Attorney fights couple's bad image

Date: 2005-10-11

HEATHER CHAPIN-FOWLER

County officials removed the children in September after a social worker told the sheriff's office the children were sleeping in wooden cages.

"They've known right along," said attorney David Sherman's legal assistant about the HCDJFS, adding that Michael and Sharen Gravelle have letters from the agency to substantiate that. His assistant, Helena, would not give her last name.

Sherman released a set of photographs supplied by the Gravelles along with a statement that was drafted with the couple yesterday at Sherman's Westlake office.

"The children were all loved and well cared for by the Gravelles. A home study by a social worker states that this is a good and solid family," the press release stated.

"It actually said that," Sherman's legal assistant said of the letter she maintains was written to the Gravelles by HCDJFS on department letterhead.

Since the Gravelles' Clarksfield Township home was searched by deputies and their 11 children were removed and placed in foster care, Erich Dumbeck, director of the Department of Job and Family Services, has denied any prior knowledge of the family.

"One of them (a social worker) did see it, and they (HCDJFS) were told by the adoption agency. There was no choice to put these beds up, and there is a letter that tells them about these beds," Sherman's employee said about whether HCDJFS had knowledge of the homemade enclosed beds that local authorities have termed, "cages."

According to the woman, the Gravelles requested medical beds from a doctor and also HCDJFS but were denied the equipment.

"They couldn't afford anything fancy. Blue Cross wouldn't pay for it. Mr. Gravelle just built these beds himself because it was necessary. They had to have them," Helena said.

Sherman maintains that the investigation against the Gravelles contains discrepancies that have "dehumanized" his clients. "Right now, this is very emotionally difficult for them because of the fact that they've had their kids taken away from them. They feel it's been unjustified that it's happened, and frankly, it's very emotionally distracting to them," said Sherman.

"They are an unselfish couple with big hearts, who stepped up to the plate when no one else would, to create a life for these children who had none, and who suffer from very significant emotional and medical problems including Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) and PICA (an eating disorder that includes symptoms of eating nonfood items). Mike and Sharen Gravelle accepted these children with open arms," Sherman stated.

"Contrary to everything that has been reported, there were never locks on any of the doors. The prosecutor originally claimed in court documents that there were 11 cages. After the press release from our office, the sheriff later changed that to nine cages. The fact is, there are a total of six enclosed twin-sized beds and no cages," Sherman's press release stated.

The size of the contraptions has also been erroneously described, said the attorney. "The woman in the photograph lying inside the enclosures is 5 (feet) 11 (inches) tall and is resting comfortably on a mattress," according to the press release.

"The statements made concerning this matter are exaggerated and inaccurate. Michael and Sharen Gravelle have been dehumanized by wrongful portrayals. They are not seen as people, but as pictures of a house. ... The pictures, which our office released, show the Gravelle's true relationship with their children," according to the statement.

Meanwhile, the Gravelles met with 10 of their adopted children over the weekend and it ended emotionally with the children unhappy to leave their parents, said Sherman's employee.

"The kids were all screaming and didn't want to go back to their foster parents. There was a lot more to it. That's what we'll be giving you tomorrow. It's just that we can't say everything," said Sherman's employee.

Three of the Gravelles' children have been removed from the first foster home they were placed at, for undisclosed reasons, and the twin boys are now in separate homes, said Sherman's legal assistant.

The photographs released by the attorney "show the Gravelles' true character," wrote the attorney. "Sharen took the time to paint rainbows and animals on the walls of the children's bedrooms," Sherman wrote in his press release.

Dumbeck was not available for comment at the agency due to the holiday yesterday, and his home telephone number is no longer in service.

Huron County Prosecutor Russ Leffler said yesterday he doubts any case concerning the matter will be ready for presentation to the grand jury when it convenes Oct. 21.

Charges being considered include child endangerment, Leffler said. The amount, if any, of mental trauma caused to the children from allegedly sleeping in and being placed in the cages for punishment will determine whether the matter is addressed as a misdemeanor or felony offense, Leffler said.

The HCDJFS has contracted with mental health professionals from the Columbus area who could take up to two months to complete evaluations on the children, said Leffler.

Leffler refused further comment on the case.

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