NORWALK, Ohio – A couple accused of forcing some of their 11 adopted, special-needs children to sleep in cages pleaded not guilty Wednesday to child endangering and other crimes.
Michael and Sharen Gravelle were arraigned before Huron County Common Pleas Judge Earl R. McGimpsey and agreed to be tried together beginning Sept. 12. They were released without bail; pretrial hearings were set for May 8 and July 17.
The Gravelles are accused of forcing the children to sleep in beds enclosed with wire and wood and rigged with alarms. They were charged last week with child endangerment, falsifying adoption applications and lying under oath when being qualified for adoption funding.
They say they believed the enclosures were needed to ensure the children were safe at their home in nearby Wakeman. The youngsters, ages 1 to 15, have behavioral and psychological problems related to illnesses such as fetal alcohol syndrome and a disorder that involves eating nonfood items.
The couple have been fighting to regain custody since the children were placed in foster care last fall after a county social worker likened the wood and chicken-wire enclosures to kennels.
Elaine Thompson, a licensed independent social worker hired by the Gravelles to counsel the children, also was indicted on several charges, including complicity to child endangering. She has denied wrongdoing and was scheduled to be arraigned next week.
After the arraignment, a separate hearing started before juvenile court Judge Timothy Cardwell on whether custody of the children should be turned over permanently to the county, as requested by county social workers.
Ronald Hughes, hired by Huron County to investigate the family's circumstances, said he noticed the Gravelles favored harsh discipline for the children, including lengthy handwriting exercises and confinement to a bathroom. He said the children tended to be distrustful.
"These children should have been out playing with their friends," Hughes said.
If convicted, the Gravelles would face one to five years in prison and a maximum fine of $10,000 for each of the 16 counts of felony child endangering.
Thompson faces one to five years in prison and a maximum fine of $10,000 if convicted of the felony charges.