NORWALK, Ohio – A couple who forced some of their 11 adopted, special-needs children to sleep in wire-and-wood cages were sentenced to two years in prison Thursday, after the parents insisted they were only trying to keep the kids safe.
Two of the children, however, said in statements read in court that they were treated harshly while they lived with Sharen and Michael Gravelle. One wrote that they should be imprisoned "for as long as my siblings had to be in cages."
Sharen Gravelle told the court the children were never confined as punishment but rather to protect them, including a child who wanted to jump out a second-floor window.
"Would you prefer that we let them jump? Either way, we'd be here. The difference is they're still alive," she said in a tearful, 26-minute statement.
Gravelle blamed social services officials for not helping her and her husband, Michael, control the destructive behavior of some of the youngsters.
The children, who suffered from problems such as fetal alcohol syndrome and a disorder that involves eating nonfood items, ranged in age from 1 to 14 when authorities removed them in September 2005 from the Gravelles' home in Wakeman, about 60 miles west of Cleveland. They were placed in foster care in fall 2005 and the couple lost custody last March.
Sharen Gravelle kept her head down taking notes while the judge read the sentences. Michael Gravelle sat back in his chair, holding his face in his left hand.
Each could have received up to five years in prison for each of the four felonies they were convicted of in December. They also were convicted of seven misdemeanors.
Michael Gravelle, his face red and his voice rising, told the judge he and his wife "felt we were being led by the Lord" when they decided to bring the first child into their home.
He said problems began when they took in a group of siblings with an array of behavior and emotional problems.
"What do you do with these kids?" Michael Gravelle asked. "I prayed constantly for the answer."
He said the enclosures resulted from the suggestions of a social workers, who recommended strict rules to improve the children's behavior.
"I'm begging you," Michael Gravelle told the judge. "I do not deserve jail."
The two children whose statements were read in court, a girl and a boy, were in the courtroom Thursday. The boy wrote that he was "thankful that part of my life is behind me."
He said of his new foster parents, "Because of them I don't have to steal food. I can use the bathroom whenever I want. Never again will I have to sleep in a box."
The girl's statement said Sharen Gravelle treated the children more harshly than her husband did.
"Mom, you walked around like you were God, then whenever you did go places you were Mother Teresa taking in the poor black kids that no one wanted," she said.
The girl said the Gravelles "are grown adults who know the difference between right and wrong. So I ask that they get as much time in jail for as long as my siblings had to be in cages."
The Gravelles have said they will appeal their convictions. The judge allowed them to remain free on bond pending the appeal.
The couple has said they needed to keep some of the children in enclosed beds with alarms to protect them from their own dangerous behavior and stop them from wandering at night.
Prosecutors said the Gravelles were cruel. Witnesses, including the sheriff and some of the children, said the cages were urine-stained and lacked pillows or mattresses, but a social worker and others who testified for the defense said they never witnessed abuse and that the children's behavior improved because of the bright blue and red cages.
One Gravelle child testified he was forced to live in a bathroom for 81 days, sleeping in a bathtub because of a bed-wetting problem. The Gravelles' attorneys said the boy exaggerated the length of his bathroom stay, and an expert for the defense testified that the technique helped the boy.