Couple allegedly imprisoned autistic boys

Siblings, 5 and 7, found in cage-like room, police say

By Laura McVicker, Columbian staff writer

Published:

Updated: April 13, 2011, 8:21 PM

 
photoAlayna Higdon, 26.

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photoJohn Eckhart, 30.

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4317 N.E. 66th Ave.

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A Vancouver couple have been arrested for allegedly holding their two young autistic boys captive in a darkened, caged room.

Responding to a tip from Child Protective Services, police officers raided the couple’s apartment Tuesday and found the boys, ages 5 and 7, confined in a bedroom with a cage-like door. The boys could not speak, were wearing diapers and were not enrolled in school or receiving medical attention, according to police reports. They had no toys in their bedroom, which also had a cage over the window.

The parents, John C. Eckhart, 30, and Alayna M. Higdon, 26, were taken into custody on suspicion of second-degree criminal mistreatment and unlawful imprisonment, both class C felonies. On Wednesday morning, Clark County Superior Court Judge Robert Lewis set bail at $25,000 each. As of Wednesday afternoon, the two were in the Clark County Jail.

Meanwhile, the boys and the couple’s two other boys, ages 9 years and 11 months, were placed in protective custody, Vancouver police spokeswoman Kim Kapp said. The 9-year-old and 11-month-old were not being held in caged rooms.

The case surfaced after a social worker responded to a complaint about children being locked in cages. After knocking at the door, the social worker reported hearing a strange wailing coming from the apartment at 4317 N.E. 66th Ave.

“It kind of sounded like a bird, but I wondered if it was a kid,” the caseworker told officers, according to police reports.

Responding officers arrived later, and Higdon answered the door with a baby in her arms. The officer reported looking down a hallway and seeing a child’s arm hanging through a caged door. There was garbage and food wrappers on the floor, and the apartment was dirty and grimy, according to police reports. The cupboards in the kitchen contained little food; a pizza and Mountain Dew were in the refrigerator.

The couple’s 9-year-old son told officers that his younger brothers were fed but never allowed out of the room. The 9-year-old grew quiet when officers asked if the parents ever physically assaulted the children, according to reports. There was no reports of physical abuse.

The door of the room had been removed and replaced with a metal slatted cage that encompassed the entire doorway, Kapp said. The room was dark, with a single mattress inside.

When an officer went to the bedroom, where the boys were confined, “they were making moaning noises and tapped their fingers together through the holes between the metal bars,” according to police reports.

The officer reported smelling the scent of urine coming from the boys.

Asked why her children were locked in the room, Higdon said they are hyperactive and she doesn’t want them running wild. Pressed about why they weren’t in school, she told the officer that she can’t find a special school for their autism and tries to home-school them — even though the 9-year-old told investigators that his mother doesn’t teach them, according to police reports.

She also explained that the boys are still in diapers because they don’t understand how to go to the bathroom. She said she was not responsible for their well-being because they were Eckhart’s biological children, not hers.

After contacting Eckhart, whom police reports describe as Higdon’s fiancé, he became antagonistic toward the officers, yelling that they have no right to take his children.

“What am I supposed to do?” he asked police. “Let them run around the house? What kind of (expletive) parenting is that? They are both autistic.”

Higdon told officers that her fiancé uses marijuana.

When officers let the boys out of the room, they appeared excited, and one of them pointed toward the window, according to police reports.

A witness (whose name was redacted from the report) interviewed by police reported that the children had been held in the caged room for at least six months.

Wednesday afternoon, at the couple’s apartment complex off Andresen Road, Springfield Meadows, neighbors said they occasionally heard children screaming but never saw the kids come outside.

One upstairs neighbor said the family were “really bad neighbors” and that the children’s screaming was always followed by the mother’s yelling.

Eckhart is listed in court papers as unemployed; a search for his Facebook page displays a picture of him making an obscene gesture.

Higdon is listed as a student at Clark College in elementary education and was part of a work-study program that sporadically placed her as a volunteer in the library at Harney Elementary School, said Vancouver Public Schools spokeswoman Kris Sork.

According to court documents, the couple lives off food stamps and $1,160 in welfare a month.

The couple’s family is blended, with the autistic boys belonging to Eckhart and the 9-year-old belonging to Higdon, according to police reports. They are the parents of the 11-month-old.

At their first appearance Wednesday, the judge appointed attorney Robert Vukanovich to represent Eckhart and attorney Clark Fridley to represent Higdon.

The pair are expected to be arraigned on charges April 27.

Laura McVicker: 360-735-4516 or laura.mcvicker@columbian.com.