Ore. mother surprised to hear 2 sons kept caged

An Oregon mother said Thursday she was shocked to learn that the father of her two autistic sons has been accused of mistreating the boys by locking them in a darkened room.

An Oregon mother said Thursday she was shocked to learn that the father of her two autistic sons has been accused of mistreating the boys by locking them in a darkened room.

Jona Bronson of Tillamook said she'll try to regain custody of the boys she left with John Eckhart, who was arrested along with his current girlfriend on charges of unlawful imprisonment and mistreatment.

Police said the boys — ages 5 and 7 — were found Tuesday in a Vancouver, Wash., apartment in a room whose door had been replaced by a makeshift, slatted barrier.

When Officer Missy Skeeter showed up, one of the boys stuck a hand between the slats, police said.

"What am I supposed to do? Let them run around the house?" a police report quoted Eckhart as saying. "...They're autistic."

He and Alayna Higdon, 26, appeared in court Wednesday and are due back in late April. Lawyers for the two have not commented.

A police report quoted by The Oregonian newspaper said the boys were in diapers, smelling of urine, and they could only moan, not talk. They appeared to share a mattress in a room with one window covered by a gate and a blanket, it said. The rest of the apartment was cluttered and dirty, with little food.

Law enforcement officers notified child welfare workers in February that the family in the apartment was "overwhelmed," Department of Social and Health Services spokeswoman Sherry Hill said Thursday. But during a follow-up contact, the family declined an offer of services.

There were no details about what led to the conclusion the family was overwhelmed and what services were offered.

Vancouver Police spokeswoman Kim Kapp said she couldn't immediately find a report from February about the family. The Clark County sheriff's department didn't return a call.

Bronson said Thursday she left Eckhart — they hadn't married — because he was controlling and had a drug problem, but she gave up the children because she didn't want to disrupt their schooling and routines.

"If I had known, I would have taken the boys," she said. "I felt at the time I was doing what was in their best interest."

After giving up custody, Bronson moved in with her parents and got a job in Tillamook. Since then, she's gotten married and has a 16-month-old son.

Bronson said she saw the boys Sunday for the first time in a year but got no hint of mistreatment.

"Their hair was dirty, that's all," she said.

Washington state officials said a maintenance worker at the complex provided information that led a caseworker to visit the apartment on Monday evening, but even through there were sounds from the apartment, nobody came to the door.

Skeeter and other officers arrived the next day on what's described as a welfare check.

Police said two other boys were in the apartment — one a 9-year-old son of Higdon and the other an 11-month-old son of Eckhart and Higdon. All four were placed in foster care, and a juvenile judge will eventually decide their custody, Hill said.

Privacy laws prevented disclosure of other details. Bronson said she hadn't gotten a report Thursday on the condition of her sons.

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