Officer: Kids said they were beaten, confined
"You probably thought it was a little jail," sheriff's Lt. Randy Sommers recalled saying during a conversation with one of the couple's adopted daughters concerning the enclosed beds in which the youngsters slept.
Sommers testified yesterday during the second day of a custody hearing in Huron County Juvenile Court regarding the Gravelles' 11 adopted special-needs children. The county is alleging the children were endangered while living with the Gravelles and that the Gravelles should not have custody of them.
The Gravelles' children told Sommers of punishments including "spankings with a board, name calling and being held under water," Sommers said.
One boy said he had "his face shoved against a bathroom wall until his nose bled," Sommers testified.
The sleeping arrangements for some of the children were homemade enclosures made with wood and chicken wire that had alarms on the doors. County authorities call the enclosures "cages," while the Gravelles say they were enclosed beds used to protect the children.
The children would soil their beds rather than open the door and go to the bathroom because they did not want to trigger the alarm, they also told the investigator. Another boy told the detective he was forced to write "in long hand" a book out of the Bible before he was allowed out of his enclosed bed, Sommers testified.
When asked whether he believed the children's accounts, Sommers said he did because many of the stories were repeated by more than one child.
The children were removed from the Gravelles' St. John Road home in Clarksfield Township on Sept. 9 by the Huron County Sheriff's Office in conjunction with the Huron County Department of Job and Family Services after allegations of the enclosed beds were confirmed by a JFS investigator.
The children remain in various foster homes while the Gravelles' custody hearing began Tuesday and is expected to last at least through the end of the week.
Whether the couple will testify in their defense remains unknown.
Attorney Ken Myers asked Sommers if there was a less "harsh" alternative than removing the children from the home, to which Sommers said no.
"You removed those children despite the fact that you saw no outward signs of physical harm and no signs of emotional or mental harm?" Myers asked Sommers.
After Myers asked Sommers the question repeatedly, he responded, "Yes, based on the conditions I observed in the home."
Sommers was among at least six investigators who executed a search warrant on Sept. 9, when the decision was made to remove the children.
Sommers testified that he was concerned about no working smoke detectors on the second story of the home where the children were housed in the enclosures. One bedroom concerned him because the occupants could not have exited the room in the event of an emergency such as a fire, because the doorway was barricaded with two gates and a dresser was propped against one gate to prevent it from opening, he said.
In another room where there were no constraints, a hole in the drywall exposed electric wiring that posed another safety hazard, Sommers testified.
The enclosed beds were fashioned such that limited air flow circulated through the sleeping quarters, Sommers said. That fact, coupled with an intense pungent odor of urine, also concerned him, Sommers said.
Some of the beds had no mattress or blankets, which Sommers also felt was unsuitable, he testified.
Meanwhile, Sharen Gravelle has maintained in interviews with media that the day of the children's removal from the home was laundry day. However, both Sommers and HCJFS investigator Jo Johnson testified no sign of laundering was apparent in the house.
Myers took issue with Sommers as he broached the search warrant that cited the enclosed beds as cages at about 2 1/2 feet by 3 feet.
"The confusing or erroneous information was not corrected, is that right?" asked Myers. Sommers testified that he was aware that the information was confusing and Sheriff Dick Sutherland advised against calling the media to correct the error.
Myers also inquired about the initial report about the allegation concerning the enclosed beds that attributed the information to Ed Clunk, an insurance salesman.
Sommers testified that he was not aware that Clunk did not initiate the complaint, but had discovered later on in the investigation that the complaint originated from a third party. He also denied any knowledge of an allegation made in 2003 concerning the children's sleeping quarters.