THEY slept in wood and wire cages stacked on top of each other. Only it wasn t a kennel and the caged occupants weren t dogs. They were special-needs children corralled like animals at night in their small Wakeman, Ohio, home. The discovery defies explanation.
But that didn t stopped the children s adoptive parents from offering one. Michael and Sharen Gravelle told law enforcement officials that most of their 11 children were often caged for their own protection from themselves and each other.
More likely they needed protection from their parents, who would confine them to cramped cages of plywood and wire measuring roughly 40 inches tall, 30 inches wide, and four feet long too small for them to stand up. Some were rigged with alarms that sounded downstairs when the doors were opened.
The youngsters, who range in age from 1 to 14, bedded down in their cages on mats, no pillows or blankets. Just like dogs.
Maybe the special-needs children, with conditions that include autism and fetal alcohol syndrome, don t know better, but the adults who agree to love and care for them to the best of their ability should. Homemade cages to house young children for the night is twisted parenting in the least.
The courts will decide whether such treatment is criminal. But the kids, adopted from an assortment of private and public agencies from different counties and states, deserved better. Apparently lost in the disparate agencies involved in the Gravelle adoptions was any examination of the big picture inside the two-story house about 70 miles southeast of Toledo.
Although the family lived in Huron County for 10 years, none of the adoptions came through that county s Department of Job and Family Services. So no one within the department apparently knew to keep close tabs on an extraordinary situation that would present enormous challenges for any adoptive household.
It was only after a children s services investigator, following up on a months-old complaint, visited the Gravelle home recently and spotted a child s face peering out of a cage that action was initiated.
The children were removed from the home that day by Huron County Sheriff s deputies and placed with four foster families. The Gravelles deny that they abused or neglected their children, who authorities say appear to be well fed, calm, and healthy.
Dr. Gregory Keck, founder of an Ohio organization that works with adoptive parents of special-needs children, stated the obvious when he said that he couldn t imagine any situation in which children should be kept in cages. At most the confinement he might recommend would be alarms on bedroom doors for children at risk of harming themselves or their siblings.
Before couples can adopt a child in Ohio they must submit to exhaustive scrutiny through background checks and references and open their homes on at least two occasions to social workers to inspect for safety and childproof precautionary measures.
The Gravelles received glowing reports by private adoption agencies who reviewed their home before the couple adopted a child born with HIV in 2001 through the Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services. The adoptive parents receive a subsidy of at least $500 a month to care for the child.
It is not clear how much the parents were paid to offset the costs of caring for the other children or if home visits occurred in all cases.
But it s obvious that somewhere along the way there was a monumental breakdown in support and follow-up of an unusual family that kept largely to itself and put the little ones to bed in brightly colored cages.