Physical Abuse

'You Didn't Feed Me'

UPDATED 02/27/2006 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 02/27/2006 at 01:00 AM EST

On Feb. 10, in a packed courtroom in Camden, N.J., Bruce Jackson stood as tall as he could and turned toward his former adoptive mother, Vanessa. "Ms. Jackson," he began, "you didn't treat me with the proper respect." Bruce, 21, gave voice to his anguish publicly for the first time since October 2003, when police found him foraging for food in a neighbor's trash in Collingswood, N.J. At the time, he was 19, but his sunken face and little-boy's body—just 4 ft. tall and 45 lbs.—led police to charge his adoptive parents, Vanessa and Ray Jackson, with 28 counts of child endangerment and aggravated assault on Bruce and his three adoptive brothers Keith, now 16, Tyrone, 12, and Michael, 11. Ray, 51, died of a stroke in November 2004; Vanessa, 50, cut a deal—pleading guilty to one count of child endangerment—and was sentenced to seven years. Bruce now weighs 132 lbs. and stands 5′3″—likely his full adult height after years of deprivation. Here is an excerpt of what he said:

Ms. Jackson ... you didn't feed me or my brothers well. You would make us eat pancake batter, uncooked cream of wheat, raw potatoes. You didn't take us to doctor's appointments. You wouldn't let us take a shower when we were dirty. You wouldn't let us go outside and play. Even though you wouldn't let us join your kids and play, you wouldn't let us go to bed when we wanted to.

You yelled at us, cursed at us, hit us with brooms, rulers, sticks, shoes and belt buckles. You took me out of school for no reason and wouldn't teach me at home. You would make me wear Pampers the entire 12 years I was there and I never had trouble wetting the bed. I felt embarrassment about everything.

The Brothers: New Lives

To see how life has changed for Keith, Tyrone and Michael, just look at their rooms. The decor has a sports motif. Videos, TVs, PlayStations abound. Above all, the boys who inhabit those rooms are well-fed and well-loved. "It's excellent," says Michael, 11, of his new life with adoptive parents Pastor James and Amber Parrish of New Jersey. "They love me, and I love them too."

In exclusive interviews with PEOPLE, Michael and brother Keith, 16, spoke about the dramatic changes they have undergone since being adopted by caring families. Now 5′2″ and 126 lbs., Keith has grown a foot and gained 86 lbs. since Fulvia Mitchell took him home from the hospital two years ago after a friend told her of his situation. (The brothers see each other Sundays at Parrish's church.) "My heart dropped," she says. "This was stuff you see in foreign countries."

Indeed, Michael says his former life is now a world away. "I don't think about it," he says. But the Parrishes, who also are adopting Tyrone, 12, say it has taken time—and counseling—to heal two wounded souls. "They had anger, they were hurting," James Parrish says. "They had a lot they needed to talk about."

Some of that rage bubbled up Feb. 10, when Keith—who has changed his name to Tre-Shawn, combining the names of his new adoptive brother and the brother's son—saw Vanessa Jackson in court. "I just wanted to go over and hit her in the face," he says, "but I know I would have been kicked out."

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