County ignored tip on cages

Date: 2005-10-23

County ignored tip on cages

Mark Puente
Plain Dealer Reporter

Huron County received at least two tips – one as early as 2003 – about a family whose adopted children slept in cagelike beds, but the county took no action until last month.

A Toledo insurance agent told The Plain Dealer he visited the home of Michael and Sharen Gravelle in June 2004 and thought the enclosed beds in their children’s room might be improper.

Agent Ed Clunk said he alerted the county’s Department of Job and Family Services by telephone.

County Prosecutor Russ Leffler on Saturday confirmed the tip from Clunk but said he thought the date was wrong. However, Leffler said a home health-care agency, Comfort Keepers, also provided “substantial information” to social service officials in 2003. He said he did not know why no one took action.

It was not until Sept. 9 this year that the county removed from the home the Gravelles’ 11 special-needs children, who range from 1 to 14 years old.

The action came at a time when the county was negotiating payments with the Gravelles that could have come to almost $11,000 a year for one child’s medical expenses, records show.

The county’s Family Services director, Erich Dumbeck, disputes that the office received any earlier tips. “We would have acted within weeks,” Dumbeck said Friday.

Dumbeck’s office and other agencies have been under investigation by the state for their handling of the Gravelle case. State investigators are looking into why 11 special-needs children were placed in one home and whether the situation was monitored properly.

On Sept. 13, Dumbeck said his agency “didn’t have any involvement” with the Gravelles. “I didn’t know they lived here,” he said then.

Documents obtained by The Plain Dealer show otherwise.

A private social worker had been advising the family for five years and recently provided authorities with records showing the Gravelles had frequent contact with the county.

Social worker Elaine Thompson of Elyria was helping the Gravelles handle their children’s behavioral disorders. Those conditions ranged from Reactive Attachment Disorder, which is characterized by defiant, rageful behavior, to PICA, a craving to eat nonfood items.

The Gravelles’ attorney, David Sherman of Westlake, has said his clients built enclosed beds to protect the children from their own destructive behavior. Sheriff’s investigators have likened the enclosures to cages and said the Gravelles used them as punishment.

Thompson could not be reached for comment Friday. Her notes contain no references to the children’s sleeping area.

The reports do show that the Gravelles met Dec. 23, 2002, with county Family Services workers Dave Broehl, Suzie Sidell and Sue Komosinski and former Director Judy Fegan to discuss adoption funding.

Thompson’s notes also contain a number of references to sheriff’s deputies responding to the Gravelles’ home. In October 2004, Thompson wrote that a deputy described the Gravelles as “pioneers in working with kids like this.”

Asked earlier for any records involving the Gravelles, sheriff’s officials said they had none.

E-mails show that county children’s services workers had consulted with the Gravelles dozens of times since last April about the medical needs of the youngest child, 1-year-old Mercyanne, who was being treated at the Cleveland Clinic for a heart condition. The Gravelles were seeking $900 a month in assistance to cover the cost of caring for her.

A week before the 11 children were removed from the home last month, Sharen Gravelle e-mailed Broehl saying she would seek a hearing with a state adoption officer if the issue could not be resolved with the county. Broehl wrote back three hours later, asking the Gravelles to submit a budget of Mercyanne’s expenses and offering to meet to discuss the aid.

Leffler, the Huron County prosecutor, said he was surprised during the initial investigation when he realized the county had more involvement with the Gravelles than originally believed.

“I was a little startled on some of the things [Family Services Director] Dumbeck said early on,” he said. “When you put it all together, it looks like Dumbeck was a little overwhelmed at first.”

Asked why he initially said the county had no involvement with the Gravelles, Dumbeck said, “It depends on how you define involvement.” He said he could not comment further.

The Gravelles have not been charged with any crime, but a criminal investigation continues. Leffler said he is waiting for psychological reports on the children before proceeding to a grand jury Nov. 18.

Separately, a custody hearing in juvenile court is scheduled for Dec. 6. Judge Timothy Cardwell will decide then whether the children should be returned to the Gravelles’ home.

An adoption agency from Illinois, the Cradle, also has requested a hearing Thursday to determine who has authority over Mercyanne. The Gravelles were in the process of adopting Mercyanne through that agency. The adoption was not completed, Leffler said.

Leffler said the Gravelles are trying to work the system for cash. “They have been hustling for money,” he said.

Broehl, the children’s services worker, also expressed financial concerns in a frustrated e-mail to the Gravelles on July 19.

He emphasized the Gravelles had not submitted to the county a list of Mercyanne’s medical costs. “The taxpayers of Huron County require us to spend our public tax dollars wisely,” he wrote. “How can we tell the taxpayers that this is the case if we have no idea why and for what the subsidy is needed?”

Sherman, the Gravelles’ attorney, said his clients have good intentions and give love to children whose birth parents cast them aside.

“The Gravelles are not what has been portrayed, but an unselfish couple with big hearts who stepped up to the plate when no one else would,” he said.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:, 440-934-0524

© 2006 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.


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