By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - A Wyoming couple are charged with felony child abuse for forcing the woman's 7-year-old son to live in an outdoor cage where they periodically fed him and sometimes freed him to use the bathroom, a prosecutor said on Tuesday.
Jena Harman and her live-in boyfriend, Alexander Smith, could face up to 40 years in prison if convicted on child abuse and felonious restraint charges tied to allegations they kept the boy locked in a 6-foot cage outside their rural Wyoming home for weeks at a time, court documents show.
Acting on a neighbor's report, Albany County deputy sheriffs in southeast Wyoming near Laramie found the boy on July 24 in a cage of wire and plywood that contained such items as a cot.
Smith told deputies the child needed securing in the "playpen" because he and his girlfriend were busy people and it was the only way to ensure his safety, according to legal records.
The boy told authorities his mother had forced him to spend most of the preceding several weeks in the cage because of Smith but that she occasionally freed him to use the toilet in the house, a deputy sheriff said in a sworn statement.
He said Smith built the cage after an arrangement in the dwelling that ultimately saw the boy forced to sleep on the floor so the family dog could use the couch. The child said he was sometimes allowed in the house if it was raining if Smith was not at home, according to the affidavit.
Smith, a truck driver, told investigators he did not care for the child. He said the cage was originally built for the dog and that the child had followed the dog into the structure "and seemed to like the cage," court records show.
Law enforcement officials had responded several times since August 2013 to reports by teachers and neighbors of possible abuse or neglect of the boy but no charges were brought.
Deputy Albany County Prosecutor Josh Merseal said authorities had done all within their power to ensure the child's welfare. The couple are each jailed on $100,000 bond. They could not immediately be reached for comment.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Sandra Maler)