Sorrow, Tears & Questions: The trial of Hana Williams’ adoptive parents

It’s been over 15 months since my last post, Rest in Peace, Hana Williams, written on the 1st anniversary of the death of Hana. I’m resuming my blogging now with a post after my visit last week to the Skagit County courtroom, where her adoptive parents are being tried.

1. Background

Hana Grace-Rose Williams, born in Ethiopia, was adopted into a Sedro-Woolley home in Aug. 2008, along with a younger boy, Immanuel, also born in Ethiopia.  Their adoptive parents Carri and Larry Williams had seven (biological) children when they decided on adopting Hana and Immanuel.

On May 12th, 2011 (over 27 months ago), 13-year-old Hana was found dead in her yard, with the coroner concluding she died of hypothermia in the approx. 40 degree rainy weather. At the time of her death, sources said she had significant weight-loss.  Investigations by law enforcement agencies and DSHS indicate that Hana was starved and abused over a period of time. Larry and Carri Williams have been accused of, and are being tried on a variety of charges, including homicide by abuse and first-degree manslaughter in connection with Hana’s death, and assault of a child in the first degree in connection with the treatment meted out to Immanuel. They have pleaded not guilty to these charges.

The 15 days of the trial thus far have brought up truly sad details of ways in which Hana and Immanuel were mistreated.

Here are some excerpts from Gina Cole’s report in from the prosecution’s opening statement:

“… [Prosecutor Rosemary] Kaholokula said Larry and Carri Williams abused and tortured the children “in the guise of discipline or punishment.”

She said the adopted children were hosed down, forced to sleep in the barn or a closet or shower room, hit with various implements, excluded from family events and holidays, and not allowed to communicate with their siblings.

The adopted children were sometimes given cold leftovers and frozen vegetables outside away from the family, and sometimes not allowed to eat at all, Kaholokula said.

… Hana was, for about a year, instructed to use a Honey Bucket outside instead of the family bathroom. Her hair, which she loved, was “virtually shaved off” once as a punishment, Kaholokula said.

… The transgressions that brought these punishments included poor handwriting, not making the bed a certain way, leaving clothes on the floor or sneaking sweets, Kaholokula said.

The night Hana died, she had been outside for several hours and it had started to drizzle. At one point, Hana removed some of her clothes — a common sign of hypothermia — and collapsed. Her parents and paramedics could not resuscitate her, and she was pronounced dead at the hospital about an hour and a half after being found. …”

It breaks my heart to think of Hana — this child – hungry, cold and seemingly without anyone to care for her – suffering so much. How and why did we as a society fail her?

This trial is about Hana, Immanuel and the charges against the Williams couple. We want due process and justice, and appropriate action based on what the jury decides. But dealing with this one case is not enough. Hana’s death should spur us into action to ensure that what happened to Hana and Immanuel does not happen to any other child.

In the rest of this post, I list some issues raised by this case and suggest some ways to avoid such tragedies.

2. Issues raised by this case

Here are some questions that bother K and me, and our friends. Answers to these questions may lead to actions that could help other adoptees, and in general, other children in similar situations. I have discussed some of these in an earlier post.  I’ve revised this list based on what I’ve learnt in the last few weeks.

  • Why did the Williams couple, who already had 7 children, and were pressed for money, decide to adopt 2 more, especially children with special needs? The altruistic urge was good, but further events suggest they were not prepared to handle these adopted children. Was there an external factor encouraging them to go adopt?
  • Specifically, the adoptive parents do not seem to have been able to handle Hana’s health conditions (including hepatitis) or Immanuel’s speech and hearing issues. They seem to have avoided getting medical attention for Hana for her stomach infections and for Immanuel’s bed-wetting.  They also seem to have abruptly decided against using sign language with Immanuel, punishing him instead for resultant communication issues. Is there no program to help adoptive parents with advice on medical issues that are common in adoptees? Doesn’t the adoption agency that facilitated the adoption have some responsibility to ensure such education, and to ensure that the children are cared for and their medical needs met?
  • How did the parents pass home inspection by the adoption agency? Did the adoption agency know about their child rearing methods, and if so, how did that pass inspection? Did Ethiopia know what level of corporal punishment this family engaged in? If the parents lied about how they raised children, how did they reconcile with their beliefs?
  • Why doesn’t Skagit Country require home-schooled children to be routinely tested and be seen?
  • Did the adoptive parents (who are alleged to have acted with such heartlessness, for so many months) not have anywhere to go for help? Was there no one to help them in dealing with these children? Why did they not ask for help even from their church community? Why, when it was clear their methods were not working, when there was such a pronounced downward spiral, did they continue on the same path?
  • How can we, as a society, protect free speech yet limit the impact of books like “To Train Up a Child”, which advocate what I would consider abusive child-rearing methods?

3. Avoiding such tragedies: Some suggestions

As I said in an earlier post, our adoption agencies and CPS should be extra vigilant about potential adoptive parents who may have noble intentions but neither the finances nor the moral compass to properly bring up children. We know agencies are busy, and there are very many children waiting for adoption. But parenting is not easy, and adoptive parenting can be even harder, especially when adopting older children. Providing help proactively will help make adoption a more positive experience for all parties. In this spirit, here are some suggestions.

We should mandate and make arrangements for the following:

  1. More extensive and stringent checks on the background, financial ability, and child-rearing practices of adoptive parents.
  2. Regular checks by social workers/adoption agencies on adopted children for one or two years after adoption to ensure that their adoptive parents treat these children properly. These checks should be fairly frequent soon after adoption, and may taper off later.
  3. Requirements on adoption agencies to make sure that adopted children are never isolated (like Hana and Immanuel were), e.g. by home schooling.
  4. Regular, mandatory, health checks by a doctor frequently for say two years after the adoption, and at least once a year later, say till adoptees are 18 years old.
  5. Resources for adoptive parents and their other children to help them cope with issues arising from adoption (that may be new to them), such as issues related to culture, race or health. This could include establishing “mentoring” relations for more experienced adoptive parents who could “hand-hold” parents new to adoption. Adoptive parents, especially if under stress, should be able to get the help that may avert these kinds of tragedies.
  6. Ability for adoptive parents to give up. In general, this is not desirable. But it is better for parents who cannot cope to acknowledge that and work with agencies to find another home for their adopted children, rather than create or foster miserable, possible deadly, conditions for all concerned. There could be proactive variants of this: e.g. we could create paths for adoptive parents to be able to foster children first, a kind of a trial, so they can see if that works for all parties.
  7. A way for adoptive children to hit the panic button, to cry for help, if necessary. This has to be a mechanism that is easily accessible to adoptive children. If there is no simple mechanism that the child can access by herself or himself, then a mechanism must be created so that external 3rd party visitors with authority are able to meet with adopted children regularly, to ensure their continued well-being.

Perhaps some of these steps are already mandated – if so, they should be enforced. None of these ideas work unless they are back by legal “teeth” – any violation must have consequences. It is also true that many of these ideas could be of use in the rearing of biological children as well.

Going beyond what needs to be mandated, every one of us should be cognizant of our responsibilities — as a parent, neighbor, or a friend — to protect the children around us. If we suspect or see something that looks like child abuse, we need to speak up – it is better to be mistaken than have children suffer because of inaction.  We need to put the welfare of children above protecting relatives, friends or a church or temple. 

Further reading

For background about Hana: There is a Facebook page about Hana with a number of contributors.

From this blog: See my first post on this subject Why and how did 13-yr old Ethiopian adoptee Hana Williams die? A vigil and questions about Hana. Also see my posts on harsh [child] “training” methods advocated by some and on some instances of child abuse, and the notion of “child-collectors”, both of which seem relevant to Hana’s case. A report about Hana’s parents being charged is at Adoptive parents Carri and Larry Williams charged with Hana Williams’ death .

For details about the trial: There are a number of news stories, blog postings etc. about the trials and the issues surrounding this case, including the following: Reporter Gina Cole from the Skagit Valley Herald has a number of articles on the case and the on-going trial. She also tweets about it from the courthouse. Kiro-TV has continuing coverage of the case and the trial.  Maureen McCauley Evans has a number of detailed reports and discussions on the different days of the trial and related issues.



About Chandra

Interested in people, language, ideas, technology and their interactions.
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2 Responses to Sorrow, Tears & Questions: The trial of Hana Williams’ adoptive parents

  1. monk-monk says:

    I think the religious undertones of such adoptions should be questioned, too. Adopting as an evangelism tool should be carefully examined, by the state and adoption agencies, but should also be talked about more in churches. I think the ‘save the orphans’ mentality by things like ‘orphan sunday’ in churches, should be really examined.

  2. Pingback: Williams Trial – Day 20: Last Day of Immanuel’s Testimony | Why Not Train A Child?

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