Police say the four adopted boys, aged between nine and 19, were so emaciated it was impossible to tell their ages.

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None of the boys weighed more than 22 kilograms.

They were discovered after a neighbour saw 19 year-old Bruce looking for food in a rubbish bin early in the morning.

He was only 1.2 metres tall and weighed a little over 20 kilograms.

Investigators says the children were fed only uncooked pancake mix, cereal and peanut butter and had to supplement their rations with chips of paint and wall insulation from the house to survive.

“It really strikes at the heart of anyone that has any sense of compassion. And, quite frankly, it boggles the mind,” Camden County prosecutor, Mr Vincent P. Sarubbi said.

Their parents, Raymond and Vanessa Jackson, said the boys were adopted between 1995 and 1997 and suffered from eating disorders, but a doctor has found no evidence of inherited deficiencies.

The couple had also adopted two daughters, aged five and 12, and were in the process of adopting another 10-year-old girl, all of whom are apparently well fed and healthy.

The Jacksons also have two biological children, now aged over 18, who also lived in the same house and appeared healthy, officials said.

New Jersey’s social services department has been criticised for not finding the boys earlier, despite having made 40 visits to the home over the past two years.

Ten managers and supervisors from the state Division of Youth and Family Services have been suspended with pay and the Jacksons’ caseworker has resigned.

The case is the latest indication of New Jersey’s failing child welfare system, which has recently agreed to hand over the oversight of its agency to a panel of welfare experts.

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