The allegations of child sexual abuse against 71-year-old Wasilla woman Shawn O'Shea-Grantham and 40-year-old Mailiea O'Shea-Grantham are unusual in that they involve women as the abusers, and a mother-daughter duo as the accused. But the family dynamic gets even stranger when seen through the eyes of Sky Johnson, an adult daughter of Shawn's who is no longer keeping secret the family secrets. According to Johnson, the abuse inside the home was more than sexual, and included a philosophy of family structure called "surrogate parenting."
On Monday, the O'Shea-Granthams denied the sex abuse charges, pleading not guilty before a Palmer judge.
Johnson has described the family under Shawn's rule as cult-like. Part of the conditioning she says she and her siblings endured was indoctrination into believing that they needed to get pregnant and give the babies to Shawn. The result? A family that in the eyes of the law was comprised of a mother and children, but which actually included four generations of family members: a great-grandmother, Shawn, and the "children" she raised as her own through legal adoption, but who were really her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Love for and concern about the welfare of her own grade-school-aged daughter, along with other children Shawn might potentially come into contact with, motivated Johnson to come forward. Once she realized as an adult that her own childhood had been rife with abuse, she feared it would continue to happen, this time with her own daughter potentially at risk.
"I had been asked since I was five or six to have a child for Shawn and she arranged for me to have one as a minor," Johnson explained in an interview. "That child was adopted to her."
It's not the first time it happened. Johnson and her siblings were adopted to Shawn in the same way after they were born to an older child of Shawn's, Johnson said.
Johnson said she and her siblings were taught that the greatest gift of love the daughters could give to Shawn was a baby. They were often told, "if we were lucky we could grow up and become a surrogate parent for Shawn," Johnson said. "I lived with my earliest memories in the world that that was what you were supposed to do and that that was a wonderful thing. To me it was normal."
Johnson also said she and other siblings were told Shawn would die of depression if they didn't give her something to live for. This wonderful gift of life, though, came with lies and deception. You had to tell doctors you'd been raped, and tell the court you had no idea who the father was.
Court records confirm Johnson had a child that she later adopted to Shawn O'Shea-Grantham, and that the child is currently in foster care while the state conducts an investigation into whether she is safe under Shawn's care. There is also an ongoing custody dispute between Johnson and Shawn. In the course of that dispute, both sides have accused the other of not properly caring for the child.
In her complaint for custody, Johnson alleges her daughter was sexually abused by Shawn O'Shea-Grantham. In response to the complaint, O'Shea-Grantham denied this, and noted that the Office of Children's Services did investigate a report of harm alleging sexual abuse, but "dismissed the allegation as unfounded."
Johnson says that's true for an investigation that occurred a few years ago. For reasons Johnson doesn't understand, she says OCS never interviewed her or her younger brother about what their home life was like growing up. Had they, the outcome might have been different. Now, several years later, it's clear OCS is once again involved, and this time concerned enough to have removed the child from the home.
Whatever may or may not be occurring with Johnson's biological child, it is the abuse of Shawn O'Shea-Grantham's now-grown children -- Johnson and another victim identified only as "L.O." -- for which Shawn and a child she raised as her own daughter, Mailiea O'Shea-Grantham, have been arrested and hauled into court.
The strange and abusive goings-on took place in well-habited Wasilla neighborhoods, according to Johnson: Settlers Bay Condos, Victoria Estates, Yenlo. The children were coached by Shawn to tell neighbors how "happy our family is." The family lived off of public assistance programs, but was told to say their mom, Shawn, was a retired doctor or politician, or even a retired "biopsychosociologist" -- a made-up term -- and that the family was independently wealthy. They were to say that they were Shawn's "natural kids" and their fathers had all died, either in plane or car crashes. Shawn asked that they refer to her as a "black widow," to further enhance the illusion, Johnson said.
Coming forward has been a five-year quest for Johnson, who wants her daughter to live a protected life out of public view while the court proceedings press on. But she's come to realize that may not be possible.
"I want to protect her even though I am sharing our story. I love her. I just want to protect her and telling the truth is also protecting her," Johnson said.
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com