Closing briefs submitted in caged kids custody case

Date: 2006-03-15

HEATHER CHAPIN-FOWLER

However, the state said the Gravelles have "hints" of emotional illness that prevent them from proper parenting and noted a lack of cooperation by the couple with social workers as reasons against letting the pair retain custody of the children, according to the written brief from Huron County Assistant Prosecutor Jennifer DeLand.

The written closing arguments, filed yesterday, are part of custody proceedings before Huron County Juvenile Judge Timothy Cardwell. A hearing began Feb. 22 and oral testimony ended March 2 when Sharen Gravelle took the stand. The court is expected to rule in one to two weeks whether permanent custody will be granted to the Gravelles or the Huron County Department of Job and Family Services, according to Court Administrator Chris Mushett.

In September, the Gravelles' 11 adopted children, ages 1 to 14, were removed from their St. John Road home in Clarksfield Township as part of an investigation into homemade bunk beds in the house. The beds were made with chicken wire and wood slats and had doors, and authorities referred to them as "cages."

Cardwell ruled in December the enclosures and other issues in the household, including how the couple treated the children, constituted child abuse and went forward with custody proceedings.

Last month, the Huron County grand jury indicted the couple on 30 counts each of child endangerment, perjury and falsification, according to court records.

Myers wrote in his closing brief that the Gravelles need help, not a fight, from the Department of Job and Family Services.

"The Gravelles believe that they have undertaken a Herculean task in attempting to raise these children and they believe they deserve another opportunity and that with assistance, rather than resistance from the county, they can properly parent these children," wrote Myers.

"The county's motion for permanent custody should be denied. The court should order the county to actually put into place a reasonable case plan that actually works toward reunification," stated Myers' brief.

The brief suggested the court order JFS to pay the Gravelles the same stipend as the foster parents are getting for caring for the children and provide the family with counseling services.

DeLand noted in her brief the couple showed a lack of cooperation with social workers during attempts to reunify the family.

Social workers who handled the Gravelles' case had testified during the hearing that the couple was confrontational, uncooperative and lacked appropriate parenting skills as observed during monitored visitations. DeLand also wrote that the Gravelles had a confrontational style with social workers during visitations with the children.

The Gravelles were ordered in January by Cardwell to undergo psychological evaluations and submit to sexual offender risk assessments as requested by JFS, which would have been paid by the county, according to testimony.

However, the couple failed to comply with the order, which apparently fed a perception of lack of cooperation on their part, according to DeLand's closing brief.

"The testimony offered hints at an emotional illness suffered by both Mr. and Mrs. Gravelle that prevents them from properly caring for their children. The history of Mr. and Mrs. Gravelles' destructive and pathological parenting repeated itself to a new level with their (adopted) children.

"This is an indication of a chronic emotional illness of both parents. However, since Mr. and Mrs. Gravelle failed to obtain a court-ordered psychological evaluation, this leaves any determination of a chronic emotional illness up to the speculation of the three doctors who testified on behalf of the department," wrote DeLand.

Other issues that swayed the Huron County Department of Job and Family Services against continuing toward reunification included the couple's refusal to allow county employees to view the second story of their home, where the children's rooms were located, DeLand's brief stated.

Social workers were rebuffed in efforts to view the upstairs to ascertain whether certain conditions, such as the enclosed beds, exposed wiring and faulty smoke detectors, had been rectified, the brief stated.

Myers said, however, in his brief, "The court should look at the tone and context of the testimony. Each of the county's witnesses assumed the worst interpretation, blamed the Gravelles for everything that occurred and created unrealistic expectations and then blamed the Gravelles for not meeting those expectations."

Other issues surrounding the Gravelles' parenting were included in the prosecutor's brief.

"All three doctors (mental health professionals) testified to the inappropriate interaction of Mr. and Mrs. Gravelle with the children, excessively restricting the children as a means of punishment and control, pathologically and inadequately parenting of the children and caging the children," DeLand's brief stated.

However, Myers wrote, "The Gravelles did not intend to abuse their children, but rather intended to protect them." The couple has maintained the cages were necessary to avoid accidents by the children wandering the home at night.

"Mrs. Gravelle testified she did not support the department's motion for permanent custody for a couple of reasons," wrote DeLand.

"Yet, the selfish reasons she listed all had to do with her own feelings and opinions. Not one of the reasons Mrs. Gravelle stated focused on any of the children and what they wanted or what would be in their best interest," DeLand also stated.

"The child welfare system has already done a disservice to these children once, and we as a system need to make sure it does not happen to them again," DeLand's brief stated.

The Cradle, an adoption agency that was in the process of finalizing an adoption to the Gravelles, also filed a brief urging the court to grant custody of the child to Huron County Department of Job and Family Services until a suitable permanent home could be found for the child, according to the document.

The children, who were deemed problematic and having mental health issues by the Gravelles, are "all thriving and blossoming in their current (foster) placement," according to DeLand's brief.

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