Answers few in case of kids found in cages
Plain Dealer Reporter
Wakeman — On a rarely traveled rural road, behind a wall of oak and pine trees, Michael and Sharen Gravelle live out of sight from the world.
Neighbors occasionally hear voices and sometimes see the 11 special-needs children the Gravelles have adopted or taken steps to adopt.
The children, ages 1 to 14, are polite, clean, well-dressed and well-fed, neighbors said.
But the trees hide what some now call both a curiosity and a horror.
In the yard, wooden crosses stand atop rock-covered dirt mounds. A large, decaying outbuilding serves as a family church for the home-schooled children. A large pot-bellied pig and a dachshund roam in a homemade pen with more room — and maybe more comfort — than the 11 children enjoyed indoors.
Authorities say the Gravelles forced eight of the children — youngsters with Down syndrome, autism and fetal alcohol syndrome — to sleep in 3-foot-wide by 2½-foot-tall cages stacked in second-floor bedrooms. The cages, built of plywood and wire fencing, were painted in bright colors. Some were rigged with alarms that sent a signal downstairs when a cage door was opened. Few had basic comforts like blankets and pillows, but they did have mats.
The upstairs rooms had no air conditioning or smoke alarms, Huron County sheriff’s Lt. Randy Sommers said. The parents slept downstairs, cooled by window air conditioners.
Sheriff Dick Sutherland fought tears Tuesday as he described the conditions.
“This is not the way normal children are brought up,” he said.
The Gravelles have not been charged. The children, apparently relieved, have been placed in four foster homes, but authorities still have many questions, Sutherland said.
Among them: Is it true, as the Gravelles claim, that a psychiatrist recommended the cages to protect the children from themselves and from one another?
Nobody answered the door Tuesday at the home south of Wakeman, a town of 1,000 about 50 miles west of Cleveland.
David Sherman, the Gravelles’ attorney in Westlake, did not return a phone call.
Although the Gravelles have lived in Huron County for 10 years, the children were adopted through a mix of public and private agencies, said Carmen Stewart, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Job & Family Services. She declined to identify the agencies due to the continuing investigation.
“We’re still trying to sort this out,” she said. “Home visits should have been made along the way.”
A boy born with HIV was adopted as an infant in 2001 through the Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services, the agency’s director, Jim McCafferty, said. The Gravelles receive a subsidy for the boy of at least $500 a month.
The private agencies that reviewed the couple’s home life before the adoption gave them “glowing reports,” McCafferty said.
Sutherland said he saw no signs the children had been malnourished or beaten, but they were sent to a hospital for examination.
Meanwhile, stunned neighbors tried to understand the paradox of parents who lovingly cared for their children but also locked them in cages like animals.
Sherri Hall, a next-door neighbor, said the children would greet her but avoided other interaction. Neighbors started asking one another, “Do you know more than I do?” she said.
“If I would have had any inkling, I would have called [authorities],” Hall said.
Sheriff’s Lt. Sommers said a social worker investigating a complaint contacted authorities about the children.
Authorities would not discuss the complaint.
Leah Hunter, who lives two houses away, said she often saw the children walking down the road. “They looked OK,” she said. “They hardly ever wore shoes, but I’m a country girl, and for me, that’s normal.”
Information from the Associated Press was used in this story.
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© 2006 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.