Richard Jerome
December 18, 2006 12:00 PM

To hear prosecutors tell it, Michael and Sharen Gravelle’s parenting handbook called for them to keep some of their 11 adopted and foster children penned up in wood-and-wire cages, sleeping on thin mats, soaked in their own urine. Huron County Sheriff Dick Sutherland can’t forget the sight and stench when, investigating alleged child abuse, he entered the Gravelles’ house in rural Clarksfield Township, Ohio. “How these children had to live,” he says, “will never, ever fade.”

Authorities permanently removed the kids and placed them in foster care—the Gravelles had adopted 10, then ranging in age from 1 to 14, with the other soon to follow. Now Michael, 57, an ex-construction worker, and Sharen, 58, a former nurse’s aide, are standing trial on 24 charges of child endangerment. The Gravelles deny abusing the children. The prosecution, however, paints their household as a small-scale Abu Ghraib, where punishments included getting hosed down and having one’s head forced into the toilet; one bed wetter was allegedly made to live in the bathroom for 81 days. “This is a case about some wonderful children,” Huron County prosecutor Russ Leffler told the court, “and what the Gravelles did to them.”

It is also a case that shocked much of the country—yet locally the Gravelles have a surprising number of defenders. “There’s been quite a groundswell of support,” says their friend Carl Gibson, who hails the couple for adopting African-American and special needs children with fetal alcohol and Down syndrome and other problems. “They found out one little boy [was terribly ill], and that his medicines do better if he takes them with goat’s milk,” says Gibson’s wife, Carol. “What did they do? They bought two goats.” The Gravelles homeschooled the kids, she adds, to shield them. “Neighbors called them the N-word. They’d come home in tears.”

But did they come home to cages? The Gravelles prefer the term “enclosed beds”—not locked, they say, but rigged with alarms to protect the children, who were given to wandering outside at night. “We did what we did to keep our kids safe. Period,” a defiant Sharen told PEOPLE in March, leading a tour of the couple’s property, a collection of ramshackle outbuildings. The kids, she added, would also get up to urinate on the baseboard heaters, apparently to hear the hiss. Said Michael: “They had no boundaries. Authority sucked to them.”

His particular brand of authority has been called into question—not least by the estranged biological children he had with his late first wife. Both his son Jesse, 33, and 32-year-old daughter Jenna describe Gravelle as emotionally abusive. “I was fearful every day,” said Jenna. “I was a prisoner in my own home, constantly grounded, not allowed to read, had to pay rent.” (To earn money she babysat and worked at a pizza parlor.) Michael and Sharen lived upstairs, confining her and Jesse to the first floor. “They had their own refrigerator and took our stove. We had a little hot plate.”

“I wasn’t allowed to wash my clothes at home—I had to pay for my own laundry down the street,” adds Jesse, who testified against his father at a February custody hearing. “I was an honor student in high school, and came out of the bathroom one day to find all my belongings on the front lawn—even my bed. That’s when I was kicked out.” Still, neither sibling wants to see their father, who faces up to 80 years in prison, do time. “If the trial is enough to prevent him from having more children,” Jesse says, “then I’m happy.”

That seems a distinct possibility. “In my mind, the Gravelle case is one in which society can agree that certain kinds of parenting techniques are just simply unacceptable,” says Katherine Federle, director of the Justice for Children Project at Ohio State University Law School. “I can’t imagine many people saying, ‘This made sense.'”

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