Vancouver father defends locking up autistic sons

VANCOUVER, Wash — A man accused of locking his two young autistic sons in a room with a cage-like door says he heard on a television show that it’s OK to do so for their own safety.

John Eckhart, 31, testified at his trial Friday that he heard on either the reality TV show “Supernanny” or “Nanny 911” that if a parent is worried a child might hurt himself, it’s OK to lock the child in a room, the Columbian newspaper reported.

That’s what led him to install wire shelving to cover the entire doorway of the bedroom that his two sons shared in the family’s Vancouver, Wash., apartment. The makeshift door had a lock.

“I would say they were content in there,” said Eckhart, the final witness called to testify in a trial that opened May 21. Closing arguments are set for Tuesday in Clark County Superior Court.

Eckhart and his former live-in girlfriend Alayna Higdon, 27, are charged with unlawful imprisonment of Eckhart’s sons, then 5 and 7, between October 2010 and April 2011. If convicted, they face up to three months in jail, though they could serve a longer sentence if jurors find there were aggravating factors.

Prosecutors have argued that the couple locked the boys up for convenience. The prosecution said Eckhart was known to take hours-long smoking breaks, leaving the boys’ 9-year-old older brother to watch them. The prosecution also said the father played video games during the day. Higdon, a college student, was away from home most days.

The two boys were removed from the Vancouver apartment April 2011 after maintenance workers alerted state Child Protective Services. The oldest boy, who has a more severe form of autism, is in foster care, while the younger boy lives with his mother.

The jury has heard different accounts of how often the boys were locked in the room, when the cage-like door was installed and how often the boys, who were not toilet-trained, were bathed, the Columbian reported.

Eckhart told jurors that baby gates had not worked. In testimony earlier Friday, Higdon testified that the original bedroom door had been ruined because the boys would pound on it, kick it and beat their heads against it.

Defense attorney Jon McMullen on Friday highlighted Eckhart’s lack of education, his unwillingness to medicate his children and his devotion to his boys.

Eckhart disputed testimony from Higdon’s son, who had told jurors that he would have to feed the boys sandwiches and waffles through the door. He told jurors he does his best to be a good father.

The case hinges on whether Eckhart and Higdon deliberately imprisoned the boys, or whether they took reasonable safety precautions because of the boys’ autism, the Columbian reported.

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