Emotional Testimony Wraps In 'Caged' Kids Custody Hearing
By Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
March 3, 2006
NORWALK, OHIO--The hearing to decide whether custody of 11 children with disabilities should be returned to their adoptive parents, who allegedly forced some of them to sleep in cage-like beds, ended Thursday after seven days of emotionally-charged testimony.
County officials do not want Juvenile Court Judge Timothy Cardwell to send the children back to the home. They claimed that the children were abused at the home, and have improved in their behavior and mood while in foster homes.
The children, who range in age from 1 to 15, have been in foster care since they were removed from the rural home of Michael and Sharen Gravelle last September 9. During a search of the home, Huron County sheriff's deputies and Department of Job and Family Services workers found several wire and wood enclosures armed with electric alarms. They also found a strong smell of urine, no working smoke alarms on the second floor where the children slept, and the door to one bedroom that was blocked by a dresser.
Last week, three county social workers testified that the Gravelles have failed to cooperate with them and have created a hostile environment. They also said that the couple has refused to undergo psychological evaluations or to follow through on other tasks the court has ordered them to do.
The children's court-appointed guardian, Margaret Kern, told the court that Gravelles have not admitted that there are problems with their parenting methods, which included harsh punishments.
"The system has failed these children, and I'm committed to not letting that failure take place again with these children," Kern said. "The fact that they were placed in this home is just an example of how the system failed them."
The court also heard testimony that the couple consulted for several years with independent licensed social worker Elaine Thompson over how to handle the children. Thompson has said she supported the Gravelle's use of techniques included in the controversial book, "When Love is Not Enough," which reportedly involves strict discipline.
While Thompson diagnosed many of the children with Reactive Attachment Disorder, psychologists hired by the county said none of the children have the disorder.
On February 22, one of Michael Gravelle's adult biological daughters testified that her father began "inappropriately touching" her when she 6 or 8 years old -- a claim Mr. Gravelle has denied.
Records from Lorain County Children Services, however, showed that Mr. Gravelle reported in 1986 that he had sexually abused Jenna, and that he enrolled in a two-year sexual-abuse counseling program but dropped out after just four months.
"I was miserable," said Jenna Gravelle, now 31, who added that she and her brother were forced as teenagers to pay rent after their father married Sharen.
Mrs. Gravelle took the stand this week to defend herself and her husband, whom she said she married two months after meeting him through a child sex abuse support group.
"He said he had a thought and all he wanted to do was get help," she said. "I believe that he had an inappropriate thought that he never acted upon."
Mrs. Gravelle testified that the wooden enclosures in the children's upstairs bedroom originally began as a play area for some of the children. She said that the others enjoyed them so much they requested to have more built for them. She said she soon discovered that the children seemed to sleep better in the enclosures than in their own beds.
Mrs. Gravelle said that the couple eventually covered the beds with wire and alarms to keep them from wandering around the house, urinating on baseboard heaters, taking knives from the kitchen and hitting each other.
"They just didn't seem normal to me, I mean the behavior didn't and I didn't know what to do," she told the court Wednesday.
Judge Cardwell instructed the attorneys to submit written closing statements to him by March 13. A court administrator told the Cleveland Plain Dealer he expects Cardwell would decide within a week of that whether the children should be returned to the Gravelles, or their custody be turned over to the county.
On February 14, the Gravelles were charged separately with 16 criminal counts of felony child endangering, eight misdemeanor counts of falsifying adoption applications, and one felony count of lying under oath when being qualified for adoption funding.
In a separate case, an October trial date was set this week for Elaine Thompson who has pleaded not guilty to 16 felony counts of complicity to child endangering and other misdemeanor counts.
"Don't return caged kids, 3 social workers testify" (Toledo Blade)
"Guardian urges against return of caged kids" (Toledo Blade)
"Adult daughter in caged children case says father abused her as a child" (Associated Press via CourtTV)
"Inquiry backed sex-abuse claim against Gravelle" (Toledo Blade)
"Social worker for 'caged' children steered parents to controversial book" (Cleveland Plain Dealer)
"Mom says children were caged to control disruptive behavior" (Toledo Blade)
"Testimony finishes in custody hearing for caged children" (Toledo Blade)