ST. JOSEPH — The Berrien Springs mother accused of handcuffing her son to a chair as punishment for shoplifting will not be charged with a crime, the Berrien County prosecutor’s office announced today.
Her 16-year-old son told police Feb. 8 he had been directed to stay in a 6-foot by 4-foot room at their home over the past three weeks because of the shoplifting incident Jan. 17.
In a news release today, Berrien County Prosecutor Art Cotter said that after interviews with the boy, along with his parents’ openness to counseling, he did not believe it to be in the best interest of the family to pursue charges.
He did, though, say criminal prosecution would have been "sustainable" under the facts of the case.
Instead, Cotter’s office is pursuing a neglect and abuse petition on behalf of the Michigan Department of Human Services against the parents before the Berrien County Family Court. The boy and his 9-year-old sister are not currently in the care of their parents.
"As reunification of this family is the likely ultimate goal of the Family Court’s involvement, the petition will permit the court to enter orders with respect to this family that will insure family counseling/parenting classes take place before either child is returned to the care of their parents," Cotter said in the release.
Authorities are not releasing the name of the 16-year-old or his parents.
The boy, his mother and his sister moved to Berrien Springs last summer, while their father remained in Colorado to finish work. The boy was pulled from school by his mother and home-schooled after the shoplifting offense.
He reportedly was placed in a small room that contained a wooden kitchen chair, a Bible and water bottle. He was never locked in the room.
Authorities said the teenager was not handcuffed while in the room until two weeks after the shoplifting incident. His mother then found that he had sneaked an MP3 player into the room. The boy then threatened to run away, leading the mother to decide to handcuff him to the chair during the day and to a desk in his bedroom at night, according to the news release.
He reportedly used a bell to alert his mother when he needed to eat or use the restroom. The only time he went outside was to shovel snow or run errands with her. Authorities said the father also knew of the mother’s actions, although he was still in Colorado at the time.
Prosecutors said the teenager was not injured and was able to move during the day by picking up the chair, and could have left the house if needed. At night he was unable to move as he was handcuffed to the desk.
He eventually called police from his computer.
The boy later told authorities he was not going to run away, and that he called police only to scare his parents from stopping what he called an "extreme measure."
The parents reportedly told the prosecutor they used poor judgment by using the handcuffs and that their actions — although misguided — arose out of a genuine concern of their son’s life, health, safety and threats to run away.
"Handcuffing a child by a parent is never appropriate," Cotter said. "Whether such an act rises to the level of criminality depends upon the circumstances. I do not find the necessary malice on the part of the parents in this case to justify a charge of child abuse in the second degree, i.e. that they acted in a manner that would accurately be described as brutal, inhuman, sadistic, or that which torments."
Cotter did say that handcuffing the boy to a non-movable desk at night could have brought forth child abuse in the fourth degree because it posed an unreasonable risk of harm or injury in the event of a house fire.