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Published: Friday, 12/15/2006

Judge trims to misdemeanors half of charges in 'caged kids' case


NORWALK, Ohio A Huron County Common Pleas Court judge today reduced half of the 16 felony child abuse charges against Sharen and Michael Gravelle to misdemeanors after the defense rested its case.

Judge Earl McGimpsey made the ruling after sending the jury home and reviewing Ohio court appellate cases.

The jury will begin deliberations Tuesday on the eight remaining felony counts and the misdemeanor counts, which have grown from eight to 16 as a result of the ruling.

The defense rested its case after a bit of reader s theater that began yesterday and continued this morning.

Because Elaine Thompson, a therapist for the Gravelles' adopted children and a key witness for their defense, was unavailable to testify, her attorney continued to read from the transcript of the testimony Ms. Thompson gave in Juvenile Court a year ago.

Yesterday, attorney Marilu Laubenthal said in an interview that she told the court Ms. Thompson was unavailable legally because of her pending trial. Ms. Thompson was indicted on charges of not reporting suspected child abuse in the Gravelle home; she is to go on trial in February.

Ms. Laubenthal said she told the defense team the narration would have to serve as her testimony, or they d get nothing at all from her client.

Ms. Thompson provided therapy for some of the children and helped the Gravelles obtain funding from Hamilton County to pay for her services. She said a similar request for money was given to Stark County, but that request was ignored, she had testified. The Gravelles had adopted children from several other counties in addition to those two.

The Gravelles hired her in the fall of 2000 when they had eight children and were seeking help in dealing with the children s unruliness.

Some of the children had severe physical and mental issues that contributed to their disruptive behavior, she had testified. Some of the treatment was performed in the Gravelles home near Wakeman, Ohio, and some was done at her office in Elyria, Ohio.

The reading of the testimony was unusual. While it is seldom used in a criminal trial, it is similar to lawyers taking depositions in lengthy civil proceedings, Ms. Thompson s attorney explained in the interview.

Defense attorney Kenneth Myers read the same questions he had addressed to Ms. Thompson last December, while Ms. Laubenthal provided verbatim answers from the transcript.

Prosecutor Russ Leffler occasionally objected when the topic strayed from Ms. Thompson s treatment of the children.

The reading was interrupted midday for live testimony from Sandra McPherson, a forensic psychologist from Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

Ms. McPherson said she frequently testifies in court and consults with police agencies on child-abuse issues and conducting effective interviews with young victims.

The defense questioned some of the interviewing methods used by Huron County sheriff s deputies and social workers shortly after the Gravelle children were removed from their home on Sept. 9, 2005.

She cautioned against posing highly leading questions or those that express a point of view with young children because the answers will be unreliable.

Ms. McPherson said she interviewed the Gravelle children, the adoptive parents, caseworkers, and others involved in the case.

She testified that the children s many behavioral problems forced the parents to seek alternative methods of keeping them from wandering the house at night, urinating on the floors and beds, and fighting with one another.

She testified that the enclosed beds constructed by the Gravelles were the least restrictive option for keeping the children safe, given the danger of the behaviors described.

She said the caged beds helped prevent further instances of the children holding a sibling by his shoes from the second-floor window or sticking their bottoms out the window and having a bowel movement.

In response to a question from Mr. Leffler, Ms. McPherson said a better outcome for the children would be to place them in smaller foster homes.

I only know there were too many children with special needs, the defense witness said.

Testimony in the three-week-long trial showed the Gravelles punished one of the boys who frequently urinated in bed by forcing him to sleep in a bathtub. The psychologist called that treatment an attempt by the parents to get him to use the toilet.

When Ms. Myers asked her if that would constitute abuse, she replied: It would depend if they gave him blankets.

The boy testified early in the trial that he was given few coverings and he was forced to sleep in the tub for 81 days.

She said a short-term stay in the bathroom would not be a bad thing in teaching a child to use the toilet.

On cross-examination, Mr. Leffler asked Ms. McPherson whether an 81-day stay in the bathroom, where the boy took his meals and was forced to leave when other children needed to use it, constituted child abuse.

Yes, she replied.

She was asked if it would be humiliating. It could be, yes, she answered.

In response to another question on cross-examination, she told Mr. Leffler that making a child sleep in cages for 3 years also could be considered excessive.

Mr. Myers, attempting to defuse another issue raised earlier in the trial, asked her if it was wrong to have a misbehaving child write out the Book of Deuteronomy by hand.

I m not sure how effective it is, Ms. McPherson said. But it s something that has been used in churches, schools, and homes for a long time.

Prosecutor Leffler tried to delve into the Gravelles motivation for keeping 11 children and asked Ms. McPherson whether the $56,000-a-year subsidy was appropriate.

But Judge Earl McGimpsey ordered the question withdrawn from the jury s consideration and huddled with the attorneys to discuss it.

The motivation issue arose later when the reading of Ms. Thompson s testimony resumed.

Ms. Thompson, through her attorney, had testified during the Juvenile Court hearing that the Gravelles loved kids and they thought they had something to offer them.

Ms. Thompson had testified that my first impression was you just kind of recoil when seeing the cages the first time. But she said she understood that the cages were built to protect the children and the Gravelles had the children s best interests at heart.

The Gravelles did the best they could, Ms. Thompson had testified. I thought safety had to take priority.

The reading of Ms. Thompson s testimony is scheduled to conclude this morning with the reading of the cross-examination by the prosecutor from Juvenile Court.

Judge McGimpsey told the jury he expected defense testimony to conclude today, with closing arguments and jury instructions set for Tuesday.

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