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Cages Built for Children Raise Alarm

Times Staff Writer

They looked like perfectly normal kids, riding bicycles in the streets and playing on a plastic jungle gym in their backyard. But neighbors had one nagging question about Michael and Sharen Gravelle’s 11 children:

How could all of them, 1 to 14 years in age, possibly live in such a small home?

People are friendly but private in this rural community west of Cleveland, and nobody dared to intrude. But when police raided the five-room house recently based on an anonymous tip, they got an answer: Nine of the kids were forced to sleep in wooden cages -- and the Gravelles didn’t think anything was wrong, officials said.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Huron County Sheriff’s Lt. Randy Sommers said at a news conference this week. “I’ve seen cases of children in closets, in basements, in outbuildings, in cars. This is the first I’ve seen of children in cages.”

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The 11 kids, all adopted, were whisked out of the house on St. John Road and placed temporarily in four foster homes. They are special-needs children, with problems including fetal alcohol syndrome, HIV, autism and Down syndrome.

Huron County Prosecutor Russell Leffler said Wednesday that his office was still investigating the case, which has focused national attention on a sleepy rural area. Though no decision has been made, Leffler said potential criminal charges against the couple could include abduction, unlawful restraint and child endangering.

“We’re still trying to figure out where all the kids came from,” he said after a long meeting with sheriff’s deputies. “This has become a very complicated case.”

The couple denied any wrongdoing when they appeared this week at a preliminary juvenile court hearing. They have declined to comment further, and their whereabouts are not known. The couple’s lawyer, David Sherman, did not return phone calls.

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But he issued a news statement Wednesday evening, saying that the Gravelles, with the approval of a social worker, had constructed “enclosures” around their beds, because the children demonstrated “extreme behavioral problems” and that “traditional methods of behavior control were unsuccessful.”

As she stood on her small front porch Wednesday, down the street from the Gravelle home, Mildred Timperman, Sharen Gravelle’s mother, angrily defended her daughter.

“All I want is for her to come back home, and we want the children back too,” Timperman said, leaning on a walker and shooing two dogs away. “I don’t believe a word of this -- that they were mistreating children. I think the whole thing is in God’s hands.”

The revelations came as a shock to neighbors. Still, most of them said they knew little about the reclusive couple, who had lived in their home for 10 years.

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Michael, 56, is a laborer, and Sharen, 57, stayed home to raise the children, according to court records.

“I’m stunned, if these charges are true,” said Sherri Hall, who lives next door to the Gravelles. “Who’s responsible? It’s incredible such a thing could go on.”

Although details are sketchy, police documented a chilling scene when they entered the home last week. Jo Johnson, a children’s services investigator, said there were “11 cages divided into three areas for the children to sleep in and/or for their punishments to be administered,” according to the complaints in juvenile court.

She said the cages were approximately 30 inches wide, 40 inches high and 4 feet long; they were stacked in pairs and used for sleeping. Wire fencing covered the openings, and there were alarms on the doors to alert the Gravelles whenever a child attempted to leave. Two of the cages were blocked by a large dresser, Johnson said.

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She said the couple told her that the cages had been in use for two years. They said a psychologist, who was not identified, had told them this was an efficient way to discipline and control children who might otherwise be considered unruly. The parents added that the cages were also meant to protect the children from each other.

“I have a 17-year-old daughter with special needs who learns at the second-grade level -- and everybody has discipline problems with kids,” said Hall, sitting in her living room. “But no matter how bad it gets, I never would think of putting her in a cage.”

In his home across the street, Jim Powers voiced disbelief that a home so outwardly quiet might be the scene of so much chaos inside. The Gravelle children would often go barefoot in the street, but so did other neighborhood kids, he said.

“Until you’re inside, you can’t know what goes on in another home,” Power said.

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The Gravelle house, a two-story gray-green structure, has three small bedrooms, according to investigators. Two vans, a boat and a truck are on the front lawn, along with garden furniture and rusting truck parts.

A black potbellied pig roams through an enclosure in the backyard. A separate wooden structure near the house was used by the family as a church, officials said.

Two children briefly attended a public school, but the Gravelles told investigators that they were home-schooling their family. The children are two 3-year-olds, two 7-year-olds, two 8-year-olds and others aged 14, 13, 9, 6 and 1.

When investigators searched the house, they found few toys lying about. The children’s wooden cages had no bedding -- only mats -- and some reeked of urine.

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“These weren’t normal kids’ rooms,” Sommers said, adding that deputies had taken more than 75 photos of conditions in the home as evidence.

But officials acknowledged that the children seemed happy and well-behaved when they were taken to foster homes. None appeared to have any signs of physical abuse.

They did not look traumatized, at least outwardly, Sommers said.

“I know there’s going to be a lot of questions, and there needs to be,” he added.

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A key issue is where the children came from, and how a home with such apparent conditions could have been ignored by child-welfare officials for so many years.

None of the children were adopted in Huron County; all came from adoption authorities in other states, officials said. Some investigators have theorized that the Gravelles took in the children to collect government subsidies for their care.

Although no figures have been released, a 2001 divorce proceeding between Michael and Sharen Gravelle, ultimately dropped, indicated that she was receiving an estimated $4,265 per month in adoption subsidies and Social Security benefits for seven children. The couple adopted four additional kids in subsequent years.

Sharen Gravelle alleged in the court documents that her husband had displayed “extreme cruelty and gross neglect of duty”; he denied this and said their relationship had “deteriorated.” He said he loved his family, adding: “I have done nothing wrong to the children in the house.”

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