Date: 2005-09-24

Akron Beacon Journal (OH)


Author: Carl Chancellor, Beacon Journal staff writer

The fear that 11 adopted children, some of whom were kept in cages, might be returned to her father and stepmother is why Jenna Gravelle decided she had to come forward with her story of abuse.

"I never want to see those children go back. I never want them to get any more kids," said Gravelle, the 31-year-old biological daughter of Michael Gravelle and the adopted daughter of Sharen Gravelle.

On Sept. 13, Huron County sheriff's deputies removed the 11 special-needs children, ages 1 to 14, from the Gravelles' home and placed them in foster care after some of the children were found in makeshift cages built into walls.

The Gravelles, who have not been charged, deny they have abused their adopted children, who have a variety of conditions including fetal-alcohol syndrome and pica. The couple has said the cages were meant to protect the children from injuring themselves and others.

The protection that Jenna Gravelle needed as a child, she said, was from her father.

"I was sexually abused," Jenna Gravelle told the Beacon Journal. She said the abuse, which allegedly involved inappropriate touching, started around the age of 8 or 9, when her father was married to her mother, Judith, who died in 1986.

Following the death of her mother, Jenna Gravelle said her father confided to a relative that he was abusing her and that he wanted to stop before it escalated.

Gravelle said she and her father went to Lorain County Children Services in 1987, when she was 12 or 13, to discuss his problem.

She said Children Services took her from the home and she and her father entered a counseling program.

"He was never charged (with a crime)," Jenna Gravelle continued.

Gary Crow, executive director of Lorain County Children Services, said he couldn't comment on the Gravelle case.

The Cleveland attorney representing the Gravelles didn't return several calls seeking comment.

Jenna Gravelle lived with relatives for about a year before returning to live with her father and his new wife, Sharen.

While the sexual abuse stopped, Gravelle said she and her siblings were subjected to another form of abuse.

"It was like a concentration camp," she said. She said that while she and her two brothers, one a year older and the other about two years younger, weren't kept in cages, they were nonetheless treated like "prisoners." She said they were routinely denied food and decent clothing, had their movements constantly monitored and were not allowed to go to school events or other functions outside the home.

"There was no freedom. Anything that was important to us was taken away. . . . There was a lot of neglect and emotional abuse," said Gravelle, who lives in Elyria with her 8 year-old son.

Jesse Gravelle, Jenna' older brother, said Friday that 1988 to 1991 "were probably the worst years of my life. My dad and stepmother were pretty much cruel and neglectful."

Lt. Randy Sommers of the Huron County Sheriff's Office took statements from Jenna and Jesse Gravelle last week and said they seemed credible. Both say they would testify if called to do so, according to an Associated Press report.

Religious zealots

Jenna Gravelle said that her father, following the lead of his new wife, became zealously involved in their Pentecostal church and required the children to do likewise.

"We started going to church service twice on Sunday and again every Wednesday," she said.

"Before he married Sharen we never attended church," Gravelle said. " . . . My father is a co-dependent, weak, sick man. She controlled everything."

She said she no longer has a relationship with her father or stepmother.

"I haven't spoken to her in more than eight years and I haven't seen him for about four years," she said.

Several crosses are erected on the property at her parents' St. John Road home. Neighbors said the family built a church in the side yard.

Gone at 16

She said that by age 16 she no longer could endure living under her father's and stepmother's roof and she left home.

Staying with friends and in group homes and working odd jobs, she eventually enrolled in college. She graduated from Baldwin-Wallace in 2000 with degree in psychology.

"I started working with children, but it became too emotional for me," she said.

Gravelle said it upsets her that people have been portraying her father and stepmother as good, well-meaning people.

"He didn't do anything for us, so I don't understand why he would want more children. . . . Did he think he could get a do-over?" Gravelle said.

"I'm not on some witch hunt to put them in jail. He is still my dad. I just don't want them to get those children back. They don't need children," she said.

Policy revisited

The case has sparked Ohio social service officials to rethink their adoption policy, specifically on limiting the number of children a family can adopt.

Barbara Riley, director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, said an absolute cutoff would be unlikely because of the huge need for adoption in Ohio.

But she said the conversation about limits based on a family's ability to care for children should begin immediately among state, county and private providers of adoption services.

"I don't think you'll find a specific number everybody will agree on, but what we can agree on is what has to happen to make that kid safe in that home," Riley said.

She said the Huron County case underscores what happens when a family is willing to take children with special needs.

"What we need to do is to find a much better way to coordinate that activity," Riley said, "so that we don't have a private agency, a public agency and another public agency all working to put children there without knowing what each other is doing."

Riley said the state has thousands of children waiting for adoption, which means it will be difficult to walk away from any family willing to take them in.

The state is investigating the Gravelle adoptions, including who placed children with the family, whether rules were followed and whether Huron County responded appropriately once the cages were discovered.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Carl Chancellor can be reached at 330-996-3725 or cchancellor@thebeaconjournal.com.


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