AVON PARK — In a Highlands County courtroom earlier this month, jurors saw a photo of then 4-year-old Kairi Jackson after she was removed in 2012 from an apartment in Avon Park. That was where authorities said she and her two sisters and a brother were fed very little and kept in their bedrooms most of the day in a filthy apartment full of cockroaches.
That picture showed Kairi with her head in her arms, with a sad, forlorn look on her face.
After her aunt and uncle, Amy and Roy Jackson, who live in the Fort Myers area, took in Kairi and her sisters, Willow and Audrey, Kairi was “very introverted and very withdrawn,” Amy Jackson recalled.
But two years later, Kairi’s demeanor is a lot different and the same is true for her sisters, Amy Jackson said.
“Now her eyes sparkle,” Amy Jackson said. “She’s learning by leaps and bounds,” she said, adding that Kairi will start school this fall.
Amy Jackson’s update on the children came not long after a Highlands County jury convicted the children’s mother, Sandra Michelle Jackson, 27, of aggravated manslaughter of a child in the malnutrition death of 9-month-old Milo Rupert and three counts of neglect of a child. Circuit Judge William Sites scheduled her sentencing for Sept. 15.
Jackson’s former boyfriend, Kyle Rupert, plead guilty to those charges last year and was sentenced to 24 years in prison.
Authorities said that while Sandra Jackson worked as a shift manager at Wendy’s, Rupert stayed at home. During most of that time, reports said, Rupert and his friends played video games, while Milo was kept in his crib and the three sisters were in their bedroom with a gate preventing them from getting out. A friend of Sandra Jackson’s, who lived in the apartment part of the time, testified he nagged Rupert to check on Milo, even on the night that the child died.
Although Sandra Jackson argued with Rupert about his failure or inability to care for the children, authorities said she failed to intervene.
Two years later, Amy Jackson says that in a tragic way, Milo saved the lives of his three sisters. She said that Milo’s death resulted in the three sisters being removed from the apartment where they were headed in the same direction of Milo.
To this day, the surviving sisters who once lived in the apartment crawling with roaches and had numerous insect bits, remain afraid of insects, the aunt said.
Since being removed from the apartment, Kairi is 6 inches taller and weighs what she should weigh at her age and height.
When they took in Willow, a year younger than Kairi, it was apparent the lack the food had stifled her growth physically and in other aspects, Amy Jackson said.
At first, Willow’s main concern was always about food, Amy Jackson said. “She was starving.”
She added that Willow had a “ravenous” appetite and always wanted to eat.
Now, Willow communicates a lot better and she’s a “happy little girl where she wasn’t before,” the aunt said. While the aunt and uncle adopted Kairi and Audrey, another couple, who does not want Willow’s last name used, adopted Willow because the Jacksons felt Willow was in need of more attention. But the three sisters often spend time together.
Audrey Jackson, who is a year younger than Willow, has grown considerably, the aunt said. “She is incredibly smart. She knows what she wants.”
Although there’s been a lot of progress with the children, Amy Jackson said that once her niece is sentenced, a lot of the healing will take place.
She praised those who investigated the case and Assistant State Attorney Richard Castillo for the way he handled the prosecution.
“There is no winner in this case,” she said.
On the one hand, she said, she has done her best to find forgiveness for Sandra Jackson and would take the children to visit their mother if when they are older they request that.
But, at the same time, she said, she remains troubled that Sandra Jackson put Rupert in charge of taking care of the children, even though she was told Rupert lacked that capability.
And she is troubled by the “lack of compassion” Sandra Jackson showed toward the children, the aunt said.
Amy Jackson said the lack of money the family had was no excuse for what happened. As a child she and her family were dirt poor, she said.
But, she added: “I don’t ever remember a time when we weren’t clothed, bathed and well taken care of.”
“There’s no excuse for the dirty filthy apartment (where the three sisters and Milo lived),” she said.