Son, 10, of defendant takes stand in child imprisonment trial

By Laura McVicker, Columbian staff writer

Published:

Updated: May 23, 2012, 7:37 PM

 

The 10-year-old son of defendant Alayna Higdon told jurors on Wednesday that he fed two autistic boys toaster waffles through the slits of a cage-like door.

Higdon’s son, James, also said he would prepare the boys peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch and feed them after one of the parents opened the door for him.

James said the boys, sons of Higdon’s live-in boyfriend, would only come out for dinner.

“They got baths sometimes if they made a mess,” James said.

However, in cross-examination, as defense lawyers showed him family photos, James said the boys also were let out for holiday parties and family drives.

The 10-year-old’s testimony came on the third day of the trial of Higdon, 27, and John Eckhart, 31, who are charged with unlawful imprisonment.

Prosecutors allege the Vancouver couple kept the boys, then 5 and 7, behind the makeshift cage-style door for hours on end out of convenience. The defendants say they had the boys locked in the room for their own safety.

The defense is expected to present its case today.

Jurors should receive the case either today or Friday. Clark County Superior Court Judge Robert Lewis is presiding over the trial.

On Wednesday, the state also called one of the children’s foster parents and a psychologist who testified that the restraint was not reasonable.

James Higdon was on the stand much of the morning. As Deputy Prosecutor Dustin Richardson questioned him, he first talked about feeding the boys breakfast and lunch at the door of their room. He said Eckhart would come into the room about three times a day to change the boys’ diapers and tickle them. Eckhart was unemployed at the time, while Higdon, a college student, was gone during the day.

Where was Eckhart?, Richardson asked.

He was playing video games “most of the time,” James said.

At night, the boys were alone in their room, too. “They usually cried for a long time, but then would fall asleep because they were so tired,” James said.

During cross-examination, defense attorneys worked to prove that the conditions weren’t as stark as prosecutors had alleged.

Responding to a question from defense attorney Brian Walker, James said the boys had toys in their room until they were taken away to be cleaned. Sometimes the toys would go back in the room, James said, and sometimes not. James also said the boys had rubber ducks in the bathtub.

Rebecca McIntyre, the foster parent of the older autistic boy, took the stand after James. She said the boy, now 8, is doing much better now, after he started taking medication and she started using de-escalation techniques during outbursts. When he melts down and bangs his head on furniture or walls, she said she gives him a fuzzy blanket to calm down.

“There was a big adjustment period,” she said.

McIntyre said the boy bashed several windows with his head when he moved in. But over the last three or four months, he hasn’t broken any windows and is becoming more able to communicate and interact with people.

After lunch, Seattle psychologist Tom Powers testified for the prosecution as an expert on children with autism. He said that sometimes seclusion is appropriate when a child is in imminent danger and agitated. But, Powers said, the seclusion should be brief, about 10 minutes, or until the child cools down.

“It would be my last choice,” he said.

Powers said isolation can have an adverse affect.

“They are not able to develop appropriately because there’s a lack of stimulation,” he said. “People develop anxiety disorders because of that.”

Powers said it didn’t appear the boys were locked in the room when they were agitated and in imminent danger to themselves.

“They were photographed in that room perfectly calm,” he said.

During cross-examination, defense attorneys questioned Powers’ experience with severely autistic children — which is how the defense categorizes the boys. Powers answered that about 3 to 5 percent of the children he sees fall in the same category as the alleged victims.

The defense also pointed out that Powers never observed the boys firsthand, but relied on hundreds of pages of police reports, medical records and school files.

While Powers said he appreciated that Eckhart and Higdon created the cagelike door so the boys could see from it, there are other ways to handle the children appropriately, he said.

“You’re constantly excluded to a place that’s not fun,” Powers said. “I don’t think it’s reasonable.”

Laura McVicker: www.twitter.com/col_courts; www.facebook.com/reportermcvicker; laura.mcvicker@columbian.com; 360-735-4516.