that I got off the steps when I wasn't supposed to," Michael says. "Another time, she gave me blended up peanut butter and jelly. She said, 'This is all you're going to eat today.'"
TreShawn says they were often fed according to how Vanessa felt at the time. "Sometimes when she did call you in there, she would give you a certain time limit. ... 'Well, you have a minute to eat all of this, and if you don't finish it, you're not going to be able to get your next meal,'" he says. "We would be rushing, just stuffing food in our mouths hoping that we could hurry up and finish and feed ourselves."
TreShawn says he and his brothers went to school but were pulled out after he tried to tell his teacher he was starving. "My teacher wouldn't believe me," he says. "So eventually the Jacksons found out that I was telling the teacher, and they eventually took me out of the school and tried to home-school us."
The children say they were then locked in the house with no access to the outside world. "The home-schooling, it didn't really last that long. It lasted maybe two months," he says. "She said: 'There's no point to teaching you all. You're really not going to learn anything, so you need to start teaching yourselves.'"
If anyone came to the house, the boys say Vanessa made them hide. "When they came, she said: 'Go upstairs. These people are not here for you. They don't want to see you,'" TreShawn says. "She would call us ugly and stuff and hurry up and push us upstairs."
The only place the boys were allowed to go was church. If the Jacksons were ever asked about their children's size, they would say the boys had eating disorders. "Sometimes they actually had us wear three to four sweaters just to make ourselves look like we were big and we were healthy when we really weren't at all," TreShawn says.
After being removed from their hellish home, TreShawn, Terrell and Michael were placed in a safe haven foster home. James Parrish, a married father of one, had been assigned by the system to act as a mentor for these boys. When the time came for the boys to be put up for adoption, James knew he had to act. "They only wanted a dad," he says. "That's all they ever wanted."
James, his wife, Amber, and then-3-year-old son, CJ, became the boys' saviors by welcoming them into their home. "The first day that I actually laid eyes on them, I literally thought they were dwarfs," she says. "When Michael came to ask me, 'Would you be my mom?' I melted like butter. Because I said after all that these kids have done, after all they've been through, they chose me."
The family says the transition wasn't always easy. James and Amber say the boys have received a lot of counseling to help them work through the lasting effects of their experience. "When they first came, they had a lot of hate, a lot of anger," James says. "TreShawn felt as though that God had actually put him in that home to die."
The boys also had to adjust to the fact that they could eat whenever and whatever they wanted. "They looked at the food as if they were scared of it. And they would throw it up," Amber says. "They're to the point now where I can't stop them. Like, they're eating loaves of bread by the day."
Amber says she feels she was meant to be their mother. "I don't look at those boys as [though] I went to a courtroom and I picked those boys up. I birthed those boys," Amber says. "They're my babies."
"They have grasped the concept that, in this house, no matter what happens, they know for a fact that Dad and Mom love me," James says.
Vanessa Jackson, the woman who inflicted so much pain and suffering, is now walking free. TreShawn says no apology could make up for what she did to him and his brothers. "She has to go through the rest of her life knowing what she did to us, and I'm not her judge," he says. "Her true judgment will come when she goes to God."
Terrell says he would only accept an apology from Vanessa if she deeply meant it. "What I would want to say to her is, 'God is watching,'" he says. "God has watched what she did, and she needs to live the rest of her life knowing that she did something to us and it was bad."
Michael hopes his story will make adults and authorities more open to listening to what kids are really trying to tell them. "I will tell her thank you for basically putting me through that, for letting God to have a chance to basically pull me out and make my life better."
James says he wants Vanessa to admit what she did to his sons, while Amber says she knows exactly what she'd say to Vanessa if she ever met her. "I don't see how a mother, a real mother, could actually do what has been done to my kids. How do you not give your kids food? How do you not give your kids love?" Amber says. "She was [a] monster to those kids. And the only thing I want to say to her is: 'You owe my boys an apology. And I want you to tell them you're sorry.' I want to hear that. I want to be there when she does that."
TreShawn, Terrell and Michael say the nightmare they survived will always be a part of them, but they're grateful for their lives today. "Certain things in life now I don't take for granted—like parents who love you," TreShawn says. "You don't take people's love for granted."
All four brothers were awarded a large financial settlement in a lawsuit against the state of New Jersey. Still, TreShawn says the only thing they ever wanted doesn't cost a thing—the love of family. "My father teaches me everything I need to know as a man. He teaches me how to be a man and how to talk correct, how to never give up in school," TreShawn says. "How to make sure whenever I do something, like in sports, I give 100 percent. Not 55 percent. I go past the limit that I need to do so that people see that I'm trying to be my best."
Terrell says he loves his life today. "Living here now and having a family is freedom—freedom from starvation," he says. "What I lost during those years [at the Jackson's] is freedom and my childhood. Being able to go outside and play with my friends. Being able to go to school. Being able to say that I've been in second, third grade. Being able to say I'm smart."