Child-welfare workers had heard rumors that a couple kept some of their 11 adopted children in cages two years before the youngsters were removed from the home, a witness testified in a custody hearing Tuesday.

Officials tried to follow up on the rumors in 2003, but Michael and Sharen Gravelle would not cooperate and a full investigation was never conducted, said Jo Ellen Johnson, an investigator for the Huron County Department of Job and Family Services.

The children were finally taken from the Gravelles after Johnson visited the home and examined the chicken-wire cages.

"They were piled one on top of another. It looked like a kennel," Johnson said.

The Gravelles say they built enclosures with alarms where the children could sleep for their own protection. The children, ages 1 to 14, have health and behavioral problems such as fetal alcohol syndrome and pica, a disorder in which children eat dirt.

Judge Timothy Cardwell will determine whether the children were abused or neglected. If the allegations are not proved, the Gravelles, who live near rural Wakeman, could regain custody.

The Gravelles' attorney, Kenneth Myers, repeatedly criticized Johnson's reports and questioned why the county suddenly had to remove the children from the home two years after hearing about the cages.

In later testimony, a man listed as reporting the Gravelles to authorities said he never filed a complaint and didn't believe the children were being abused.

Insurance agent Edward Clunk said that he visited the couple in summer 2004 to sell them policies. He observed two children — one sleeping in a cubbyhole and another in what he described as a cage.

"I've been in thousands of homes. ... This was something just a little bit out of the ordinary," Clunk said, adding he did not file a report because he did not believe the children were being abused by the Gravelles.

"I thought it was very admirable for them to adopt children of that nature that nobody wanted," he said.