AT News
Archived Issue
Originally emailed 9 December 2003

The Jackson Four: The Appearance of AT Parenting

In a case which has shocked south New Jersey and the nation, four boys adopted out of foster care were discovered last month nearly starved to death. Press and official accounts suggest strongly that Attachment Therapy (AT) — or at the very least its sadistic parenting methods — are at the root of how the boys were treated by their adoptive parents.

It is known that New Jersey’s troubled Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) is an earnest promoter of AT. DYFS has even funded a home correspondence course on AT. The course recommends “unconventional strategies” for parenting, as well as “holding therapy.”

Jackson case came to the notice of NJ authorities when the oldest of the boys — aged respectively 9, 10, 14 and 19 — was discovered rooting through a neighbor’s trash can in search of food. He was so malnourished that he weighed only 45 pounds and stood just four feet tall. When police visited his home, his three brothers were discovered, all substantially underweight. The youngest weighed just 23 pounds. According to police, each had the appearance of a youngster half his age.

While in protective custody for six weeks, all of the boys made significant gains in body weight of at least 40%.

When the case was made public in late October — as the parents were charged with 14 counts of assault and neglect — it not only shocked locals, but made national news and prompted a congressional investigation. DYFS, which has the responsibility of assuring that adoptees do not end up this way, has been called on the carpet by state and federal legislators, as well as NJ Governor James McCreevey. Ten DYFS workers in the Camden office have lost their jobs, though union officials are pressing to have them reinstated.

Control through food has been a crucial element for parents (foster and adoptive), therapeutic parents, respite workers and “trackers” following AT parenting methods. There have been at least four known cases involving AT or claims of “attachment disorder,” where starvation of the child was a factor, one of them also in New Jersey. In a Texas case, Nancy Thomas AT parenting techniques were implicated. (See cases of
Lucas Ciambrone, Roxanne Heiser, Viktor Matthey, and the Hansen siblings).

The Jackson case shares many touch points with AT parenting:

  • There were five other children in the Jackson home, including two biological children, but only the adopted boys were obviously malnourished. AT parents often have extraordinarily large families, mostly of adopted children for which many receive “special-needs” subsidies (for their alleged “attachment disorders”). The Jacksons were reportedly receiving adoption subsidies totaling up to $28,000 annually for their “special-needs” kids.

  • The other children were all well-fed, even “heavy.” Such favoritism is inevitable in AT parenting situations, as the struggle spirals out of control.

  • According to investigators, the Jackson boys were locked out of the home’s kitchen and only fed pancake batter, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and oatmeal. A steady diet of cold oatmeal or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (called “PB & J Therapy”) is a hallmark recommendation of AT “parenting specialists,” such as Nancy Thomas.

  • The Jackson boys were made to do pointless or pointlessly difficult chores, such as cutting the lawn with garden shears, or washing clothes in a bucket. This is a favored recommendation of AT parenting specialists.

  • The boys reportedly were not allowed to play with toys, and none were found in their room. In fact, their attic room was bare (except for the family’s storage). Clothes were kept in heaps, as there was no furniture in which to keep them. AT parenting recommends such conditions until a child proves himself to be “respectful, responsible and fun to be with.”

  • The boys were repeatedly subjected to prolonged periods of “immobile sitting,” sometimes required to just stare at a blank TV screen. This is recognizable as AT’s “power sitting” or “strong sitting.”

  • AT advocates frequently excuse parental abuse by blaming the child, either by insisting that it is self-inflicted or because the child is difficult to handle. An “attachment disordered” child cannot be believed, especially in recounting his adoptive parents’ actions. The Jacksons’ minister called the oldest adoptive son a liar before the Congressional hearing; he later made a public apology.

  • AT encourages the speedy and permanent removal of children from birth families. Later, the blame for the current behavior is almost always attributed to the birth family, and never to the adoptive or foster parents. In the Jackson case, the parents claim that all four boys are “troubled,” as a consequence of previous physical/sexual abuse or of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Evidence is emerging that suggests that at least for one of the boys, prior abuse or FAS did not occur.

  • The boys were removed from school and supposedly home-schooled. Removal from public school is a typical occurrence with children diagnosed with “attachment disorder”. It has the effect of removing the possibility of detection by teachers who are required to report signs of abuse or neglect. AT parenting specialists warn parents that teachers may not understand AT parenting methods or even recognize that the child has a “severe mental problem.”

  • Despite the claims of “eating disorders,” none of the boys had seen a doctor in at least four years for any reason. Again, doctors are among those who are required to report suspected abuse or neglect.

  • Medical complaints by children are ignored as “attention-getting.” Children are also accused of vomiting and defecating at will as acts of defiance of the mother’s authority.

  • Adoptive and foster parents are often the target of AT marketing. These parents are urged to head off charges of abuse by educating their church about AT parenting methods.

  • Families employing AT parenting often withdraw into a small circle of supporters and like-minded parents. In such circles, parents are praised as heroes for putting up with AT behavior. In the Jacksons’ case, the family social circle consisted almost entirely of their church, which is 30 miles away from their home. Their minister praises them for taking on “children nobody else wanted.”

Dr. Jean Mercer, psychology professor at Richard Stockton College in Pomona, NJ, has further flushed out DYFS’s AT sympathies in the local press:
  • “Jackson family confounds even child-abuse experts,” by Barbara Laker, Philadelphia Daily News, 2 December 2003.

  • Marie McCullough, “Experts have trouble linking starvation, disorders,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 6 November 2003.

Advocates for Children in Therapy (ACT) has given written testimony to Congress about the apparent connections between this case and AT. The hope is that this will be a wakeup call for the federal government to put a stop to its subsidization of AT’s victimization of vulnerable children.

For a detailed account of this case, go to
ACT’s victims page on it.

Caution: links may have aged since this AT News was first emailed.