WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Was it aggravated child abuse? Or simply bad parenting?
A jury will decide the fate of Timothy Ferriter, whose case went to trial Tuesday, more than a year after police accused him and his wife, Tracy, of confining one of their four children in a box-like structure in the garage of their Jupiter, Florida, home.
The state will try the Ferriters separately in the case, which drew international attention after their arrests in February 2022, with courtroom TV channels covering it for hours at a time. Besides aggravated child abuse, Timothy Ferriter, 48, faces charges of false imprisonment and child neglect.
The teen had a history of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, and a condition known as reactive attachment disorder, Tracy Ferriter told investigators prior to her arrest. The disorder keeps children from forming bonds with their family members, and it can lead them to act out or make it difficult for children to accept love.
The Palm Beach Post, part of the USA TODAY Network, is not identifying the teen by name or gender. The child, whom the family adopted at 17 months old, has been in the care of the Florida Department of Children and Families since the Ferriters' arrests. The agency also removed the couple's three other children from the home at that time.
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Prosecutors: Timothy Ferriter's actions 'humiliating, isolating and cruel'
Assistant State Attorney Brianna Coakley described a pattern of alleged abusive behavior that began during the Ferriter family's time living in Arizona and continued as the family moved to Jupiter shortly before the Christmas holiday in 2021.
Coakley told the jury that the child ran away from home in January 2022, leading Jupiter investigators to uncover a dark secret surrounding the child's living conditions in the Ferriters' Egret Landing home.
"There wasn't a bedroom for (the child)," Coakley said. "There weren't (the child's) items of clothes, there weren't (the child's) toys inside of the house. Instead, there was a small room, box-like structure that was constructed in the garage that didn't have any windows. It had a box spring and a mattress, a bucket in the corner and a desk."
She told jurors that the child was confined to the structure for multiple hours a day. Coakley said the child was subjected to punishments that were "humiliating, isolating and cruel."
“We’re here today because of the actions of Tim Ferriter towards his (child)," she said. "They were ongoing, they were intentional, and they were criminal."
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Defense: 'Bad parenting does not make somebody a criminal'
Defense attorney Prya Murad stressed one idea to jurors in her statement: Timothy Ferriter's actions may be bad parenting, but they are not criminal.
Murad said Ferriter's actions were those of a parent struggling to deal with a disruptive child. She argued that Ferriter was faced with an impossible situation that forced him to make tough decisions to protect both the child from self-harm and the other children in the home as well.
Timothy and Tracy Ferriter told Jupiter police that the teen lied, stole, attacked family members and threatened classmates. The child acted out in school and even fantasized about killing people, they said.
The case, Murad said, is about the "difficulty of parenting."
"Bad parenting does not make somebody a criminal," she said. "Bad parenting does not mean that a person should be charged with a crime. It makes them human. It makes them a parent who is trying to figure out when faced with a child who has consistent and escalating behavioral issues, how to handle them."
Family had room in garage built when they bought Jupiter home in 2021
The Ferriters had the room built in their garage shortly after buying their Egret Landing home in late 2021. They had it demolished 12 days after their arrests.
The door had a lock that only could be opened from the outside. Mounted on its ceiling was a doorbell camera, where the family could monitor the movements of whoever was inside, according to police reports. The teen told investigators they endured constant surveillance and both physical and verbal assault from their parents while their siblings were spared.
Testimonies from the Ferriter parents suggest that their teen got in trouble at Independence Middle School on Jan. 27, 2022, the day before the child ran away. Officers found the child outside the school on Jan. 31, according to an arrest report. They went to the child's home and asked to see their bedroom.
A lawyer no longer representing Timothy Ferriter said in a letter to Jupiter police and the county State Attorney's Office that the child had pushed more than one family member, causing fractures and other injuries, and was involved in a physical attack on a classmate. The child also had brought knives and weapons to school, the letter alleged.
Julius Whigham II is a criminal justice and public safety reporter for The Palm Beach Post. You can reach him at email@example.com and follow him on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, at @JuliusWhigham. Help support our work: Subscribe today.
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Jury hears case of Florida dad who kept teen locked in garage