NORWALK, Ohio - A biological adult daughter of Michael Gravelle testified yesterday that he sexually abused her when she was a child and said she does not think her father and stepmother should regain custody of their 11 adopted children.
The 31-year-old woman, Jenna Gravelle, testified that she recalled several instances in which Mr. Gravelle, 57, inappropriately touched her while they lived in Lorain County, though she said she could not remember exactly when the incidents occurred or how old she was.
She made the accusations during a custody hearing in Huron County Juvenile Court for the 11 special-needs children, some of whom were kept in cages in the Clarksfield Township home of Mr. Gravelle and his wife, Sharen.
"I think they're terrible parents that shouldn't have kids," Jenna Gravelle said.
The children, ages 1 to 15, were removed from the home Sept. 9 and placed in foster care after county officials discovered the wood-and-chicken wire enclosures inside. Judge Timothy Cardwell ruled in December that eight of the children had been abused, and that all 11 were dependent, meaning that conditions in the home put them at risk of being abused or neglected.
The custody hearing, which began yesterday, is expected to determine whether the children will be returned to the Gravelles or placed in the permanent custody of Huron County.
The Gravelles were indicted last week on felony charges of child endangerment, falsification, and perjury, plus misdemeanor charges of child endangerment. During an arraignment yesterday in Huron County Common Pleas Court, they pleaded not guilty to the charges and were released on personal recognizance bonds. Their trials were scheduled for Sept. 12.
Mr. Gravelle's daughter said she had been out of touch with her father for several years when she learned of the children's removal. She said she then contacted the Huron County Department of Job and Family Services because of the sexual abuse and what she described as a neglectful yet dictatorial upbringing.
"The reason I came forward is that I don't think those kids should be returned," the woman said under questioning from Kenneth Myers, an attorney for the Gravelles.
She said she recalled occasions in which her father rubbed himself against her and touched her inappropriately, and one instance in which he made her touch him in a sexual way. The woman testified that before her 6th-grade year in school, Mr. Gravelle took her to Lorain County Children Services and admitted sexually abusing her.
Afterward, the woman said, she was sent to live with relatives for a year, put in foster care for awhile, and then returned to her father. She testified that her father underwent counseling but did not complete a treatment program. No criminal charges resulted.
The woman said that after her mother died in 1987, her father married Sharen, blending his three children with her two children.
Gradually, the woman said she and her two brothers were confined to the lower unit of an Elyria duplex, where they were forced to pay rent, cook their own meals, and endure being grounded for weeks at a time as punishment.
"I know how it was for me, very punitive," Mr. Gravelle's daughter said. "It felt like a prison."
One of the woman's brothers, Jesse Gravelle, 33, testified that the relationship between them and their father deteriorated after their mother died. Jesse Gravelle said the couple forced him and his siblings to wash their own clothes at a nearby Laundromat and removed all televisions and radios from their part of the duplex, except for one radio that was to be left on and tuned to a Christian station at all times.
"It was very totalitarian," Jesse Gravelle said.
Jesse Gravelle testified that in his early teens, his father got him a job at a local pizza place and began charging him $25 a week rent.
He testified under questioning from assistant county prosecutor Jennifer DeLand that his father forced him to take his younger brother, Timothy, to a shelter for runaways. Jesse Gravelle said that when he was 18 and still in high school in the spring of 1991, his parents threw him out of the house too.
"I was going to the bathroom and I heard a noise and I got up and saw Sharen and my dad throwing my things out on the front lawn," Jesse Gravelle said, adding that his stepmother had told his father to choose between her and his children.
"I feel we were neglected and abandoned, pretty much," he said.
Also testifying during the custody hearing, which resumes this morning, was Dr. Ronald Hughes, a licensed social worker from Columbus whose firm evaluated 10 of the children for the county.
Dr. Hughes said he reviewed records from Lorain County Children Services regarding the sexual-abuse allegations against Mr. Gravelle, as well as other documents, and concluded that the Gravelles should not regain custody of their adopted children.
"I think the best evaluation of their long-term capacity is their behavior, and I think it's pathological," Dr. Hughes testified.
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