Who to blame for a tragic loss of a child’s life?
Dangerous parenting skills, misguided disciplining practices or breakdown in the adoption process?
By Dr Solomon Alemu Feyissa
After China, most children adopted into the United States from abroad now come from Ethiopia, according to the US State Department. Adoption from Ethiopian by US parents grew from a little more than 100 in 2002 to more than 1,500 in 2012. In general, adoptions go very well however the case of Hana Alemu ( a.k.a Hana Grace-Rose Williams) is an extreme example of adoption going very bad and resulting in the death of the adoptee.
Carri and Larry Williams, a Washington state couple who already have seven biological children of their own, adopted and brought Hana and a younger boy, Immanuel, who is deaf, to the United States from Ethiopia in 2008. The children arrived in the U.S. healthy and full of hope. Three years later, Carri (the mother) called 911 on a very cold spring night to report that “rebellious” Hana had “unintentionally killed herself” in the family’s backyard.
What went wrong?
Most people agree that the adoptive parents had a very harsh way of disciplining their children and dangerous parenting skills. It’s also well documented by the testimony of their own children that the parents abused their children regularly. When police investigators searched William’s residence for evidence they found a controversial child-rearing book (To Train Up a child, by Michael and Debi Pearl).
Since the book’s original publication in 1994, a number of child abuse cases have cited the Pearls’ evangelical guidebook as the source of the offending parents’ behavior, but formal action has never been taken against the authors. A tragically common theme among the stories is the use of a quarter-inch thick length of plumbing pipe used to hit badly behaving kids; the Pearls (authors) call it the “Rod of Reproof,” citing a passage from the biblical book Proverbs as justification.
The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame. (Proverbs 29:15; KJB)
According to this book parents are also encouraged to punish picky eaters with either “fasting” or force-feeding. ‘’A little fasting is good training.’’ ’’ If you get a child who is particularly finicky and only eats a limited diet, then feed him mainly what he doesn’t like until he likes it.’’ The Pearls (the writers of the book) do recommend treating a child who is slow to potty train with a spray of the garden hose, even in cold weather.
Whether the Williams’ parenting skills, behavior and practices were influenced by this book or not it could be debatable however their child rearing practices were described in detail by their own children and well documented by different media outlets both local and national.
In court proceedings Immanuel (the deaf adopted brother of Hana) has told the court with sign language that he and Hana were beaten, made to eat outside or deprived of food altogether. Hana was made to sleep in a closet, bath outside with a garden hose and relieve herself in a portable toilet instead of the family bathroom. Five of the Williams’ biological children have also testified, describing details of the punishments their adopted siblings received.
It’s also reported that the adopted children survived on small amounts of frozen food or wet sandwiches — a diet that left Hana so emaciated, authorities believe malnutrition hastened her death. When hunger compelled Hana to “steal” food from the family kitchen, Carri Williams punished her further. Homeschooling kept the children isolated from outsiders who might have noticed their decline.
The list of horrors continued; the Williams forced Hana to sleep locked in a dark closet or outside in a barn. She was made to use an outdoor toilet and shower with a garden hose. When Hana “refused” to wash the shampoo out of her hair, Carri Williams shaved the girl’s head. Photos of an emaciated and bald Hana — who’d arrived in the U.S. healthy and so full of hope — echoed the deplorable images of inmates in a concentration camp.
The evening of May 12, 2011, was rainy and very cold when Carri Williams (the mother) called 911 and told dispatchers that Hana was unconscious and face down in the mud after refusing to come indoors. To the contrary the biological children have testified Hana was in the cold for hours as punishment, and that their mother had told Hana to do jumping-jacks to stay warm. When Hana stopped, her brothers were instructed to hit her legs with a plastic switch, according to court testimony.
Investigators discovered that Carri William forced the girsl out in to the rain as punishment for perceived disobedience. It was very cold outside (temperatures around 40 degrees Fahrenheit) and was raining the whole day. Hypothermia-induced confusion drove Hana to shed her clothes in the cold. She lost consciousness soon after, and died alone, naked and face down in mud. By the time first responders reached the scene, her body had been wrapped in a sheet and dragged inside by her adoptive teenage brothers. Witnesses said no one in the Williams family shed any tears that night .An autopsy showed that Hana, 5 feet tall and weighing 78 pounds, was covered in scratches and bruises and that her hypothermia was hastened by malnutrition and a stomach ailment.
Action by law enforcement and child protective and social services
Here are some steps taken to bring the perpetrators of this heinous act to justice and protect the livelihoods of the other children including Immanuel.
Child protective and social services removed Immanuel from the family home, along with the Williams’ biological children. The children are currently in temporary foster homes.
Local County prosecutors eventually charged Carri and Larry Williams with homicide by abuse of Hana, and with first-degree assault of Immanuel, Their bail was set at $150,000 for each.
Larry and Carri Williams were on trial in Skagit County Superior Court, charged with homicide by abuse, manslaughter and child assault for allegedly abusing Immanuel and their adoptive daughter, Hana, and causing her death.
Justice and closure
Finally the jury convicted the parents in September 2013. Larry and Carri Williams were found guilty on all counts and sentenced to 28 and 37 years in prison respectively.
Even if none of these actions would bring back the young life of Hana, conviction of the parents on all counts should bring justice to Hana’s wrongful death and closure to her family and friends and the community at large.
Way forward/ Lessons learnt
The case has highlighted the gaps in oversight and drawn attention to the challenges of adoption. Many argue that the biggest need is better oversight, whether by the state or a private agency. The state has laws to protect adopted children, but its authority is limited in private adoptions, such as that of Hana and Immanuel. Another problem is that there is no way to track the rates of abuse and neglect in adopted families.
It’s also reported that responsibility for the problems is diffuse, with shortcomings at every step in the adoption process — assessing a family, identifying red flags and following up.
Studies showed that in many cases discipline practices get way out of hand, and result in common pattern of physical and emotional abuse, including isolating and depriving children of food. Some parents’ parenting skills and discipline practices are influenced by misguided literature and religious believes as might have been the case in Hana’s death which underscore the need for further training of prospective adopters’ to prepare them for adoption.
U.S. adoption agencies accredited under an international treaty known as The Hague Convention require parents to undergo at least 10 hours of pre-adoption training that can be completed online. However many argue that this training is very inadequate to prepare parents and suggest a more rigorous and thorough training.
I would like to take this opportunity to express my heart felt sadness for the untimely death of Hanna and loss of her young life in this tragic way. My heart goes out to her family and friends. I also believe that justice was served by the conviction of the adoptive parents for her wrongful death it should also bring some closure. Her story is probable very well reported in Seattle metropolitan area by local media. Many Ethiopians living in the area are very well aware of the tragic story and some have even attended court proceedings. Lately the story is also getting national attention and coverage as the couple was recently convicted by the jury. The writer believes that the story should be publicized to a larger audience to address the flaws of adoption practices and behaviors and learn some lessons to avoid another tragedy in the future. The writer also encourages others to join the conversation and contribute to the discourse.
Solomon A. Feyissa, M.D. is a practicing Internist/Hospitalist in DC metro/Baltimore area.