Sunday, December 20, 2015
The Jackson Abuse Case: Religious Beliefs, Old-Fashioned Punishment, Nancy Thomas, or Mrs. Great Santini?
A former Army major, John Jackson, and his wife, Carolyn, were recently sentenced for child endangerment because of the injuries they caused to children in their care (whether these children were being fostered or had been adopted is not clear—media reports run about half and half). [CORRECTION: According to the indictment, available on line, one child had been adopted and the other two were in foster care.] In “disciplining” the then-toddler or preschool-age children. who were already developmentally delayed, the Jacksons employed hot-saucing, feeding of hot pepper flakes, forced feeding of salt, and withholding of food and water for offenses like walking or eating too slowly or putting fingers into the mouth. There were broken bones, too, including a fractured spine. Further descriptions are at www.northjersey.com/news/prosecutor-army-major-wife-abused-adopted-kids.1.1111774 ; www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/ex-army-major-wife-convicted-abusing-3-n-foster-kids-article-1.2286026 ; www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2015/former_army_major_wife_sentenced_for_torture_of_th.html .
John Jackson was given a sentence of probation and a fine, while Carolyn Jackson was sent to prison for two years. Rather ironically, it seems to me, it was argued that Major Jackson should not be taken away from his children! One of the couple’s biological children testified about the mistreatment of the foster/adoptive children, so one must wonder about the advantage to him of having his father left available to him.
Prosecutors had asked for a sentence of 15 to 19 years because of the intensity and duration of the abuse. The judge, Katharine Hayden, cited John Jackson’s military record as a reason for giving him probation only—a decision whose implications for punishment of other abusive military people are limited only by one’s imagination. Hayden did agree that Carolyn Jackson had endangered the children’s welfare, and indeed breaking someone’s spine or inducing hypernatremia can scarcely be argued to be in their best interests, even by defense lawyers.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, ”Defense attorneys argued during the trial that the Jacksons’ child-rearing methods might have been objectionable but they didn’t constitute crimes, and that the foster children had preexisting health problems.” Granted that desperate lawyers seek desperate arguments, this one nevertheless seems to be not just one but several pips. First, hot-saucing and forced feeding of salt certainly would be crimes if they were committed against adults. Second, let’s look at other forms of corporal punishment. Although spanking of children remains legal, the cut-off point for its legitimacy is usually considered to be the point where its intensity or duration leave physical evidence in the form of bruises or other injuries; when this occurs, this form of punishment becomes abuse. The parallel for other methods of physical discipline would reasonably be that a method that causes visible physical harm, like blistering from hot sauce or hypernatremia from forced salt ingestion, rises (or sinks) to the level of abuse and is far beyond being merely “objectionable”. I believe this argument is an adequate counter to the claim that the Jacksons’ actions did not constitute crimes.
Now, let’s look at the second part of the defense attorneys’ argument: the foster children had preexisting health problems. Now we are definitely in an upside-down moral universe! “The children were in poor health and developmentally delayed; therefore it was permissible—perhaps even advisable?—to brutalize them. This would teach them not to be so sick and motivate them to speed up their development.” Outrageous to state this baldly, of course, but is this not the implication of the defense argument? In fact, in reality, the children’s health and developmental problems made them especially vulnerable to the impact of abuse, and according to their present foster mother, they continue to bear the emotional scars of their time in the Jackson household.
Why did the Jacksons treat the children as they did? Evidently, they offered their biological children the explanation that it was necessary to discipline the foster children in these ways. The parents did not use the same methods with the biological children, although Carolyn Jackson apparently gave a thorough belting to her son when she discovered that he had told a family friend how the foster children were treated. Did the Jacksons believe that the methods they were using were actually a form of intervention, a “treatment” that would help the foster children get onto an improved developmental trajectory? It’s possible that they did think this; they may have been using a version of the Nancy Thomas treatment in which food and water are withheld to motivate children to comply with parental demands, or they may have believed that the children were possessed by demons and that the demons could be expelled by discomfort, allowing the children to return to normal health and development.
It’s also possible that what we see in the Jackson case is simply the perpetuation of the “good, old-fashioned” view of physical punishment as the cure for all childhood behavior problems, and the assumption that whatever punishments were familiar in one’s own early life are the best way to guide children today. This view is sometimes associated with the belief that following one’s parents’ child-rearing ways shows respect for the parents, and failing to do so shows disrespect. In families and subcultures where lack of respect for parents has a strong religious implication of disrespect for divine authority, this can be a powerful factor. There are many unanswered questions about the role of religious belief (including assumptions about demon possession) in this case, but religious positions have played such important roles in other child abuse cases that I think it is a mistake to ignore this as we try to understand what happened here.
Finally, with all due respect to the thousands of well-functioning military families, it would be absurd to ignore the part played here by authoritarian attitudes that punish deliberate and inadvertent disobedience equally. John Jackson has been administratively separated from the Army and I cannot find whether he is actually discharged, either honorably or otherwise. His military record has saved him from imprisonment in the civilian world, but there may be a limit to what even the military can tolerate, especially because this matter became public knowledge and makes the military look bad, which officers are not supposed to do—in church terms, it’s like causing scandal in the congregation.
Many questions remain unanswered about the Jackson case. I hope further investigation will occur and be made public. The U.S attorney is apparently considering an appeal… and there remains a question about why the Jacksons were never charged with the death of one of the children. Another desirable investigation would look into the conduct of caseworkers responsible for monitoring the foster children.