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As pastor Brian Ayers tells it, his friends Mike and Sharen Gravelle had only good intentions when they started adopting kids about seven years ago. By this year the Gravelles had 11 children in their small home in Clarksfield Township, Ohio, all of them with special needs ranging from autism to HIV. "They have a genuine desire to help kids no one else wanted to help," says Ayers. But when police, acting on the report of a social worker, entered the house on Sept. 9, the scene they found was far from heartwarming. In the kids' bedrooms were a series of bunklike cages fashioned from wood and rabbit wire,
each containing only a thin rubber mat for sleeping. Shocked deputies moved the children to foster homes, after which, said Huron County Sheriff Dick Sutherland, "one of the kids made a comment...that the [new] bed was the softest they'd ever slept in."

Three days later Mike Gravelle, 56, a former construction worker, and Sharen, 57, a former nurse's aide, faced a civil complaint in juvenile court of child abuse. Prosecutors released a statement saying they were awaiting medical and psychiatric records of the children for use in bringing possible criminal charges. But supporters of the couple insisted there was another side to the story. Despite the harsh sleeping conditions, it appeared that the children, who range in age from 1 to 14 (the 1-year-old and two others did not sleep in cages), were not malnourished and showed no signs of physical abuse. The Gravelles' lawyer David Sherman pointed out that the cages had no locks on them, just buzzers so that the parents would know if the kids got out of bed at night. According to Sherman, the measures were for the protection of the kids, some of whom have "extreme behavioral problems"—he maintained that, among other things, they had been known to swallow batteries and attack one another—that made "traditional" methods of child care ineffective.

Yet there was no denying the shock factor of seeing kids cooped up like livestock. The social worker who alerted police found one 4-year-old girl in a cage with a dresser pushed against the door. Investigators also discovered that the couple used the cages—which they called "boxes"—as a punishment tool. "Although most of the 'boxes' were not locked," authorities said in a statement, "the children were afraid to leave their 'boxes' at night even to use the bathroom because an alarm would sound and the parents would react in anger."

In their rural community the Gravelles kept mostly to themselves. But neighbor Laurie Oney says that on one visit three years ago she saw a disturbing incident. "I witnessed the mom spanking the children—two small children under 4 years old—with broomsticks cut down to maybe 18 inches," says Oney, a mother of two. "I was appalled. Sharen stopped and said, 'You don't understand this. You have to handle these kids differently, rule them with an iron fist,' and I said, 'What's to understand? They're babies!'"

In some ways, says Oney—who says she had complained to child services about the family—the home had the feel of a "concentration camp." "The way they spoke to the children was more like a prison guard would talk to a prisoner, snapping orders," she says. Two of Mike Gravelle's grown children from a previous marriage echoed that sentiment, depicting their father as tyrannical. Says son Jesse Gravelle, 32: "Let's just say he shouldn't have children." In filing for separation in 2001, Sharen Gravelle herself accused Mike of domestic abuse and child abuse. Mike maintained his innocence, and the couple reconciled.

For now, the children are staying in four foster homes, though they are being reunited a few times a week without their parents. To Sheriff Sutherland, the pain of their ordeal is evident. "If a picture is worth a thousand words," he says, "you can see it in their faces."

Bill Hewitt. Barbara Sandler in Chicago and David Searls in Clarksfield Township

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  • David Searls.