WAKEMAN, Ohio – The children seemed ordinary enough to neighbors, who hired some of them to help bale hay and watched as they spent their apparently carefree days playing in a yard filled with toys.
But at night, the 11 children – all with conditions ranging from autism to fetal alcohol syndrome – were not treated like ordinary children, authorities say. Their adoptive parents allegedly forced several of them to sleep in homemade cages about 3 1/2 feet high.
“We’re still trying to figure out what happened in that home,” said Erich Dumbeck, director of the Department of Job and Family Services in Huron County, where the family lived for the past 10 years.
No charges have been filed, and parents Sharen, 57, and Michael Gravelle, 56, have denied in court that they abused or neglected the children.
The couple have also said a psychiatrist recommended they make the children sleep in the cages, Huron County Prosecutor Russell Leffler told the Norwalk Reflector. The parents said the children, including some who had mental disorders, needed to be protected from each other, according to a search warrant filed by authorities.
After authorities discovered the cages on Friday, the children, ages 1 to 14, were placed with four foster families and are doing well, Dumbeck said. “We don’t have any indication at this point that there was any abuse.”
Neighbors in the rural neighborhood outside Wakeman, a city of roughly 1,000 people 50 miles west of Cleveland, said they never saw any signs of abuse, either.
“They weren’t bad kids. I was tickled to give them some spending money,” said Holey Hunter, who lives down the street. He said he hired two of the family’s teenagers this summer to help make hay.
“Those kids were dressed better than some of the kids who live in Cleveland. They behaved like any other kids when they were outside playing,” added Jim Power, who lives across the street.
But at night, authorities say, eight of the children were confined in 3 1/2 -foot-tall wooden cages stacked in bedrooms on the second floor. The cages were painted in bright, primary colors, with some rigged with alarms that would send a signal to the downstairs when a cage door was opened
“The sheriff and I stood there for a few minutes and just kind of stared at what we were seeing. We were speechless,” said county sheriff’s Lt. Randy Sommers.
Sommers said the cages were discovered after a a social worker investigating a complaint contacted authorities. Dumbeck would not discuss the complaint.
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