WAKEMAN, Ohio – The case of 11 adopted children who were living in one home, some sleeping in cages, highlights the risk of easing up on screening for special needs children who can be difficult to place, adoption experts say.
"There's always a pressing need to find homes for these children," Kevin Cohen, a Roslyn, N.Y., adoption attorney who himself was adopted, said Wednesday.
Cohen said disabled children require more work and patience from parents, and can be the last picked for adoption, given that there are 130,000 children awaiting permanent homes nationwide.
Michael and Sharen Gravelle (search), of Wakeman, have denied abusing or neglecting the children, who are ages 1 to 14 and have conditions that include autism and fetal alcohol syndrome. No charges have been filed, and the children now are in foster care.
The parents, who haven't commented publicly, told authorities that a psychiatrist recommended using the cages so the children didn't harm each other.
Their attorney, David Sherman (search), issued a statement Wednesday evening defending the couple.
"The children have been out of control and have caused serious harm to themselves and each other," Sherman said, adding that Michael Gravelle built the "enclosures" to provide the children with a secure space while their parents slept at night.
"The Gravelles love and miss their children and are devastated and brokenhearted with worry, since their children have been ripped away from them," Sherman said.
"Their motives and intentions were good. They would never harm a child."
In 2002, the most recent figures available, there were 127,942 children awaiting adoption in the United States, including 54,832 black youngsters, according to the Child Welfare League of America. The organization didn't tally the number of special needs children.
The Ohio couple are white and their adoptive children are black, a group that historically has been harder to place.
"The tradition of adoption in this country is that it's been white, healthy infants, generally adopted by middle-class, Caucasian couples," said Gloria Houchman, a spokeswoman for the National Adoption Center (search) in Philadelphia.
Keith Alford, a Syracuse University (search) associate professor who has written extensively on adoption, said social workers may be unaware of the demands of caring for disabled children and may be anxious to find them homes.
The Gravelles received "glowing reports" from private agencies that reviewed them for the adoption of one of the children, said Jim McCafferty, director of the Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services, which placed the boy with the couple.
Alford said sometimes social workers are duped by parents putting on a positive show to gain adoption approval.
"Families from time to time present well. They present their home situation in a very positive light because they are wanting services, or in this case more children," he said.
Cohen raised another possible reason why parents might seek multiple adoptions of high-maintenance special needs children: the money that comes along with them. "Sometimes, not all the time, there is an economic incentive to taking them in," he said.
It's unclear how much the Gravelles received in government assistance. Cleveland's county-run agency paid the family at least $500 a month to care for the one child, a boy born with HIV.
Minimum payments of $250 a month per child if the family qualifies for state or federal programs are meant to encourage adoption by ensuring families can maintain their living standard, said Rhonda Abban, chief of adoption services for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.
McCafferty said that, generally speaking, more than six children shouldn't be placed in a home, especially if they have disabilities.
Erich Dumbeck, director of the Huron County Department of Job and Family Services, said there are no limits to how many children may be placed in a home but that his agency makes the child's welfare a key factor. The Gravelle adoptions were arranged outside the county.
Ohio doesn't require home visits after an adoption. Dumbeck said his agency did not have contact with the family before Friday's court-ordered search, which resulted from a complaint that he won't discuss.
Carmen Stewart, spokeswoman for the state Job and Family Services, said the state requires at least two visits by the county or private agency that handled the adoption during the six months it takes to finalize an adoption. She could not say which of the Gravelle children were adopted in Ohio and whether those visits were missed.