Gravelle Adoptees

Victim of Attachment Therapy
Wakeman, Ohio
Rescued, 12 September 2005

Note: This account has been gleaned from personal interviews and published news reports. See the webography that follows for published sources.

The oldest of the former adopted children of Sharen and Michael Gravelle asked a judge “that they get as much time in jail for as long as my siblings had to be in cages.” She added, “They are grown adults who know the difference between right and wrong.”

The teenager was directing her comments to the judge about to sentence the Ohio couple who had been convicted of three counts of felony child-abuse for their use of Attachment Therapy on their 11 adopted children. It made national headlines for 18 months after authorities made the discovery that the Gravelles had for years been putting ten of their eleven adopted children, ages 1 to 14, in cramped, homemade cages, some totally lacking bedding and reeking of urine. Huron County Prosecutor Russell Leffler described the cages: “It’s about chicken wire and wooden boards, being literally cooped up, hotter than blazes in summer, an amazingly shrill alarm and little fingers trying to tear wire.” Former social worker Jo Ellen Johnson, who assisted the police in removing the children from the Gravelle home, said the stacked cages looked like “slave quarters.”


Michael and Sharen Gravelle
The parents posed next to their children’s cages
for “Good Morning America” in 2005.
They were convicted of felony child-abuse
in January, 2007. They remain free during appeal,
their lawyers predicting they will never
spend a day in jail.

[Photo: ABC News]

The Gravelles faced a maximum of 15 years in prison, but despite their former children’s pleas for justice, they were given lenient sentences of six months to two years. Shortly afterwards, Attachment Therapist Elaine Thompson, pled guilty to related misdemeanor charges of failure to report the treatment as abuse and is awaiting sentencing.

The Gravelle’s oldest boy contrasted his present life in foster care with that under Attachment Therapy. “I don’t have to steal food,” he told the judge. “I can use the bathroom whenever I want. Never again will I have to sleep in a box.”

The oldest girl wasn’t forced to sleep in a cage, but nevertheless had years of experience with typical AT parenting: “I spent the most important years of my life being commanded like a dog, being told when to eat, when to sleep, when to go to the bathroom, when to get a drink of water, when to work, etc.”

One child tried to control his laughter during the first courtroom statement by his adoptive mother when she tried to blame her choices on a welfare system indifferent to the behavioral problems she supposedly had with her children.

[Photo: People Magazine]

PeopleMagazine Despite the parents’ claims that they were overwhelmed by their eleven “special needs” children, the Gravelles were in the process of adopting a twelfth, an infant in foster care placed by an Illinois agency. By this time, neither Michael nor Sharen was working outside their home; they were collecting up to $99,000 a year in adoption subsidies and state aid, not counting medical and treatment expenses billed directly to the government, and they were demanding still more.

The Gravelles had turned their rural home near Wakeman, Ohio, 60 miles southwest of Cleveland, into a
de facto orphanage for minority children. Over the space of less than a decade, the couple — with no professional training or special qualifications (and despite the fact that the couple had first met in sexual-abuse counseling where Michael had been ordered for molesting his biological daughter in the 1980’s) — managed to convince government and private agencies from four Ohio counties and one in Illinois to place a dozen children in foster care with them. When they formally adopted their foster children, state oversight apparently stopped. Nonetheless, when a man being asked to provide respite for the Gravelle family reported child abuse to Job and Family Services, no action was taken.

County and state social services did not conduct any significant review of conditions in the Gravelle home until reports reached the Huron County Sheriff’s office in mid-summer, 2005. Investigators then discovered that the Gravelles had for some time been requiring most of the children to sleep in wood-and-chicken-wire cages wired with alarms to sound if the doors were opened at night. In September, deputies and social workers raided the home and removed the children. The children were put into foster care, along with the infant from Illinois. And the “caged children” then became a sensational, national story.

Subsequent investigations revealed other unorthodox, abusive treatment of the children than just the cages. The Gravelles had pulled all of the children out of school, and were “home-schooling” them, though evidence of any actual teaching was sparse to non-existent. Neighbors rarely saw the children out-of-doors, and never playing with or visiting children from other families. Conditions for the children were spartan, and toys were few. Unrefuted testimony from the children recounted a host of unusual circumstances and punishments:

  • a locked pantry and refrigerator;

  • stuffing a sock in the gaping mouth of a Down’s Syndrome child;

  • food deprivation;

  • eating only peanut butter sandwiches for weeks when caught sneaking food;

  • hosings with water in winter;

  • copying by hand a whole book of the Bible;

  • solitary confinements for months on end;

  • one child having her head dunked in a toilet;

  • and another forced to live in the bathroom for 81 days, sleeping in a bathtub, because of a bed-wetting problem.

Many of these particular abuses have often been seen in cases involving Attachment Therapy (AT) and AT Parenting (ATP).

Sent by an agency to interview for provide respite care for the Gravelles, one man testified that Michael Gravelle regarded himself as a “Moses” to his children, and that Sharen Gravelle referred to her 11 black children as “monkeys.” He also witnessed a boy sent to bed in mid-afternoon for the night for asking permission to use the bathroom when it wasn’t his “scheduled time.” Disturbed by what he saw there, the man declined to take the respite position.

The couple ultimately took refuge in the blame-the-child defense used by so many parents caught up in child-abuse charges for their use of AT and ATP methods. The Gravelles repeatedly claimed they were coping the best they knew how with some very “difficult” children, and were only trying to keep them safe. The oldest child, the only one not caged, wrote the trial judge after the conviction, “They knew the cages were wrong because they made sure that we never told anyone. The day we were taken, Mom pulled me and my brother aside and said, ‘who told?’”

The Gravelles claimed they had asked for assistance with their “damaged” children from county social-services, but received none, so they turned to that next best source for reliable information in 21st Century America — the Internet. They found layperson and AT “parenting expert”
Nancy Thomas there. At one time, Sharen Gravelle told a potential respite worker that he might have to literally sit on a misbehaving child, an intervention mentioned in Thomas’s writings. Thomas was reportedly one of the first persons Sharen Gravelle called for help when the children were removed. (Thomas has also stated in a workshop for continuing education for social workers: “When they have no bonding, they basicly [sic] need a cage. They don’t identify with you. They don’t care what you think. They don’t care if you’re happy or not happy, if the rug is done or not done.” (from “Bonding & Attachment Workshop,” Foster Care & Adoptive Community. This 2-part workshop carries a warning in red letters: “PLEASE NOTE: Some of the strategies outlined in this workshop may be considered in-humane and unethical by many child protective agencies and can result in an investigation and loss of foster care license.”)

Another person the Gravelles say they discovered on the Internet was Elaine Thompson, a licensed social worker working as an Attachment Therapist out of nearby Elyria, Ohio. (Thompson and her business partner Mershona Parshall — who has been prominently connected to Attachment Therapy for a decade or more — also offer the unvalidated adjunct Neurofeedback, reportedly used by Thompson with the Gravelle children.) Sharen Gravelle settled on Thompson after her first choice, Attachment Therapist
Gregory Keck of Cleveland, was not immediately available; Thompson had a “similar” practice, she determined. Sharen later testified that her treatment of the children was just following Thompson’s advice and instructions “to the letter.” However true that claim may be, it is certainly true that Thompson was intwined with the Gravelle family. She did “holding therapy” (i.e., Attachment Therapy) on some of the children for years. From 2002-2004, Thompson billed Huron County for over $100,000 in treatments for Gravelle children. By the summer of 2005, Thompson reportedly had reduced her client base to just the Gravelles.

Thompson’s role with the Gravelle family also earned her a grand-jury indictment for 32 criminal charges, half of them felonies, most of them for aiding or abetting child abuse and for failing to report child abuse. Of course, the child abuse she was charged with abetting and not reporting are things the Gravelles claim she instructed or encouraged them to do. Thompson plea-bargained the charges down to three failure-to-report misdemeanors and faces a maximum of nine months in jail, plus up to $750 in fines.

There is good news about the children unfortunately caught up in this nightmare. All are reportedly doing well now, none displaying the intransigent, atrocious behavior reported by the Gravelles. “They're going to have a chance, you know, to have a normal life now and grow up in a safe family environment, which is not what they’ve had over the last couple of years in the Gravelle home,” said Douglas Clifford, an attorney for the children, after the Gravelle’s parental rights were terminated.

The former siblings have gotten together from time to time. After one such reunion, one of the older children made a request of the press and public, relayed through an attorney. “Please,” he said on behalf of them all, “don’t refer to us as ‘special needs’.” That was an opinion shared by prosecutor Leffler who told jurors, ‘‘They weren’t special-needs then and probably never were.’’
A year ago, the Gravelles had their parental rights terminated by another judge. Outside the courthouse, after she testified at a hearing about that action, one of the little girls came up and hugged the leg of a deputy sheriff who had removed her from the Gravelle home a few months before, and said, “Thank you.” AT proponents would certainly characterize such a gesture as evidence of a deceptive and manipulative child. The deputy had an entirely different take on her action: remembering her and the children’s flat affects the day they were removed, the girl’s present gesture felt to him like a display of genuine emotion. With eyes welling, he responded gently with a simple, “You’re welcome.”