Social worker charges unusual

Date: 2006-02-16

CONNIE MABIN

Elaine Thompson, a licensed independent social worker hired by Michael and Sharen Gravelle to counsel the children, was indicted Tuesday on several charges, including a misdemeanor count of failing to report abuse and felony complicity to child endangering.

The Gravelles are accused of forcing the children to sleep in beds enclosed with wire and wood and rigged with alarms. They were charged with child endangerment, falsifying adoption applications and lying under oath when being qualified for adoption funding.

Thompson and the couple deny wrongdoing, saying they believed the enclosures, which were painted bright red, blue and yellow, were needed to ensure the children were safe. The youngsters, ages 1 to 15, have behavioral and psychological problems related to illnesses such as fetal alcohol syndrome and a disorder that involves eating nonfood items.

Huron County Prosecutor Russ Leffler said he has filed charges of failing to report alleged abuse against social workers several times in his 30-year legal career, but cannot recall pursuing the more serious charge of complicity.

"That is I think unusual and relates to the extent of involvement Ms. Thompson had with this family," Leffler said. He refused to discuss details of the case, saying it was improper to do so before trial.

Thompson testified during a custody hearing that she was shocked by the cages but approved of them as a way to help handle the children. But she said she never asked the youngsters how they felt about the enclosures during her weekly counseling sessions.

Thompson's attorney, Marilu Laubenthal, said her client, who is in her 60s and has worked with adopted children for 40 years, put off retirement to take on the Gravelle case because she wanted to help the family.

"She is really terrified," Laubenthal said.

Thompson faces one to five years in prison and a maximum fine of $10,000 if convicted of the felony charges.

The Gravelles testified during the custody hearing that they hired Thompson to help counsel the children.

Under Ohio law, reviews of adoptive families by government social workers are ordered only when there is a complaint. The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services cited the law when explaining how the Gravelles were allowed to adopt so many children from various counties and states and continue to receive government aid without follow-up reviews.

Shay Bilchik, president of the Child Welfare League of America, said the Ohio case puts attention on overwhelmed and underfunded child welfare systems nationwide.

"There's a broader lesson to be learned here," he said.

The case led to a state investigation that concluded in November that Ohio's foster care system was too flawed to protect youngsters from going to homes with too many children, unsafe conditions or parents who are accused of child abuse.

Questions also have been raised about poor communication among county foster care systems, which approved the Gravelle adoptions despite previous abuse allegations raised by the mother in divorce court documents and from the couple's biological adult children.

Other social work experts said the case highlighted the risk associated with working independently in a challenging field.

"I think sometimes that what happens with people who end up in private practice is they don't stay in touch with the evidence," said Victor Groza, a professor of social work at Case Western Reserve University. "That's a real benefit of being in an agency because in an agency you have people who you discuss your cases with, you have people to talk it out with when you have tough cases."

Groza, who is chairman of the university's Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences' doctoral program, said most agencies have safeguards to prevent social workers from committing crimes by failing to protect children.

Elaine Stepp, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers' Ohio Chapter, agreed.

"We assume a social worker is to be knowledgeable in regard to ethics and carry it throughout a case," Stepp said, listing off dozens of challenges case workers deal with including families facing drug addiction, domestic violence and the effects of poverty.

The Gravelles' attorney, Ken Myers, said they are determined to fight the charges and regain custody of the children, who were removed from the couple's home in Wakeman in September.

"The Gravelles are good people and they were trying to do the right thing by raising these children and taking on an almost impossible task," Myers said.

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