Fighting for The Safety of Kids in Foster-Care System
By Aidan O’Shea
When an Ohio couple began adopting high-risk foster children, social services flagged them as a “go-to family.” That couple’s abuse of those children could have been stopped.
Witnesses at the criminal trial of Michael and Sharen Gravelle for the abuse of their 11 foster children testified that the Gravelles had hosed their children off outside in winter, that they had shoved children’s heads into the toilet and flushed, and that they had beaten children with sticks and boards. Most notoriously, the Gravelles made some of their children sleep in wood and wire enclosures. These cages, the Gravelles argued, were used to protect the children from themselves.
Michael and Sharen Gravelle served two years in prison each for their crimes, after losing their parental rights. Despite the individual cruelty and heartlessness of that couple, their punishment did not represent the culmination of justice for these 11 children. Not long before the children were removed from the Gravelle home in 2005, social service professionals from both public and private agencies in Ohio and elsewhere saw the Gravelles not only as competent parents, but also as an easy solution to the “problem” of high-risk foster children. They continued to send more children their way for foster placement and eventual adoption, ignoring the very rules established to keep children safe. Had these professionals complied with these basic safeguards, a great deal of abuse would have been prevented. The fact that they didn’t do their jobs is indicative of the danger foster and prospective adoptive children across America find themselves in today.
This is not just a story of a failure to protect children, but of the unique power of the civil justice system to improve the lives of those harmed by acts of injustice, and to effect change when a system that is crucial to public safety is not working. Jack Landskroner, a Cleveland personal injury attorney and former president of Public Justice, had never taken a case like this until he was recommended to the guardian of the children harmed after being placed with the Gravelles. He has not only secured settlements with entities that wronged these children and crafted trusts to help the children succeed in moving their lives forward, but is now working to bringing the larger crisis in American foster and adoptive care into view. Landskroner has taken to advocating outside the courtroom by actively publishing articles drawing attention to the crisis of child welfare systems across the country that are failing our children, while at the same time lobbying the Ohio state legislature and rule-making bodies for fixes to Ohio law that would ensure that the Gravelles are among the last people to perpetrate a scheme of this magnitude.
The Origin of the Gravelle Family
Michael and Sharen Gravelle met in sexual abuse counseling. Sharen was in the program because her previous husband had abused their daughter. Michael was in the program after admitting to a prosecutor that he had sexually molested his 10-year-old daughter over a two-year period. Not only was he never prosecuted for this, he failed to even complete the sex offender treatment program at which he met Sharen.
The Gravelles adopted each other’s children, and that blended family to include their five biological children lived in a house in Lorain County, Ohio. That home was well known within the community as an unhappy one, said Landskroner. “There was virtually no one in Lorain County department of job and family services who didn’t know the Gravelles as a problem family,” he said. In Lorain, the Gravelles were known to have an inability to manage the problems with their own kids in their home.
The Gravelles moved to Huron County once those five children had grown. Beginning in 1998, they began their efforts to see if they could find a foster child to have placed in their Huron County home, who they eventually could adopt. To do so, they had to be cleared through a screening process known as a home study. According to court documents, this is where the initial breakdown of the safety rules occurred. To the Gravelles’ own surprise, they were cleared as suitable adoptive applicants. Once they obtained their initial clearance, and had the first child placed in their home, it was off to the proverbial adoption races. In the next six-plus years the Gravelles inexplicably managed to adopt 10 more children, bringing the total number of children in the home to 11, all under the age of 11.
An expert testifying in the civil actions on behalf of the children, recognized as one of the leading instructors in the country on the training of social workers for screening and qualifying adoptive and foster applicants, testified that it would have been “well within the reasonable practice” for any child placement agency to check with Lorain County Children Services as the agency in the Gravelle’s former residential county, where they raised their biological children, about any history of problems or concerns with the Gravelles, before determining whether the Gravelles would be fit to adopt. Not one of the placing agencies made such a call.
This was not a mere oversight, but indicative of the lack of professionalism, effort and attention to detail that is required to assure the safety of a child being placed in a foster or adoptive setting. Nonetheless, because most of these children were considered “high-risk” children, because they came to the foster care system from all manner of traumatic environment, in their original homes, they were often hard to place, and thus just finding them any home seemed to be more important to some of the placement agencies than finding them a safe and proper home.
“These Kids Pay Well”
The way the Gravelles acquired foster children showed a shrewd opportunism, as well as a keen understanding of what is broken in the foster system.
While the Gravelles denied they were making a profit, it’s hard to imagine that their motivation was not money, Landskroner said. The subsidies they received collectively for serving as the foster/adoptive parents to the children were reported to be in excess of $100,000 a year at one point. Michael Gravelle had quit his job as an autoworker making $30,000 a year to stay home with the kids and help. One witness in the criminal investigation reported that Michael was overheard to have said, “These kids pay well.”
“Once they started the ball rolling, they must have realized it there was money to be made,” Landskroner said.
The Gravelles’ eagerness to adopt might have meant nothing, had it not existed alongside a belief that if they pushed the right buttons with social service agencies that were looking to place high-risk children, both in and outside of Ohio, their past would not be a focus of the placement. They were absolutely right. Despite the professional standards that the agencies placing the children, and individuals who had contact with them, were bound to uphold, the Gravelles’ reputation in Lorain and even Michael’s admission that he had committed sexual abuse never came to light until it was too late.
Part of the Gravelles’ strategy was to give as little information as possible, and never volunteer anything that was not expressly asked. They learned how to work the system by saying the right things and using the right buzzwords.
“They found people in the system who would buy into what they were saying about their desire to adopt these kids, and that wouldn’t dot their I’s and cross their T’s,” Landskroner said. What’s more, they knew about the strong motivation of these county governments to place children as quickly as possible, to alleviate the caseload for social workers.
“The system — these institutions and these counties — have these kids and don’t know what to do with them. As soon as a kid’s adopted, the custodial county transfers all responsibility for the child to the adoptive parents and they get to wash their hands of that child. The foster care case load is at alarming levels, the problem here is that in their zeal to place these children, the kids were taken out of the frying pan and placed squarely into the fire.”
Neither the overburdened nature of the foster care system as a whole, the institutional bias that develops amongst those who work in the system nor the inexperience and inadequate training of workers, are excuses for what the counties and social services professionals – who are responsible for the safety of children – did not do to protect these children.
Multiple Levels of Failure
It became increasingly clear to the Gravelles that they would not be opposed in their quest to adopt as many foster children as possible, because those placing children would come nowhere close to doing their due diligence. County agencies eager to place children simply considered the Gravelles a “go-to” family – above not only suspicion, but also even above the need to conduct new and complete home studies to document basic records of the situation inside the home where a foster child has been placed. According to the lawsuit, Home studies should have been conducted each time there was a change to the composition of the household, such as a child moving out, or every time there was a potential new adoption. Responsible parties simply copied and pasted the details from the prior home studies which found the Gravelles to be deemed suitable adoptive parents rather than completing an independent update.
Landskroner pursued claims against both public and private agencies, County employees and private professionals and against the Gravelles individually. The claims were based in the legal theories of negligence, professional negligence, for constitutional rights violations and in claims of intentional tort brought against the Gravelles. Three separate cases were filed in multiple venues including strategically identified plaintiffs and defendants named as parties in each.
Though the focus of Landskroner’s litigation was on the systemic failures of these public and private agencies, there were certain individuals who bore special responsibility for harms that were suffered by the children while in the Gravelles’ home. Those social services professionals who Landskroner sued on behalf of the children – including psychologists, social workers in private practice, social workers from various counties’ department of children’s services and their respective agencies – had contact with either the children or with the Gravelles and fundamentally failed to uphold professional standards in investigating the Gravelles past and their abilities as suitable parents to foster or adopt children. Landskroner pursued negligence claims against these individuals.
The complaints filed identified one defendant who served as the psychologist interviewed and cleared the Gravelles as suitable adoptive parents, representing that the Gravelles had a wonderful relationship with their biological children and expressly approved them for the adoption of one or two children. In this instance the psychologist simply relied on the self-reporting of the Gravelles – which flies in the face of the principle that one must always err on the side of the child, especially in an adoption setting.
“Self-serving statements of an adoptive applicant have to be scrutinized very closely. The goal of the interview and screening process is to assure there are no inconsistencies in the statement or the background of an applicant and to fetter out ominous ulterior motives of which might put a child at high risk of harm if placed with the prospective adoptive family,” Landskroner said.
Another defendant was the social worker counseling the Gravelle children in the home, knowing these parents were keeping the children in cages. This social worker was prosecuted for her failures in reporting suspected abuse and/or neglect and subsequently forfeited her social work license as a result of her conduct in this case.
“The Best Possible Position to Achieve”
Earlier this year, the Stark County Department of Jobs and Family Services became the final entity to settle the claims the children brought against them, for $2 million. This followed a prior settlement reached with another public entity, Huron County, for $1.2 million. Five other settlements were reached with the private entities involved in the screening of the Gravelles, the placement of the children, and those engaged in providing care and services to the children. However, the terms of settlements with these other named defendants as well as the settlement with the Gravelles, are confidential.
Sylvius von Saucken and Matt Garretson, attorneys with the Garretson Resolution Group, have been appointed by the Probate Court in Huron County, Ohio, to ensure that the money from these settlements is properly secured to serve the interest of the Children based upon the harms and losses they have suffered.
“Because of the qualified settlement fund, there’s a safety net for these kids that hadn’t existed before,” von Saucken said. “They’ve been put in the best possible position to achieve.”
The oldest two are in college, and using settlement money to pay for that, Landskroner told the Associated Press earlier this year.
“Thankfully, most of the children have now been adopted by new loving parents that are trying to give the children a better life,” Landskroner said. Von Saucken says that although nothing can guarantee success for these children after the trauma with which their lives began, he is proud to have assisted in the process through which they have an opportunity to thrive. Landskroner agreed.
“While this has been an emotionally difficult case to be involved with for all of us, it feels very good knowing that through our civil justice system we have been able to secure to a brighter future for these children than the past they leave behind,” he said “It is incredibly rewarding to know that our efforts have already made a real and palpable difference in their lives going forward.”
The Bigger, Wider Fight
Landskroner hasn’t stopped fighting for children who risk slipping into a home like the Gravelles’. He’s successfully worked for reforms in Ohio’s state laws that will ensure that relevant information on prospective parents is shared, and is advocating for more changes that will require more accountability, and offer better training, for social workers. The goal is to make the lapses that allowed these 11 children to end up with the Gravelles less likely to happen again.
For example, there was not a database of data relating to sexual abuse that was shared across counties in Ohio when Michael Gravelle signaled his intention to adopt, but there now is, thanks in part to this case. Moreover, as a result of the Gravelle case, the law has changed to prevent adoptions in which more than five unrelated children will live in one home.
Landskroner has also lobbied and secured a recent change to Ohio’s Administrative code that mandates adult-child reference checks from any adoptive applicant who has grown children and is seeking to adopt.
“It became evident after two of the Gravelles’ children testified against the Gravelles at a hearing removing the children from their custody, that only one of their five children had any relationship with their parents,” Landskroner said. “They testified that they were neglected and abused as children by the Gravelles, and had they been asked if they would have recommended them as suitable adoptive parents they would have said absolutely not — but no one ever asked.
“Had anyone bothered to ask, there is every reason to believe it might have saved suffering for 11 children.”
Though Landskroner’s focus has been on his own state, he is insistent that the problem of abuse of children in foster care is a national one. The nationwide remedies in addition to litigation, he said, include both increasing accountability for social service professionals, and changing a culture that doesn’t err on the side of kids in the way that it should.
“Just Google ‘foster care death’ and the name of a state. South Carolina is in crisis, as is Texas and California,” Landskroner said. “There are a lot of great social workers out there, but there are also many who have become so immune and institutionalized by the system that they become numb to the wrong that they see. The problem is that the Gravelles were given the benefit of the doubt – not the kids!
“The culture among some social workers means that when a child who has been subject to abuse in the past acts out sexually in a home, the attitude will be ‘oh yeah, it happens.’”
Landskroner cites the example of a recently filed foster care case he is currently handling, in which a child who had a noted history of sexually abusing young children — know to the public placement agency — was placed in a home with young disabled children. And yet, somehow, the county neglected to make this disclosure to the foster family accepting the child.
“You can imagine what happened, and it is unforgiveable that these helpless, vulnerable children were exposed to a child who was predisposed to molesting other children.” Landskroner said. “Then adding insult to injury, after the harm was done and the perpetrator was removed from the home, the custodial county placed the offending child’s picture back on the adoption rolls website, for future foster/adoptive placement, advertising him as wonderful child that would be good in a home with young children.”
Despite the magnitude of the problem, Landskroner is happy to report his clients in the Gravelle case are doing well, though scars remain. He’s also proud as a trial lawyer that it is litigation that has offered the kids a chance to succeed.
Sylvius von Saucken echoes that sentiment: “To be able to help in a case like this…it is why we took the bar.”