NORWALK, Ohio – A couple accused of abusing their 11 adopted special-needs children by making them sleep in cages lost permanent custody of them Monday.
Huron County Juvenile Judge Timothy Cardwell awarded custody to the county, which had placed the children in foster care last fall after a social worker discovered the enclosures.
The judge ruled earlier that Michael and Sharen Gravelle had abused the children, and he said evidence showed there was a good chance they would repeat the behavior.
The couple have pleaded not guilty to several charges, including child endangerment, in a separate criminal case. They deny abusing the children, ages 1 to 15, and say the beds were necessary to protect the youngsters, who suffered from psychological and behavioral problems.
"They love their children. They want them back. They are truly devastated," the couple's attorney, Kenneth Myers, said outside the courthouse. He said they will appeal Monday's ruling.
Sharen Gravelle testified at an earlier custody hearing that she and her husband built bunk beds and attached a wooden playhouse the family called a clubhouse for some of the children's toys. The other children then requested and got them.
The couple eventually added wire enclosures and alarms to help corral what the mother described as uncontrollable wandering at night. The couple felt the cage-like, brightly painted enclosures helped keep the children from getting dangerous kitchen utensils and into other trouble, the mother testified.
Prosecutors accuse the couple of locking the children in cages to discipline them. One child testified that he was forced to sleep in a bathtub as punishment for wetting the bed.
Two of Michael Gravelle's biological children, Jenna and Jesse Gravelle, testified that their father inappropriately touched Jenna when she was a minor. Michael Gravelle denies that accusation.
The couple said during the custody hearing that they love the children and can provide a proper, permanent home, which they argued the children are unlikely to find in the custody of the county.
The children's guardian, Margaret Kern, said the youngsters are spread among several foster homes and are doing well.
"They're really great kids. They're normal everyday kids but they didn't have a chance because of the isolation," Kern said. "They're ready to move on."
Prosecutor Russ Leffler said the ruling was in the best interest of the children.
"This allows the children to be placed with good adoptive families, which I know everyone wants for these children," Leffler said.
The judge said that among the factors he considered was Sharen Gravelle's testimony during the custody hearing in which she acknowledged that some of the adoption paperwork she and her husband signed contained untrue information, though she said the couple never saw the documents that contained their signatures.
Cardwell wrote that the testimony was "troubling to the court and certainly reflects adversely on Mrs. Gravelle's credibility."
Cardwell ordered 10 of the children placed in the permanent custody of the Huron County Department of Job and Family Services. The eleventh child, a 2-year-old girl, was placed in temporary custody with the department because the Illinois adoption agency that placed her with the Gravelles has asked that she be returned.