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Mother says children were caged for safety

Ohio couple fight to regain custody

NORWALK, Ohio -- Some of the special-needs children who slept in cage-like beds fitted with alarms had asked for the structures to be built, their adoptive mother testified at a custody hearing.

Sharen Gravelle testified Wednesday that she and her husband, Michael, 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 Sharen Gravelle 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, she said.

The couple have pleaded not guilty to several charges, including child endangerment, in a separate, criminal case.

Prosecutors accuse the couple of locking some of their 11 adopted children in cages to discipline them, and want Huron County to take permanent custody of them. The children have been in foster care since the enclosed beds were discovered last fall.

The Gravelles are fighting to regain custody. They deny abusing their children, ages 1 to 15, and say the beds were necessary to protect the youngsters, who suffer from psychological and behavioral problems.

Under questioning by her lawyer, Ken Myers, Sharen Gravelle said that when the children became older they acted up more, including escaping from their regular beds in the middle of the night to fetch knives from the kitchen or punch one another.

''They just didn't seem normal to me, I mean the behavior didn't," she said.

The mother said she sought help from county social workers and received none. Research on the Internet led her to Elaine Thompson, a social worker who is also charged in the case.

Gravelle said that Thompson approved the beds and that at least one inspection for another adoption was done at the home in rural Wakeman after the enclosures were built.

Prosecutor Jennifer DeLand said the Gravelles have refused a court order to undergo psychological testing. She presented documents from the first study of the Gravelles' home that she said proved the couple had lied about previous abuse allegations and investigations by a child protective agency in Lorain County.

Sharen Gravelle denied lying and said she had not seen the documents, although she acknowledged that her and her husband's signatures were on the papers.

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