A Florida couple kept an adopted teen locked in the garage. Their lawyer says they had no choice
Behind a perpetually closed garage door at the end of a cul-de-sac in Jupiter's Egret Landing neighborhood, Timothy and Tracy Ferriter hid a secret.
KATHERINE KOKAL | Palm Beach Post
JUPITER — Behind a perpetually closed garage door at the end of a cul-de-sac in Jupiter's Egret Landing neighborhood, Timothy and Tracy Ferriter hid a secret.
It was an 8-by-8-foot room that could be unlocked only from the outside. The couple kept their 14-year-old adopted teen there for up to 18 hours at a time, according to interviews town police officers did with the teen and their three siblings.
A twin-sized bed stood opposite a desk in the windowless room, with an air-conditioning unit in one wall and a light placed above. A Home Depot bucket sat in the corner for the teen to use as a bathroom.
A small camera captured the teen's movements as they did their homework and slept in the room. The teen spent their days in the family's garage — Christmas decorations and basketballs were stored just feet away.
The Ferriters' secret became international news in February, after the teen ran away and police found the child on the grounds of a nearby middle school – and then charged the adult Ferriters with aggravated child abuse, a first-degree felony punishable by up to 30 years in prison, and false imprisonment. Both have pleaded not guilty.
The Palm Beach Post is not identifying the teen by name or gender, but public records and court proceedings offer clues to what life was like inside the one-story house on Crane Point North: The Ferriter teen said they endured constant surveillance and both physical and verbal assault from their parents while their siblings were spared.
Timothy and Tracy Ferriter have made no public statements since their arrests Feb. 8, but they have hired West Palm Beach criminal defense attorney Nellie King, a past president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, to represent them.
King has cast doubt on evidence obtained by the Florida Department of Children and Families in its investigation, pressured the Jupiter Police Department to turn over hundreds of hours of video footage from the room's camera and suggested that police didn't take the child's behavior — which she described as violent and escalating — into account when arresting the couple.
"There are a number of issues you do not know involving (the teen)," King wrote to Jupiter police on behalf of her clients.
Those issues, King said in the letter, included the teen torturing animals, injuring their parents and bringing knives and weapons to school.
Now, the teen and the Ferriters' three other children are in DCF's custody while their parents await trial, charged with a crime at odds with a neighborhood dotted by children's tree swings and basketball hoops.
How does Florida's adoption system support, or fail, families?
The emergence of details in the Ferriters' case raises questions about how Florida's adoption system, which is designed to over-prepare adoptive families to welcome a new child, can allow abuse to fester.
The system requires parents to complete a 10-step training process that includes background checks and a home study. The process is so grueling that some counselors credit it with discouraging people from adopting altogether because they don't feel prepared.
Sealed adoption records ensure that few details about how a child changes hands are available to the public, the child or, in some cases, the family. For the Ferriters, it's unlikely the teen's adoption records will be unsealed unless King or some other attorney finds it beneficial to their case and convinces a judge to open them.
Attorneys and adoption counselors who work in Floridasaid the state's adoption system allows children with mental illnesses to fall through the cracks once their birth parents' rights are terminated.
"When you adopt a child, that’s your kid. There’s no one to tell you what to do. There’s no one to be the boss," said Kevin Slack, anadoption counselor who works with families in Florida and North Carolina. "You’re stuck on your own trying to figure this out."