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Published: Wednesday, 11/29/2006

Huron County prosecutor details abuse allegations in trial of 'caged kids' parents

BY JIM SIELICKI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

NORWALK, Ohio - Children were forced to sleep in wire-and-wood cages stacked two high, several without mattresses. One boy was forced to stay in the bathroom for 81 days because he had a problem with wetting himself.

The children were hosed down, their heads forced in the toilet, and made to eat peanut butter for days on end.

That, a prosecutor said yesterday, is how a Huron County couple treated the 11 children they adopted.

"Put yourselves in the shoes of those children," Huron County Prosecutor Russ Leffler told the jury as the prosecution began its case against Sharen and Michael Gravelle, who are charged with 24 counts of risking the health and safety of some of their 11 adopted children by confining them in cages in their home.

Huron County Prosecutor Russ Leffl er delivers his opening statement during the trial of Michael and Sharen Gravelle. He urged the jury to  put yourselves in the shoes of those children. 
Huron County Prosecutor Russ Leffl er delivers his opening statement during the trial of Michael and Sharen Gravelle. He urged the jury to put yourselves in the shoes of those children.
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The couple have pleaded not guilty. The Gravelles claim they built the enclosures to protect the children. Several have been diagnosed with pica, an illness in which the child will eat nonfood objects.

Defense attorney Kenneth Myers said he wanted to tell a differ-ent story involving children with severe medical problems who required extensive care.

"That sounds just awful," Mr. Myers said in his opening statement, rebutting Mr. Leffler.

He cited the lack of their mothers' prenatal care, drug abuse before the infants were born, and other problems in dealing with special-needs children.

Jo Ellen Johnson, a caseworker for the Huron County Department of Job and Family Services, testifies about how she responded to an abuse complaint involving the Gravelle family.
Jo Ellen Johnson, a caseworker for the Huron County Department of Job and Family Services, testifies about how she responded to an abuse complaint involving the Gravelle family.
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He said the defense would show the Gravelles were not acting alone and that many agencies, including the Huron County Department of Job and Family Services, were aware the children were kept in cages.

"The common denominator is Huron County," he said. "If anyone thought [the multiple adoptions] was a mistake, someone would say something."

A top child investigator with the county Department of Job and Family Services - Jo Ellen Johnson - testified yesterday that her investigation into allegations that 11 adopted children were kept in cages was delayed for five weeks, despite an agency rule requiring contact with the subject within 24 hours.

During cross-examination by Mr. Myers, Ms. Johnson said her agency has three levels of action when it gets a complaint, based on perceived risk to children.

Despite the rule, she said, she did not act on a complaint she received on Aug. 3, 2005, until Sept. 9, when she visited the couple by herself.

She explained that her supervisor told her to visit the home with Lt. Randy Sommers, a child-abuse investigator with the sheriff's office. But Lieutenant Sommers left for vacation, and scheduling conflicts further delayed a visit. Ms. Johnson said she decided to investigate alone.

She said that when she told the Gravelles she was investigating a complaint of child abuse, they agreed to show her the children's enclosed beds, some of which were stacked two high.

"They were rushed and hurried and upset," she told Mr. Myers when asked if the Gravelles cooperated with her. "They were showing me the cages it wasn't calm and relaxed."

The Gravelles also were investigated by Huron County in 2001, a case subsequently closed without action.

Ms. Johnson said she also was asked to investigate a report that the Gravelles forced one of their older children to walk to school after he was ordered off a school bus for disruptive behavior.

Ms. Johnson determined that the parents wanted to teach their son a lesson by having him walk on the side of the road part way to school, while following him in their vehicle. She later wrote to the Gravelles, saying the charge of child abuse was unsubstantiated.

In that letter, she praised the couple, writing: "You love your children very much. Your children love you very much."

Mr. Myers reiterated that statement later in his cross-examination as evidence that the couple never intended to place their children in harm's way.

Ms. Johnson, on cross-examination, testified that she found only one child in a cage.

After Ms. Johnson left the Gravelle home Sept. 9, she contacted her supervisor and met with sheriff's deputies, who got a search warrant and removed the children from their home later that day.

Judge Timothy Cardwell of Huron County Juvenile Court terminated the Gravelles' parental rights and ordered the children, ages 1 to 15, placed in foster care.

The criminal trial is expected to last up to four weeks and involve up to 100 witnesses. Many of the witnesses who testified in the juvenile hearing could be called for this trial, according to the witness list.

Mr. Leffler outlined how the Gravelles began adopting children in Lorain County in 1998, then moved to Huron County.

The adopted children came from several counties. The last child, an infant with severe medical problems, was from Illinois.

Mr. Leffler said the state was unable to find placement for her there because of her problems and turned to the Gravelles, based on their reputation for taking in such children.

"This is a case about some wonderful children and what the Gravelles did to them," Mr. Leffler said.

Contact Jim Sielicki at:

jsielicki@theblade.com

or 419-724-6078.



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