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Published: Sunday, 12/11/2005

Hearing on custody of caged kids ends

BY MARK REITER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

NORWALK, Ohio - A judge could issue a ruling later this month on whether 11 special-needs children who were removed three months ago from the home of Michael and Sharen Gravelle were abused or neglected.

A hearing to determine custody of the youngsters ended yesterday in Huron County Juvenile Court without the children's parents testifying.

Kenneth Myers, an attorney for the Gravelles, did not call either parent to the witness stand, a decision he said was based, in part, on consideration of the couple's children who he said have become emotional over the publicity generated by the hearing.

"Having the Gravelles testify would have increased the likelihood that the kids would get upset by the statements that their parents would be forced to say," Mr. Myers said during a news conference outside the county courthouse after the hearing.

Mr. Myers also said the hearing would have been continued to February if the Gravelles were to testify, and he wanted to finish the hearing to get the evidence to Judge Timothy Cardwell so a decision could be made.

"This has been a very rough week for everyone involved. The Gravelles want their kids back now more than ever. The hearing has not decreased their desire to get their children back in their home," Mr. Myers said.

Judge Cardwell gave attorneys involved in case until Friday to submit briefs summarizing the evidence that was presented during the five-day hearing.

The judge did not indicate when he would issue his ruling.

The adopted children, ranging in age from 1 to 14, were taken from the Gravelles' home Sept. 9 and placed in foster care after authorities learned the couple had been keeping some of the youngsters in cages that were equipped with alarms that would sound if their doors were opened.

Yesterday, Judge Cardwell continued hearing the testimony of Elaine Thompson, a licensed independent social worker who made weekly visits to the Gravelles' home near Wakeman, Ohio, providing therapy to some of the children.

She was called as a witness on Friday by Mr. Myers.

She said the children needed to be kept in cages to prevent them from hurting themselves, urinating on walls and floors, and destroying household items.

Testifying for nearly eight hours over the two days, Ms. Thompson said she learned about the cages in March, 2003, after the couple began using the enclosures.

She said she understood the cages were not designed as a long-term solution and only intended to address behavioral problems in the children, who suffer from such disorders as fetal alcohol syndrome, autism, and pica, a compulsion to eat things not normally consumed as food.

But when questioned by Jennifer DeLand, a county assistant prosecutor, about whether she discussed the structures with the youngsters during therapy sessions, Ms. Thompson said no.

"You never talked to the children about the cages, but provided therapy on a weekly basis?" Ms. DeLand asked.

T. Douglas Clifford, an attorney representing the children, activated an alarm similar to that used on the doors of the cages, startling some spectators in the courtroom. He then asked Ms. Thompson if the harsh, shrill noise could exacerbate and increase the anxiety of the children who had reactive attachment disorder.

She responded that she believed the alarms were "not a perfect solution," but were effective in protecting the safety of the children. "It is not a pleasant sound. But when given the choice between being physically abused by the other children, I would have chosen the alarm."

Ms. DeLand declined to comment after the hearing.

Contact Mark Reiter at: markreiter@theblade.com or 419-213-2134.



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