Couple says caged door was for the kids' safety

Couple says caged door was for the kids' safety »Play Video
Alayna Higdon and John Eckhart both testified in their own defense Friday.

VANCOUVER, Wash. - The couple accused of keeping two autistic boys in a caged room said they did it for the boys' own good.

Alayna Higdon also said it gave her and her boyfriend, John Eckhart, a rare peaceful night in the house.

She said she and the boys' father (Eckhart) devised the caged door as a safe way to control the boys. It was just part of several things they did to childproof the house for the boys who were hard to control.

Higdon and Eckhart were arrested a year ago. Vancouver police said they found the five and seven year old boys trapped, in diapers, with only a tiny mattress and little food.

Higdon is not the biological mother of the boys but lived with Eckhart. She seemed cheerful on the stand Friday.

She said the boys pounded their heads against the wall, and the younger boy would eat the drywall in the room.

Higdon came across as a loving parent but facing tremendous challenges. She said Eckhart put up the metal shelving as a caged door because the boys would get upset when they were locked behind a solid door at night.

When asked what she thought about the metal-wire door, Higdon said, "It didn't look good. I wasn't excited about it. It frightened me a little bit, but I lived with it. The next morning when the boys woke up there was no anything. They were just talking and having a good time, and everything was fine."

She said it wasn't normal that the boys would wake up happy.

The judge didn't allow the prosecution to ask the parents why the boys were not in school.

Late in the afternoon Eckhart took the stand and testified that he's a loving parent wrongly accused of abuse.

He painted himself as a devoted stay-at-home father working hard to control two autistic boys who had to be supervised at all times.

He said they could quickly get out of control. He was also trying to care for a baby and an older child.

Eckhart, who is the son of a retired Portland assistant police chief, said the caged door was just one of many things he did to childproof the house.

"Every so often you cannot keep a hand on each child at the same time, and I had four in the house," he said. "Well, I put it up there because you can't always watch a child. Health and safety is a big concern."

The couple has to overcome testimony from another boy in the home, Higdon's 10-year-old son. He told jurors this week the autistic boys were locked behind the cage for much of the day. He said he had to feed them through the slots. Eckhart denied that.

"I never asked (the boy) to stick food through the gate or anything like that," he said.

Eckhart may have won a lot of sympathy with jurors when he told them he never made it passed eighth grade after flunking out of special ed classes. He told them he has difficulty reading and writing.

The defense has tried to portray the couple as naïve and doing the best they can.

Eckhart told jurors he couldn't even leave the boys unattended – outside the locked room – long enough to bring in groceries without fearing they would get out of control.

The trial will conclude Tuesday with closing arguments.

Even if the jury finds the couple not guilty, that doesn't mean they get the kids back. That's handled separately in family court.