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Published: Saturday, 12/10/2005

Social workers split about care of caged youths

BY STEVE MURPHY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Assistant Huron County Prosecutor Jennifer DeLand questions a witness at a custody hearing for children adopted by Michael and Sharen Gravelle. The hearing continues today. Assistant Huron County Prosecutor Jennifer DeLand questions a witness at a custody hearing for children adopted by Michael and Sharen Gravelle. The hearing continues today.
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NORWALK, Ohio - Two licensed social workers disagreed yesterday on the disorders plaguing 11 adopted children who were removed from a Wakeman-area home where some of them were kept in cages - and on whether the wood-and-wire enclosures helped or harmed the youngsters.

Elaine Thompson, a licensed independent social worker who has provided therapy to some of the children of Michael and Sharen Gravelle since December, 2000, testified during a custody hearing that the youngsters needed to be enclosed to prevent them from hurting themselves, urinating on walls and floors, and destroying household items. She said Mrs. Gravelle informed her in March, 2003, the family had begun using the structures.

Asked by Kenneth Myers, an attorney for the Gravelles, if the use of the cages constituted abuse or neglect of the children - as alleged by county authorities - Ms. Thompson said no.

"I felt that safety had to take priority," she said. "I felt there was a safety issue and I did not believe they were going to be a long-term solution."

County officials removed the children Sept. 9 after finding the cages and placed the youngsters, ages 1 to 14, in foster care. The custody hearing, which began Tuesday in Huron County Juvenile Court and continues today, will help Judge Timothy Cardwell decide whether the county has proven the allegations, and whether the children should be returned to their adoptive parents.

Ms. Thompson, who has a private practice in Elyria, Ohio, said that before the parents built the cages, some of the children repeatedly tore up mattresses, ate parts of them, and urinated on the remains.

The enclosures, equipped with alarms that would sound if their doors were opened, allowed the parents to control the children's behavior and begin modifying it, Ms. Thompson said.

The social worker said some of the youngsters suffered brain damage because their birth mothers drank during pregnancy, and she diagnosed five of the children with reactive attachment disorder. Children with that condition lack positive, reciprocal relationships with their caregivers, she said.

Such youngsters "need to control their environment in any way they can," she said. "They lack trust in their caregivers and other adults."

But Dr. Ron Hughes, a licensed social worker whose Columbus firm evaluated 10 of the children for the county, disputed Ms. Thompson's findings, including her diagnosis of reactive attachment disorder for five of them.

"None of them had the disorder," Dr. Hughes said.

Later, under questioning from Douglas Clifford, an attorney for the children, he described reactive attachment disorder as a very rare tendency to form inappropriate attachments to everyone in almost all situations. "It's not a hard diagnosis," Dr. Hughes said. "It's got to be there all the time."

Dr. Hughes also challenged Ms. Thompson's finding in a report on the children that the cages did them no psychological harm. He based his testimony on the evaluations done by psychologists Keith Hughes and William Benninger.

"The reason that cages are a problem is that they have a tremendous negative psychological effect upon the children. I don't think caging is ever appropriate," Dr. Hughes testified.

Enclosures should only be used, he said, under intense supervision in residential treatment facilities for children with severe behavioral problems that require immediate attention.

"Many of the children reported they found the cages to be degrading and threatening," Dr. Hughes said. "The cages were a threat to the children's well-being, in my opinion."

Ms. Thompson acknowledged being taken aback when she first saw the cages, with their wooden slats painted in bright colors such as red and blue.

"Your first impression you just kind of recoil," she testified. Later, she added, "With the means [the Gravelles] had, they did the best they could."

Part of the reason for the Gravelles' problems, Dr. Hughes said, was the number of children they adopted.

"Even if this was Ozzie and Harriet's home, they shouldn't have been placed," Dr. Hughes said. "It's too many children."

As for Ms. Thompson's diagnosis and her work with the children, Dr. Hughes was scornful.

"I think she made a mistake," he said. "If they improved, it would have been in spite of everything she did."

Also testifying was Robin Jacob, director of social services for the Adopt America Network, a private, nonprofit agency based in Toledo that helps families adopt special-needs children.

The Gravelles contacted Ms. Jacob in January, 2004, to update a home study that was scheduled to expire within a month. The home study, which is required for a family to be able to adopt children, must be done every six years and updated every two years.

At that time, the Gravelles had 10 children in the home.

"They expressed an interest in adopting another child," Ms. Jacob said.

The agency's update included a visit to the home by Corie Huxford, an investigator who was hired by Ms. Jacob to assess the family's readiness to take in another child. Ms. Jacob testified that a report by Ms. Huxford on the Gravelles made no mention of the cages and that Ms. Huxford said nothing about the children's sleeping arrangements.

Through Adopt America Network, a preschool-age girl was placed with the Gravelles from The Cradle, a Chicago-area adoption agency. The girl's adoption has not been finalized, and The Cradle has petitioned to have her returned to Illinois.

Contact Steve Murphy at:

smurphy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6078.



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