Foster Kids Testify In First Week Of 'Cage Beds' Trial
By Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
December 1, 2006
NORWALK, OHIO--A husband and wife accused of keeping some of their 11 adopted children in wire enclosures armed with loud alarms were overwhelmed with the kids' 'special needs' -- but are only guilty of loving their children -- a jury heard this week.
Michael and Sharen Gravelle are facing 16 counts of felony child endangerment and eight counts of misdemeanor child endangerment. They face from one to five years in prison and up to $10,000 for each felony count if the jury convicts them.
Huron County Sheriffs deputies and Department of Job and Family Services social workers removed the children, then ages 1 through 14, from the home on September 9, 2005 after finding the wood and wire cage beds in upstairs bedrooms, along with a strong smell of urine and no functioning smoke detectors.
A court took custody of the children from the Gravelles this spring following hearings in which some of the children testified that the parents forced them to sleep in the cages to punish them. One child testified that, among other things, the couple punished him for wetting the bed by making him live in a bathtub for almost three months and forcing him to stay outside in the cold, and made him eat only peanut butter sandwiches for weeks as punishment for sneaking food.
The Gravelles have insisted that the enclosures where the children were forced to sleep should not be referred to as 'cages'. They said the children's medical conditions and disabilities -- including fetal alcohol syndrome, Down syndrome, HIV, and pica, a condition in which the person craves nonfood items -- made it necessary for them to build the 'enclosed beds' and fit them with alarms so they could keep the kids from hurting each other or themselves.
In opening remarks Tuesday, Huron County Prosecutor Russell Leffler told jurors that the Gravelles dealt harshly with their adopted children, whom, he said, did not have 'special needs'.
''They weren't special-needs then and probably never were,'' Leffler said.
About whether the enclosures were 'cages' or 'beds' he said: "It's about chicken wire and wooden boards, being literally cooped up, hotter than blazes in summer, an amazingly shrill alarm and little fingers trying to tear wire."
Leffler told the jury that Michael Gravelle once said that there was good money to be made by adopting children with 'special needs'.
Former social worker Jo Ellen Johnson, who helped remove the children from the home, described the beds as looking like "slave quarters", a description that Mrs. Gravelle's attorney Ken Myers said was meant to bias the jury because Johnson and the children are black and the Gravelles are white.
Two former foster children testified Wednesday that Mr. Gravelle would punish them and the other children by taking them "out to the barn" for a "whopping" which meant hitting them with sticks, switches, and even a five-foot length of 2-by-4.
Michael Gravelle's former sister-in-law also took the stand, saying she received a phone call from him in 2001, in which he said he was upset because his wife wanted to adopt more children. They already had adopted 10 children by the previous year.
On Thursday, another former social worker told the court that she believed Mrs. Gravelle was emotionally stressed as far back as November 2000, and that the couple had requested a respite from the kids.
Leffler said one man who was being trained to provide respite in the Gravelle home in 2003 was horrified by what he saw, became sick, and never returned. Leffler added that even though the man reported the conditions to Job and Family Services, "the matter was simply dropped."
The trial is expected to last two to three weeks.
"Social worker: Kids' cages looked like 'slave quarters' (Associated Press via Akron Beacon Journal)
"Prosecutor says kids 'weren't special-needs'" (Morning Journal)
"Children testify that they were whipped" (Morning Journal)
"Witness: Mother in 'caged kids' trial was stressed" (Associated Press via Akron Beacon Journal)