WAKEMAN, Ohio (AP) – 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 31/2 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.

Leffler refused to speak with an Associated Press reporter Tuesday at his office, and the couple’s lawyer did not return messages seeking comment.

After authorities discovered the cages last week, the children, ages 1 to 14, were placed with four foster families and were doing well, Dumbeck said.

“We don’t have any indication at this point that there was any abuse,” he said.

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 31/2-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. One cage had a dresser in front of it, county sheriff’s Lt. Randy Sommers said Tuesday.

“The sheriff and I stood there for a few minutes and just kind of stared at what we were seeing. We were speechless,” Sommers said.

No one answered the Gravelles’ door Tuesday, and the gray, four-bedroom house was dark. A pig, roosters and other animals shared the yard outside Wakeman, a city of about 1,000 people 50 miles west of Cleveland.

Sommers said the cages were discovered after a a social worker investigating a complaint contacted authorities. Dumbeck would not discuss the complaint.

According to the search warrant, the cages had mats and the house smelled of urine. One boy said he slept in a cage for three years, Sommers said. A baby slept in a small bed, and two girls used mattresses

Deputies said they were called to the home last year when a 12-year-old boy was upset and ran away for several hours. He was found not far away.

Although the family has lived in Huron County for 10 years, the children were adopted through other counties and states, Dumbeck said. He said his agency was trying to determine how the adoptions were completed.

“I don’t believe there were any caseworkers checking in with this family,” he said. Reviews are ordered only when there is a complaint.

One of the children, 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. For caring for him, the Gravelles received a subsidy of at least $500 a month.

The private agencies who reviewed the couple’s home life before the adoption gave them “glowing reports,” McCafferty said.

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.


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