Tampa couple accused of locking child inside closet ’16 hours a day’ as punishment, deputies say

While responding to a report of child abuse, Hillsborough County deputies said a young boy told them he was handcuffed and forced to stand in a closet during the past few weeks for 16 hours per day.

Detectives said it was a form of "punishment" according to the child, and occurred almost every day. The investigation began Jan. 24 around 5:53 a.m. after deputies received reports of a missing child. 

When they arrived at the home, they found the boy was hiding inside the residence. However, they returned "a short time later" to begin an investigation into potential child abuse, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

During an interview with 41-year-old John Hernandez, detectives said he admitted to handcuffing the child and locking him inside a closet for "punishment for behavioral issues." The child would stay there from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., officials added.

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Hernandez was arrested, along with 37-year-old Natasha Dabbs who said she was aware of the punishment and didn’t try to prevent it, detectives said. Dabbs said it has been occurring since Christmas.

"The actions of this couple are reprehensible," Sheriff Chad Chronister said in a statement. "I am so proud of our deputies for noticing something was not right while they were at the initial call and following through. Their actions may have saved this young boy's life."

Detectives did not specify the child’s relationship between Dabbs and Hernandez due to Marsy’s Law.