Witness: Mom Accused of Keeping Foster Kids in Cages Was Stressed

An Ohio social worker who visited a couple accused of caging of some of their 11 special-needs children reported six years ago that the adopted youngsters seemed to be doing well.

"From what I knew then, I thought the family was doing a good job," said former Huron County social worker Jennifer James.

At the time, the mother was beginning to show signs of being emotionally overwhelmed by her parenting duties, James testified Thursday at the trial of Sharen Gravelle and her husband, Michael.

The Gravelles are charged with 16 counts of felony child endangering and eight misdemeanor child endangering charges. If convicted, they face one to five years in prison and a maximum fine of $10,000 for each felony count.

The Gravelles deny that they abused children in their care and have said they had to keep the youngsters in enclosed beds to protect them. The children suffered from problems such as fetal alcohol syndrome and a disorder that involves eating nonfood items.

James said that in November 2000 Michael Gravelle contacted her about stress in the household and said Sharen Gravelle needed a break.

"He said they are having trouble handling them and that Sharen is emotionally beat. He said they loved and wanted to take care of the children," James testified.

Earlier that year, James wrote a letter to Stark County officials, reporting that five children under the couple's care from the county, which includes Canton, seemed to be adjusting well and had become attached to the Gravelles.

James explained that in 2000 she occasionally met with some of the children, but she made no observation about their sleeping arrangements or whether there were cages.

The children ranged in age from one to 14 when authorities removed them from the Gravelle home in rural Wakeman, about 60 miles west of Cleveland. The youngsters were placed in foster care last fall and the couple lost custody in March.

Lt. Randy Sommers, chief investigator for the Huron County Sheriff's Department, testified that he saw the cages when he went to the Gravelle home about 5 p.m. Sept. 9, 2005.

He said none of the children were inside the cages during his visit.

Richard Drucker, who represents Michael Gravelle, asked whether Sommers' conclusion that the children were kept in cages is merely conjecture.

"I know what I saw and I know what I know," Sommers said.