The Exorcists

The fine line between saving children and torturing them.

Sharen Gravelle Michael Gravelle Elaine Thompson
The gallery in Judge Earl McGimpsey's courtroom is here to see a hanging.

In farm-country Norwalk, it doesn't get much better than the sentencing for the "caged-kids couple," Sharen and Michael Gravelle. No, says a man in front with a handlebar mustache, it hasn't been this good since a man stabbed his 11-year-old foster daughter to death a few years ago.

In walks Sharen, her poofy silver ponytail streaked with red and brown. Then Michael -- dark sunglasses and faded jeans. He's carrying The Ashes of Waco, a book about the government raid on David Koresh's compound, in the way others might carry the Bible.

God-fearing hillbillies make good monsters on TV. Even Geraldo's been here. For the last year the Gravelles have been the white-trash poster couple for child abuse, accused of keeping some of their 11 adopted special-needs kids in cages while the family lived on public adoption money. Their children spoke of beatings with a wooden paddle, heads held in toilets, and nights spent sleeping in the bathtub.

Now Huron County Prosecutor Russ Leffler is asking for 12 years apiece for the couple's convictions for child abuse and endangering. He arrived at the request by taking the number of years the children spent confined to cages and multiplying by four.

But the Gravelles won't be the last through the gallows. Leffler also charged the children's therapist, Elaine Thompson, with aiding child abuse.

She's part of a clique of therapists with few or no credentials who claim to have the answer for treating the most severely disturbed kids. She isn't the first such therapist to be accused of brutality. Some have been known to use therapies so rough that one little girl died during treatment.

Judge McGimpsey asks Michael Gravelle if there's anything he'd like to say. Throughout the entire case, the white-bearded man hasn't said a word; today, however, he hasn't got much to lose. He walks up to the podium and begins to talk softly, but is soon flailing his arms and screaming for someone to see the truth.

He talks of counties who dumped their worst kids on him and his wife like garbage, of kids who make Children of the Corn look like a Cub Scout troop, of welfare officials who ignored the Gravelles' pleas for help. He also speaks of one woman -- Elaine Thompson -- who seemed the only one with an answer.

"We felt that we were being led by the Lord," says Gravelle.

A decade ago, after they brought home their first adopted baby girl, a little ball of chocolate pudge from Cuyahoga County, Sharen actually started producing breast milk, as if the infant were her own flesh and blood.

It was indeed a sign from God. And in the eyes of the Lord, no child was undesirable.

Next was a baby girl from Williams County (near Toledo) born with Down syndrome. Then the Gravelles went to Cincinnati to pick up her older half-brother and half-sister. Both were physically abused and born addicted to crack. The brother, five years old, was borderline retarded.

For an adoption system bursting with unwanted kids, the Gravelles were salvation. They'd take anyone.

These days, most white parents looking to adopt are willing to travel the globe before they'll take a black baby, let alone a mentally retarded one. When word of the Gravelles spread in the adoption community, it was open season.

Cuyahoga County gave them another sickly baby, who had contracted AIDS from his mother. Stark County piled on five siblings with severe behavior problems, ranging from sodomizing each other to self-mutilation. Even Chicago had a kid for the Gravelles. Nobody in Illinois wanted her, that's for sure.

But the retired construction worker and Army vet had no idea what he and his wife had signed up for. These kids did not act like children -- they acted like wild animals. Michael Jr. was the leader of the pack. At night he and his siblings would roam the house, peeing and pooping down heat registers, shredding mattresses, and eating the bedding. Michael Jr. once dangled his little brother out of the second-floor window by his shoestrings.

The couple tried everything -- putting an alarm on the bedroom door, sleeping in shifts -- but their kids were completely off the rails. They ate batteries, chewed on their own arms, and destroyed everything they could get their hands on, including each other. Two tried to insert things into the other children's genitals.

The Gravelles pleaded for help from adoption officials, but got little response. At one point Michael and Sharen told a Huron County social worker they were overwhelmed. They wanted to temporarily send the destructive Michael Jr. and his sister back, and delay finalizing the adoptions for the Stark County kids. But the social worker recommended that they keep trudging along -- putting the kids out of the house now would set them back even further, she told the couple.

The system had worked: The kids were no longer the government's problem. To help them ease the burden, the feds and the state provided the family with about $40,000 a year in subsidies. But if the Gravelles were doing it for the money, it was a hell of a way to make a living.

When one of the little girls ripped out hair from the back of her head, Sharen says she brought pictures of her bloody scalp to a state adoption official, begging for answers. All they could offer was a bigger subsidy.

"As if money is a solution," Sharen told Judge McGimpsey. "I have a child here hurting with a bald head, and I don't know what to do."

So the couple started doing their own research. They'd heard about enclosed cribs used in hospitals, but the beds cost a fortune. Mr. Gravelle put his carpentry skills to use, constructing bunk beds out of wood and encircling some with chicken wire. The cages didn't lock, but a shrill alarm was set to trip when the doors opened.

The bedroom looked like a brightly painted chicken coop, replete with rainbows and the children's artwork. But these were people who had built a chapel in their backyard and owned a pot-bellied pig as a pet. Jimmy-rigging didn't mean it had to be pretty. "I've never been too good for homemade," says Mrs. Gravelle.

They had also been working with a private social worker in Elyria named Elaine Thompson, whom they'd found on the internet. Thompson practiced a brand of psychotherapy that she claimed worked for the most deranged and disturbed kids. Yet her therapies were untested, maybe even a bit nutty.

The Gravelles, however, were willing to try anything.

Thompson believed that all the beatings, molestation, and neglect the children faced as babies had caused them to act like unfeeling monsters, incapable of experiencing remorse or guilt. In order to keep them from becoming the next Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy, the bonding they missed in those crucial years had to be redone. They needed to "attach" to their new parents.

At her office in Elyria, Thompson had Sharen hold Michael Jr. and his sister in her lap like infants, looking lovingly into their eyes. The children would try to fight, erupting in uncontrolled rages, but would eventually calm down, melting into Sharen.

Later on, Thompson made house calls to perform "neurotherapy," hooking their heads up with electrodes and having them play a videogame that they controlled with their brain. Sometimes referred to as biofeedback, a legit treatment in some circumstances, the practice is largely untested for use with kids like the Gravelles'. At $110 per billable hour, Thompson's services were unaffordable for the Gravelles, but they were covered by a unique state fund set aside for special-needs adopted kids.

"[Elaine Thompson]'s very, very good," says fellow "attachment" therapist Greg Keck, who practices near North Royalton. "I'd refer to her in a moment."

When Sharen showed her the enclosures they'd built, Thompson approved.

"Your first impression . . . You just kind of recoil," Thompson testified a year ago, after the county took the Gravelles' children away. But, she added, "Safety had to take the priority."

After several years of therapy, the children were finally starting to show signs of improvement. Even Michael Jr. had mellowed out. "He wanted a relationship with his mom," Thompson said.

But word eventually leaked about the cages. In September 2005, sheriff's deputies showed up at the Gravelle home and hauled the kids away to foster homes. The couple was charged with child abuse. Elaine Thompson found herself under fire too. She recently pleaded guilty to failing to report a crime and could face several months behind bars.

Thompson declined interviews for this story. The media has already had a field day with her seemingly quackish therapies. But she's not as weird-science as you might think. Adoptive families from across Ohio have hired her and other so-called "attachment therapists" when traditional medicine says their kids are too far gone to be brought back.

But, as the Gravelle case and others have shown, there's a fine line between treatment and torture.

The grainy video is hard to watch. The little boy fights with every cell in his body to get free. His face is awash in tears. He howls like an animal caught in a trap, so loud it vibrates the television.

But his mother is stronger. She lays her busty chest on top of him and locks her arms in a cinch around his neck. "Look at me!" commands Mom, shouting inches from the panicked child's face. "You're not going to destroy us!"

Holding therapy is "like a wrestling match," a prudish blonde explains on the tape. This is Martha Welch, a pioneer of the treatment and creator of the 1997 educational film Introduction to Holding Time. The film was shot at Beech Brook, a treatment center and home for emotionally wounded children on 75 wooded acres in Pepper Pike.

What you saw on the tape were the old ways, says Guy Bauman, the lead attachment therapist at Beech Brook. Bauman, a licensed independent social worker, looks more like a physics professor, the way his glasses furrow into his wolfy gray hair.

Therapists don't fight kids anymore, he promises. That's old medicine, kind of like amputating limbs with whiskey anesthetic. The thinking back then among some therapists was that if you riled the kid up enough, to the point of instilling primal rage in him, he would become like a baby again, need his mother, and "attach."

"Martha Welch's ideas at one time were thought to be cutting-edge," says Bauman. "I can't work that way . . . It didn't sit well."

Now, says Bauman, kids are played with, cuddled, and encouraged to talk about memories of abuse.

Bauman started doing the therapies at Beech Brook in the '90s, under a series of federal grants. The first order of business was to find the best science for kids with attachment disorder. One of the creators of the field was a psychiatrist named Foster Cline, who had pioneered the therapy at a compound cradled in the mountains in the nowhere town of Evergreen, Colorado. Due to an incident in 2000, Evergreen has since become synonymous with evil.

To friends and neighbors, 10-year-old Candace Newmaker was a sweet and shy little girl with brown bangs and freckles. But at home with her adoptive mother Jeane in North Carolina, she didn't act human. Years of abuse and neglect had settled like a frost on her. To control her violent outbursts, doctors pumped the little girl full of antipsychotic drugs.

Jeane brought Candace to Evergreen for a "rebirthing" session. It was led by one of Cline's protégés, Connell Watkins. Watkins, another "therapist," and their two assistants -- none of them licensed to practice -- were going to give Candace a clean slate on life, beginning in utero. They videotaped the last hour of the therapy as a training demo.

Now it's a snuff film.

Candace is put in a fetal position and rolled up in a heavy flannel blanket to simulate the womb. With Jeane just inches away, four therapists climb on top of her daughter like a pile-up in football, smothering her with all their weight. Candace pleads for air. "I'm dying," she cries, muffled. "You want to die?" shout the therapists. "Okay, then die."

After about 20 minutes, Candace loses control of her body, vomiting inside the sack, screaming blood-curdling shrieks. "Baby, do you want to be reborn?" asks her mother.

"No," whimpers her daughter after 40 minutes.

And then silence. When they unwrap the blanket, Candace is blue. The next day, she's pronounced brain-dead.

Watkins and her partner were each sentenced to 16 years in prison and held up as cultish therapists who, in trying to rid children of their demons, had become demons themselves.

Other cases haven't improved the field's reputation. In Utah, a mother killed her four-year-old adopted daughter by forcing her to drink a gallon of water, claiming she'd done so on advice from therapists. The woman was sent to prison for murder. Another man in Utah smothered his three-year-old adopted daughter when he tried to use holding therapy at home.

Attachment disorder is "probably one of the biggest catch-all garbage diagnoses out there," says Ron Federici, a neuropsychologist in Virginia. Most abused and adopted kids come with a whole buffet of disorders, from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to mental retardation. Kids who truly have attachment disorder are rare, and no therapy has been shown to help, he says.

"There's no such thing as attachment therapy. There's no board certification, there's no training, there's no theories, no licensure. That's just a name that people give themselves."

Guy Bauman admits he has little research to go on. But science moves slowly, and he's got kids who aren't getting better: On a Beech Brook wall is a crayon-scrawled drawing of a stick figure with blood spraying like a geyser from its head; a little boy at the special-needs school has been wandering in circles for two days. Unfortunately, drug companies aren't much interested in funding research for something they can't solve with a billion-dollar pill.

"I got kids down here that are going off," says Bauman. "People have to work in this vacuum."

Filesha Brickman doesn't have any warm, fuzzy memories from the crib. Instead, the shy 16-year-old with sugar-blond hair remembers stale cigarette smoke, the puke-green color of her mom's house on Cleveland's near West Side, and the wincing pain of being pulled from her bed by her hair.

At age three and a half, Filesha spent most of her time alone with her 11-month-old brother, while their 20-year-old mom was out floozying and partying. At night, Filesha would hold Greg as he cried. "I'd try to comfort him by sitting with him," she says, blue eyes drifting down to the solid wood of her new family's kitchen table. "I'd try to pick him up, but I couldn't."

Things were better on the rare occasions the kids were at their father's house. But he worked nights and wasn't up to the challenge. One day he walked Filesha and Greg into Children and Family Services and handed them over. That night the siblings were standing in a driveway in Euclid, looking at their new parents.

Jenny and Phil Brickman, whose family started Brickman Funeral Home, were just as jolted. They hadn't even been mailed their foster home license yet and had to read the kids' papers just to find out their names. "We're trying to pronounce her name," says Phil. "Is this an 'I'? Is it an 'E'?"

The honeymoon was over as soon as Filesha walked in the door. "Within the first hour of her being in the house, I think everything she touched she broke or she ripped or she threw or she destroyed," says Phil. The little girl had the hard look of a man coming out of prison. She recoiled from her parents' hugs.

When Christmas came, her toys sat unwrapped for months. Instead, Filesha liked to play with matches, burning pieces of paper and hiding them in a drawer. As time went on, her uncontrolled rage became a focused hatred toward Jenny and Phil, whom she looked upon as her kidnappers. Once she even threatened to murder her parents, describing in gruesome detail how she would do it.

Greg was a little lunatic too. At only three years old, he was able to flip over the kitchen table and pull the mattress off his bed. One day on a family trip to the beach, he pushed an elderly man to the ground.

Jenny had experience as an elementary school teacher, but these kids were like none she'd ever seen. So when she heard about the cutting-edge therapies being done at Beech Brook, she got the first appointment she could.

In 1997, she was introduced to a therapist named Mershona Parshall, later Elaine Thompson's partner in private practice. Parshall gave Jenny some educational material. She told her to check out the 1992 Lifetime movie Child of Rage, about a cute little girl who tries to stab her adoptive parents to death in their sleep. They take her to the institute at Evergreen and hold her down like Linda Blair, until she turns back into a normal little girl who loves them.

The second tool was a workbook called When Love Is Not Enough, by a Colorado woman named Nancy Thomas. She's considered by many to be an expert in treating attachment-disordered kids, though she possesses not a single credential. An adoptive parent herself, Thomas "parents with power, love, and pizzazz!" says her book.

The Brickmans followed Thomas' step-by-step advice. "Put out the fire of their rage with the waves of love!" Thomas commands.

Jenny and Phil would give Filesha a caramel to suck on. While it dissolved in her mouth, they would squeeze and hug her. Then there was "power sitting," in which Filesha and Greg were made to sit Indian-style in front of a blank wall for 15 minutes twice a day. "There are a number of religions that use this position to facilitate inner peace," writes Thomas.

There were also dog commands. "We would just practice 'come,' 'go,' 'stay,' 'sit,'" says Jenny.

The couple admits that to the casual observer, all this might have looked strange. But they also claim it was the only thing that seemed to have any effect on their children.

When Filesha was five, the Brickmans started coming to Parshall's office for the sessions. She would lie across her parents' laps on the couch. Phil held her feet. Jenny held her arms and her head, forcing Filesha to look her in the eye. Then Parshall would egg the little girl on by confronting her about her behavior at home. It wouldn't take long for the monster to emerge.

Although she was only five, Filesha had full command of her four-letter words. She would kick, bite, scream, and cuss, often for a full hour before she'd wear herself out. "It was uncomfortable the first time," admits Jenny.

But they continued seeing Parshall for almost four years. As time went by, says Jenny, Filesha's bursts of rage became shorter. The sessions would end happily, with mother and daughter cuddling, smiling, bonding. "She was happy. We were happy," says Jenny. "There was always a resolution."

The Brickmans say the therapy gave their daughter feelings. During an interview with Scene, she plays lovingly with the family puppy, smiles, and giggles -- the vital signs of being human that once seemed so foreign to her. But her mother still worries. Filesha seems uninterested in her friends and prefers to spend time alone, thinking.

"She doesn't fit the typical mold of a teenager," says Jenny. "In high school I was always with my friends, and I worked and I was in band and I had phone calls."

A year ago on Christmas Eve, Filesha and her family were watching the TV news when they saw her birth father, being followed by a camera as he did some last-minute shopping at the mall. He was at the Disney Store, looking for a gift for a child -- maybe his new one. Some wounds can't be cured with hugs, no matter how tight you squeeze.

The anxious crowd at the Huron County Courthouse waits for the trapdoor to fall beneath the Gravelles' feet. Reporters take the safeties off their pens. "It's a little different than your typical 'Willy shoots Billy,'" says one daily writer.

Judge Earl McGimpsey had watched stone-faced as the couple made their impassioned pleas for mercy. There has to be some punishment, he tells them, in the soft, measured voice a doctor might use to deliver hard news.

But the Gravelles aren't the only ones who should be ashamed today, he says. Drug-addicted birth mothers and county child mills created monstrously troubled children and dumped them on the Gravelles' doorstep. "For those who take pleasure in finding blame in others," McGimpsey says, "there's blame enough to go around."

Then he reads the sentence: two years in prison for each. The Gravelles will remain free during appeal.

For Sharen Gravelle's lawyer, Ken Myers, the sentence is still too much. "There's this sort of snobbery out there about how you raise children," he says. "A lot of the mainstream methods don't work in these types of situations."

The Gravelles emerge from the courtroom and stare speechless down the old, banistered staircase at the blinding TV lights. There's no other way out. "Let's just go through 'em," says Sharen.

A dozen voices sputter the same question at once, prodding them with boom mics and wide-angle lenses. One woman, who appears to be mentally ill, follows them into the parking lot, hissing, "Worthless scum, you're cowards, you're child abusers."

In all the commotion, a little boy sneaks away unseen. He's tall and frail with a head of thick, black peach fuzz, and his eyes droop to the floor like a wounded animal's.

Michael Jr. is 15 years old now and about a foot taller than he was when he was living with the Gravelles. Beside him is a stocky blonde, his new foster mother.

It's now her turn to pick up the pieces.

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