WAKEMAN, Ohio – The children — polite and well-dressed — seemed ordinary enough to neighbors, who hired some of them to help bale hay and saw them playing in a yard filled with toys.
But the 11 children — all with conditions ranging from autism to fetal alcohol syndrome — were far from having a normal life, authorities said. Their adoptive parents allegedly forced several of them to sleep in homemade cages about 3½ feet high.
Michael Gravelle (search), 56, and Sharen Gravelle, 57, have denied abusing or neglecting the children, who are ages 1 to 14. No charges had been filed, and messages left with the couple's lawyer were not immediately returned Wednesday.
Officials, who said they discovered the situation Friday, are investigating how the adoptive parents managed to take in the children and why no one kept closer tabs on the youngsters. The children have since been placed with foster families.
"I don't believe there were any case workers checking in with this family," said Erich Dumbeck, director of the Huron County Department of Job and Family Services (search).
The couple adopted the children through an assortment of private and public agencies in different counties and states, Dumbeck said.
Neighbors said they often saw or heard the children playing, and the family yard was littered with toys — plastic cars, tricycles, slides and an overturned skateboard near a wooden ramp.
Leah Hunter, who lives two houses away, said she often saw the children walking down the road. "They looked OK. They hardly ever wore shoes, but I'm a country girl and for me that's normal," she said.
At night, authorities said, eight of the children were confined in wooden cages stacked in bedrooms on the second floor. The cages were painted in bright colors, and some were rigged with alarms that would send a signal to the downstairs when the door was opened. One cage had a dresser in front of it.
The cages, made of plywood and wiring, had mats but no pillows or blankets. The house smelled of urine, according to the search warrant.
The Gravelles have said a psychiatrist recommended they make the children sleep in the cages, Huron County Prosecutor Russell Leffler (search) told the Norwalk Reflector. The parents also said the children, including some who had mental disorders, needed to be protected from each other, according to court documents.
A boy born with HIV was adopted as an infant in 2001 through the Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services, the agency's director Jim McCafferty said. The Gravelles receive a subsidy of at least $500 a month to care for that child, but it was unclear how much the parents were paid for the other children.
Payments — a minimum 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 standard of living, said Rhonda Abban, chief of adoption services for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.
"There's no follow up because you're giving that family the money so they can incorporate that child into their life," she said.
Carmen Stewart, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, said Wednesday that state regulations require at least two home visits by the county or a private agency that conducted an adoption within six months of finalization. She could not say which of the children were adopted in Ohio and whether visits were missed.
Visits also can be ordered if there are complaints, such as the one that led to a children's services investigator being sent to the house Friday. The investigator saw one of the children's faces peering out of a cage, sheriff's Lt. Randy Sommers said.
Before the infant adoption in 2001, private agencies gave the couple "glowing reports," McCafferty said.
Sheriff's deputies were called to the home twice before in the last five years: once to settle a neighbor dispute in 2000, and last year when a 12-year-old boy was upset and ran away for several hours. He was found down the road.