Child-abuse victims' lives were 'a horror story'

9 youths in state custody; parents to serve 20 years

Statesman Journal, Oregon/January 11, 2009

On the surface, the household was a bit unusual - two adults and nine children crammed into a 1,500-square-foot, 30-year-old three-bedroom home in rural Turner. Inside the home, Robyn and Graydon Drown led a family life few knew of or even could conceive. Graydon Drown, 49, and Robyn Drown, 42, will spend at least 20 years in prison for abusing and neglecting nine of their children. Seven children testified during a five-day trial that they were beaten regularly, beginning when they were very young. As each child grew, so did the weapon of beating - starting with spoons or paddles and increasing in severity. The children never went to school or saw a doctor or a dentist, aside from when the boys were taken to a doctor to be circumcised after they were born. Their father, professing to be Jewish, took the family to attend Temple Beth Sholom in South Salem, where the children experienced their interaction with the outside world. Two of the older sons disclosed the abuse to Salem Rabbi Avrohom Perlstein, who notified authorities, as well as a leader at the temple, Les Gutfreund. "Something was off," Perlstein said during his testimony. He said he'd often ask his wife after spending time with the family if she noticed anything amiss, because "they seemed so normal." In June, the injuries observed on the children were described in a report by Marion County Sheriff's Detective Martin Bennett: "below the ear, red in color and swollen, about the size of a person's hand." 'Something out of a horror story'

The list of weapons used to beat the children was repeated continually during trial: 2-by-4 boards, metal pipes, plastic pipes, plastic spoons and whips. A heavy, three-foot-long metal pipe and a fiberglass segment of a tent pole - long, thin and with a knotted elastic cord dangling from one end - was shown to the jury as evidence.

Sometimes, the children said, the beatings would revolve around the moods of their parents.

In her opening statement to the jury, Marion County prosecutor Sarah Morris described the children's home life as "something out of a horror story."

For a time, the family lived in a converted attic space of a rural home in Mill City. At one point, the family camped out in the Santiam Canyon for a winter, living in an SUV and tents.

One of the sons' vision was badly damaged because his nearsightedness was left uncorrected - his father maintained that God would cure his eyesight and refused to allow the son to wear glasses, the boy testified.

Illnesses seemed to be treated by home remedies: one child suffered from multiple strep throat infections and was forced to drink hot pepper sauce. A foster parent wrote to the judge that the child will require surgery because the infections developed into a chronic illness.

When the children first were sent to foster care, most of them needed dental work; some needed teeth re-capped or root canals.

Robyn Drown said she would care for her children's toothaches with home remedies such as a water or cold compresses. Robyn Drown said she home-schooled the children, but had to stop teaching about a year ago when her husband lost his driver's license and she had to drive him to work sites.

A foster parent said in court that some of the children did not seem to know the days of the week, calendar months or how to tell time. The children also did not seem to recognize the difference between a Torah and a Bible, despite the father's professed Judaism.

Parents' past

Robyn and Graydon Drown were raised in Alaska, about 100 miles apart. Both of their families attended the Worldwide Church of God, a fundamentalist sect dictated by oversight from church elders and stringent moral codes.

When Graydon Drown moved to Anchorage, Alaska, as a young man, it was closer to Robyn Drown's family, and they began dating.

Later, while he was studying at Ambassador College, the church's college in Texas, Graydon Drown wrote a letter to Robyn and told her that God ordained her to be his wife, just as Rebecca became Isaac's wife in the Bible.

Robyn Drown's parents, Roger and Sandra Lewis, described to the jury how their daughter increasingly was under the control of her husband. The Lewises spoke of times when Robyn left Graydon to seek shelter with them, but eventually returned.

In 1990, the Drowns' three oldest children, who were 4 years, 21 months and 7 months old at the time, were removed from their parents' care amid allegations of abuse.

The oldest daughter recently described being spanked numerous times for the infraction of holding her aunt's hand without permission during a walk, court records show.

According to a 1991 California appellate case that was filed on behalf of child-welfare officials, a psychiatric evaluation of Graydon Drown was done at that time. The report described Graydon Drown as adamant that he would continue to discipline his children in accordance with a religious treatise, which called for punishment immediately upon disobedience to the point of pain, but not bruising.

"The doctor found the prognosis grim, with the potential for abuse and cruelty to the children," the report said.

Those three children, now adults, were raised by Graydon Drown's parents. Graydon and Robyn Drown then moved to Alaska, where Robyn gave birth to several more children.

Nadia Drown, one of the adult children, spoke in court by phone and described her grandparents as loving surrogate parents. Nadia also said that what little she knew about her father was from his mother: that Graydon Drown suffered "an accident" when he was 19 years old and became "two-faced," a different person.

Morris said Graydon Drown's father died this year, the same time the Drowns' youngest child was born.

Robyn Drown's testimony had little to do with why she punished her children, but instead attempted to lay out the argument that she was a battered woman dominated by her husband, including relating a story about a pet goat Graydon Drown killed while living in Alaska.

Robyn Drown said Graydon Drown often would hold the goat up by its leash and collar, choking the animal into submission until it one day died. Robyn Drown said that her husband didn't believe the goat was dead, and claimed God could bring the animal back to life - the family was forced to drag the goat inside by the stove and rub its body in a sort of reincarnation ritual.

Robyn Drown said she was forced to do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on the goat, until Graydon Drown finally was convinced it could not be revived.

Even seemingly normal family activities at the Drown household had odd twists.

Despite the parents' apparent strict upbringing, one young child told a foster parent about watching several R-rated movies with his parents, including "The Matrix" and the 1989 movie "Next of Kin," in which a Chicago cop sets out to find his brother's killer. The boy said all of the children would watch the movies with their father while their mother made popcorn.

The children described how Graydon Drown would preach his doctrine, telling them that he was the Messiah.

Agnes Opgenorth, now caring for some of the Drown children, wrote in a letter to the judge about the shifting blame - how Robyn blamed Graydon, and Graydon blamed God.

"And yes, Graydon, I said you blamed God because I am completely sure that God has never had a hand in any of your deeds," Opgenorth wrote. "If, as you claim, you hear a voice, I can promise you that it's not the voice of God because you are not a man of God ... If God ever even noticed your lowly existence at all, it could only have been a passing glance, while intervening to save your suffering children."

Perlstein, who runs Chabad of Salem, said that it wasn't until after the Drowns' arrest that Perlstein learned Graydon Drown lied about being Jewish. During the trial, Graydon Drown wore a yarmulke, but was not wearing it when he was sentenced on Wednesday.

Les Gutfreund testified how he employed Graydon Drown on a few carpentry jobs with his contracting business and was able to closely observe the family. He noticed bruises and red welts on some of the children, who always explained they were from horseplay or accidents. Later, he discussed his concerns with Rabbi Perlstein.

Perlstein described in court the emphasis on secrecy and the expediency of reporting the abuse to authorities without Graydon Drown knowing.

"From what we've learned from the kids, and me, personally, there was no doubt that if Graydon knew, he'd pick up the house and go." This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or (503) 589-6941

Additional Facts
What's next for the Drown children

The future of nine children of Robyn and Graydon Drown is a bit uncertain, but one thing is clear - they never will return to their parents' care.

Marion County Circuit Judge Thomas Hart ruled Thursday that the children will remain in protective care. Child-welfare officials will create for them permanent living plans.

"It's not going to be a 'return-to-parent' where we are," Hart said.

The nine children were removed from their parents' custody when Robyn and Graydon Drown were arrested June 19 on child-abuse and neglect charges. The two were found guilty by a jury after a five-day trial in December, and sentenced Wednesday to at least 20 years in prison. Robyn Drown, 42, will spend 20 years in prison, and Graydon Drown, 49, will spend 29 years in prison.

The court will revisit the children's custody case in April. The children were placed in six separate foster homes, said Gene vans, a spokesman for Oregon Department of Human Services.

Robyn Drown also filed for a divorce, which is pending. Graydon Drown indicated on Thursday that he intended to contest the divorce case.

On Thursday, Hart also ordered the two youngest - an infant and a toddler - to be vaccinated. Until the trial, the two small children were not vaccinated because of Graydon Drown's objection. The school-age children were vaccinated under a court order by Hart in July.

Hart said the older children might not be suited for adoption, but could be considered for permanent foster care or independent-living plans.

Robyn Drown's sister Heather Larson expressed interest in supporting the children, said Cheryl Richardson, a Salem attorney representing Larson.

Larson lives in Alaska, but wishes to be considered by the child-welfare agency.

Marion County prosecutor Sarah Morris said in court that the agency would object to Larson's care.

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