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Published: Friday, 12/1/2006

Caseworker suggested respite care for mother

BY JIM SIELICKI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Defense attorney Richard Drucker cross-examines a witness during the Gravelles' trial for child endangering. 'caged kids' TRIAL Defense attorney Richard Drucker cross-examines a witness during the Gravelles' trial for child endangering. 'caged kids' TRIAL
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NORWALK, Ohio - The mother of four adopted children in Huron County had complained repeatedly of the stress involved providing care for their special needs, but was unsuccessful in obtaining respite care relief.

Yet a social worker acknowledged yesterday that she allowed plans for the family to adopt five more children in 2000 to proceed.

The requests for respite care were detailed by social worker Jennifer James during the third day of the child-abuse trial of Sharen and Michael Gravelle in Huron County Common Pleas Court

The Gravelles were indicted earlier this year on charges of abusing their 11 adopted children by forcing them to sleep in cages. They were also charged with endangering the children's health and safety because of conditions in the rural home near Wakeman, Ohio.

Ms. James, who supervised families planning to adopt children, said she tried to obtain respite care for Mrs. Gravelle in 2000.

At the time, the Gravelles' adopted children were becoming hard to manage, and two of the older children were acting out sexually by "playing doctor" and touching one another inappropriately, she said.

Ms. James, who was working for the Huron County Department of Job and Family Services but acting on behalf of Stark County, sent the latter monthly reports after each home visit. She is no longer with Huron County.

As a witness for the prosecution, Ms. James described her role and told of attempts to find an agency that would provide respite care relief for the family. Respite care involves removing the children temporarily from the home to avoid burnout of the caregivers, she said.

Ms. James testified that she also tried to find a therapist for the children, who were exhibiting problems attributed to an early lack of bonding with their birth mothers and a lack of emotional attachment.

In addition, she said several children suffered from pica, in which they try to eat clothing, dirt, and other inanimate objects.

Responding to defense ques-tioning, Ms. James acknowledged that she could have told the Stark County Department of Family and Job Services that the family was experiencing problems and should not proceed with the adoption. The five children from Stark County were already living in the Gravelle home while awaiting adoption, which is a normal procedure, she testified.

"You were the eyes and ears of Stark County," defense attorney Kenneth Myers told her during his cross-examination.

Ms. James said she didn't consider the Gravelles' situation unusual or an issue that should prevent the adoption from being formalized. Mr. Gravelle planned to quit his job to assist his wife with the children, a decision Ms. James thought would help the situation.

Stark County's original goal of formalizing the adoption on Oct. 2, 2000, was pushed back until Dec. 18, 2000.

"I think they had a lot on their plates," Ms. James said.

"Every family is different," she added later, acknowledging the Gravelles had issues to work through. "Things in general appeared to be going well."

Ms. James admitted she and the Gravelles felt some pressure because Stark County was threatening to remove the children if progress was not made toward completing the adoption. In the end, the county did remove two of the older children and approved the adoption of the remaining three.

Little of Ms. James' testimony involved the conditions at the home. The Gravelles had installed alarms on the children's bedroom doors, she said, but Mr. Gravelle at that point had not built the cages.

Ms. James, who said she saw nothing unusual in the house during her visits, was shown pictures of the cages in the bedrooms at the end of her cross-examination.

"I would not approve any adoption had I seen [cages]," she said.

Earlier in the day, Huron County sheriff's Lt. Randy Sommers admitted under cross-examination that he did not conduct a detailed inspection of the Gravelle house for safety violations, despite expressing concerns over wires visible in a hole in the wall and two smoke detectors that did not work.

Defense lawyer Richard Drucker said the sheriff's office should have performed a more rigorous inspection in light of accusations that "this is an abuse case."

"It's your job to make sure it is a fair and full investigation for the defendants' protection," Mr. Drucker said.

Contact Jim Sielicki at:

jsielicki@theblade.com or

419-724-6078.



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