Agency faced spotlight long before cages

Date: 2005-09-22

September 22, 2005
JENNIFER BRACKEN

The kids-in-cages case, involving Michael and Sharen Gravelle, marks the second national story to come out of the department in the last 25 years. In the early 1980s, the department -- then called the Huron County Department of Human Services -- found itself under a national microscope after a child adopted out through its agency was repeatedly severely abused, according to past Journal stories.

The Morning Journal followed the case of "Infant Charlie" for several years.

Charlie was born in January 1983 and put up for adoption by his mother several months later. The infant was placed in the care of Richard and Ellen Pluckhorn of Norwalk through Huron County human services, according to a December 1985 series called "Who's protecting the children?" published by The Journal.

During a trial period with his prospective adoptive parents, Charlie, now 22 years old and living in Storrs, Conn., suffered several injuries over six months. He suffered a fractured skull, sprained elbow, fractured scapula and severed bowel. The injury to the bowel nearly killed him, and ultimately caused brain damage and blindness.

Several of the same questions posed during the "Infant Charlie" case have seemed to resurface with the Gravelle children.

"Still to be answered is how the adoption system, which is supposed to prevent children from being placed in an unsafe environment, apparently failed repeatedly in Charlie's case," an Oct. 31, 1984, Journal article said.

The 11 Gravelle children were taken from their adoptive parents' home and placed in four separate foster homes, where they are now living. Michael and Sharen Gravelle have yet to be charged.

Several people involved in the "Infant Charlie" case repeatedly denied being at fault for Charlie's fate, including the former director and supervisor of social services with the Huron County Department of Human Services, the assistant Huron County prosecuting attorney, Huron County commissioners and many others who came in contact with "Infant Charlie" during the abuse, several articles said.

"She looks and acts so prim and proper. She fooled everyone. No one thought she could be a child abuser," the assistant Huron County prosecuting attorney said about Charlie's adoptive mother in an Oct. 31, 1984, Journal article.

Charlie's first visit to Fisher-Titus Memorial Hospital was on Aug. 9, 1983, for a head injury. He went back in September for a shoulder injury that was later rediagnosed as a broken arm. Charlie also experienced a broken shoulder in January 1984 that was not reported to officials or treated by a physician, according to an Oct. 31, 1984, Journal story.

In February, Charlie was taken to the hospital because his body turned purple below his waist from a severed bowel. This injury required emergency transfer to a pediatric intensive care unit.

The doctor who treated Charlie said, "Charlie's heart stopped beating three times because of the shock to his system caused by the severed bowel," the article said. The injury has a death rate between 90 to 95 percent, the doctor said at the time.

The doctor said the severed bowel was caused by "a sharp force applied to the abdomen or back," according to the article.

It wasn't until the bowel injury that children services caseworkers and hospital officials suspected child abuse, and by then it was too late. Charlie was brain-damaged as a result of the injury.

Huron County authorities received a complaint in October 1983 from a baby sitter who alleged Charlie was being abused, an October 1984 Journal article said. After an investigation, Pluckhorn submitted to enter counseling, and Charlie remained in the home.

After years of the blame game and numerous court cases, Charlie was eventually placed with an adoptive family, and Ellen Pluckhorn went to jail, after pleading no contest to charges of felonious assault in June 1985.

She was sentenced to a prison term of six to 15 years. Charlie won a $15 million settlement from the various defendants who failed to notice Charlie was being abused.

Among those accused was the Huron County Department of Human Services, according to a Jan. 23, 1986, Journal story.

"The Department of Human Services on a number of occasions was given direct information from various sources which should have caused the Department ... to know that Baby Boy Charlie was being seriously abused and harmed, but the Department either ignored this information or failed to interpret it or act properly on it," according to a court complaint quoted in the Jan. 23, 1986, article.

As a result of his injuries, Charlie was considered mentally retarded and crippled, according to a Journal report.

Laura Dzurec met Charlie at the Hattie Larlham Foundation, an institute for mentally retarded children. The Dzurec family officially adopted 5-year-old Charlie in 1988, according to a Nov. 8, 1988, Journal article. Charlie was the fifth addition to the Dzurec family. Part of his settlement money was used to buy a home that would accommodate Charlie's special needs, a 1988 Journal article said.

Today, Charlie is still suffering from the severity of his injuries, according to his adoptive mother, Laura Dzurec. She said he can't sit up or walk, is legally blind and theoretically deaf.

"He functions at a 6-month-old level," Dzurec said. "He's no better than he was (at the time of his abuse)."

Despite his disabilities, Charlie was able to graduate from E.O. Smith High School in 2004, and thanks to the help of his caregiver, Iris Torres, just finished the local library's summer reading program.

"I'm very sorry this happened to him. It's just awful," Dzurec said.

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Huron County Welfare Director

Director Rita McComb walked in as the county welfare director in the middle of this case when director Caroline Spore retired and Ms. McComb, with the assistance of Cleveland attorney David Brown, successfully sued her own agency on behalf of the child and then revamped the foster care system in that county. Naturally, she was blackballed by the state after that so she retired and went to work for Walt Disney World, a happier place for kids than DCF.

Pound Pup Legacy