Halloween was my favorite holiday as a kid. In California, it was still relatively warm in late October, so you could wear cool costumes without worrying about outerwear. We would go out for hours. And when I was about 9 or 10, my parents stopped coming with us. I was with a gang of kids and in the late 1970s and early 1980s, people were laid-back about that stuff.
Still, parents did worry about certain things. Back then, my mom and I would comb over every piece of candy, looking for pinholes. Also, anything homemade went in the bin, including Mrs. Janssen’s amazing chocolate chip cookies. Then, I’d group the candy by type, and depending on whether I was with friends or my brother, we’d start to trade.
My brother was an easy mark — he’d always take my Baby Ruths in exchange for his Reese’s, even though he didn’t like Baby Ruths. I hated Rolos, so those always went first, too. But the Snickers, Butterfinger, Milky Ways and Three Musketeers were keepers. Lollipops were lame, unless they were Blow Pops.
My brother and I were allowed two pieces of candy a day, doled out by my mother from some hiding spot. Of course, I always found the hiding spot and would cram extreme amounts of Smarties and Dots in my mouth. I’d pillage my brother’s bag first, and then mine, making sure to take the wrappers to a hiding spot in my room. I’d made that mistake before. Wrappers in the candy bag are a dead giveaway, kids.
Inevitably, there’d be candy that even I wouldn’t eat. Nine months later, I’d find a scrunched-up Trick or Treat bag in some lost corner of the pantry with Laffy Taffy in it.
I wanted to write a journalistic post about Hana and her younger brother, Immanuel, who were adopted from Ethiopia in 2008. I wanted to speak eloquently about international adoption and the need for better screening and post-placement support. But I can’t. I’m too close to the situation, and objectivity is impossible. If I were in a newsroom, my editors would have barred me from writing a single word on the topic. But I’m not in a newsroom.
I am the mother of a son adopted from Ethiopia in 2009. Binyam is the joy of my life. Steve and I didn’t adopt him to “save” him, or to give him a “better” life. We adopted him because we wanted to be parents. We chose Ethiopia because we have a deep respect for its culture, its history and its people. We traveled there to get our child because we wanted to, not because we had to.
People often tell us how “lucky” Bini is to have been adopted. However well-intentioned, that statement is categorically false. Yes, Ethiopia is a poor country. But poor doesn’t mean worse. I’ve been to Ethiopia. It’s a beautiful country with gracious, proud and strong people. I felt incredibly fortunate to be there, and I’m still humbled that I was permitted to take one of their children back to the U.S. This isn’t bullshit, people. I mean that absolutely and totally.
Yes, Bini will have more opportunities here, but he’s separated from his biological family, his country, his culture, his roots. Those scars are permanent, and there’s nothing my husband and I, no matter how well-meaning we are, can do about that. All we can do is love him fiercely, give him our patience and our unwavering support.
I don’t know what motivated the Williamses to adopt. They have seven biological children, ranging from age 7 to 17, and were devout Christians. There is a movement among evangelical Christians to adopt “orphans” (God, I hate that word), so perhaps that was a factor for them. I can’t speculate. But it seems clear that the Williamses were not prepared for the difficulties that some adopted kids can face, particularly older adopted children, when they arrive in their new homes.
I spoke to someone who works in adoption today, about how the Larry and Carri Williams could have been permitted to adopt. Steve and I have been through the process once, and we’re in the early stages of our second adoption from Ethiopia. There are mountains of paperwork and home visits and letters of recommendation and fingerprinting with government agencies. We’ve been asked about our preferred discipline methods, and how we were disciplined as children. At times, the scrutiny seems invasive, but in light of tragedies like Hana Alemu’s death, it’s completely appropriate. If it helps avoid abuse and suffering, I’m all for it. Put us under the microscope.
How did the Williamses get the green light? They probably seemed like perfectly fine people. My source told me that it’s rare for people to intentionally mislead adoption agencies because they intend to mistreat their children. More often, people adopt because they believe they’re good people, but then they have trouble attaching. We hear a lot about the children, and whether they can attach, but less attention is paid to the parents.
Older adopted children, who have the cognitive ability to recognize loss, often act out: They break rules, they hoard food, they rage. Larry and Carri Williams may have been overwhelmed by the problems. They may have seen the children as problems. It’s pretty clear that they didn’t love them as much as their biological children.
What’s more, said my source, it’s very likely that Larry and Carri Williams had had trauma of their own in childhood. There is a direct correlation between depression and other mental health issues prior to adoption and difficulty for parents to attach after adoption. “I would put money down that they didn’t know that they could treat children this way,” said my source. “They probably went into this with altruistic goals.”
If I’m honest, I can admit to having difficulty when Bini first came home. I didn’t reach out to my agency when this happened, because I was ashamed and disgusted with myself. I didn’t know that there were resources for me.
And that’s key here: Providing support for families once they’ve gotten home. “Support” and “resources” are often empty-suit words, terms you hear bureaucrats use when testifying in front of Congress. But support and resources are critically important when you’re struggling. Biological parents I know have admitted to feeling isolated, and adopted children often have a unique set of challenges. It’s not an insurmountable problem, but you need to know where to turn.
I also contacted Adoption Advocates International (AAI), the Port Angeles, Wash.-based agency that facilitated the Williamses adoptions. I was emotional, and I wanted to know HOW THIS HAPPENED. I didn’t expect a response, but I got one. I won’t identify her by name, or print her response verbatim. But she told me, in anguished language, how terribly upset everyone at the agency had been by the tragedy.
She told me that AAI has made changes in how they process adoption cases, and that she hopes that every agency has made changes as a result of the Hana Alemu case. She wrote that she knew the program director for Ethiopia had denied home studies and placements if there was the slightest question of concern about safety or the parent’s parenting practices, particularly in the area of discipline.
I believe her. And I believe that many adoption agencies are doing what’s in the best interest of the child. I haven’t read the Williamses home study, so I don’t know if they were honest about their extreme discipline tactics, which included starving, beating and isolation from the rest of the family. Maybe, as my other source suggests, the Williamses didn’t begin to employ those tactics until their adoptive kids started acting out. Most agencies send a social worker out for a post-placement report once the child has been home for a period of time. But after that, the follow-ups are self reported. Once internationally adopted kids come home, they are treated as biological kids. Which is the way it should be, except when things go wrong.
When that happens, it’s really up to the community. The Williamses home-schooled their kids, and kept them isolated from the world at large. There was no teacher who could have reported odd behavior or bruises to Child Protective Services, no classmate who might have mentioned something to her parents. These children were at the mercy of their tormentors — and the few outside adults they came in contact with. Hana died outside, alone and unloved by her so-called parents because no one cared enough to say something. That’s on all of us.
…or maybe not. I can’t decide. Maybe the internet can help me?
A brief history of my hair:
I had long hair until I was 14. I got a very unfortunate haircut the day before freshman orientation, which was as tragic as you’d expect for a teenage girl. The hair grew. And I didn’t really cut it much after that, until my first marriage started to fall apart and I figured, what the hell? Let’s cut the hair off. It made me feel free and daring and so I kept it short for a long time. I got married with a pixie cut. I looked adorable. See?
I’ve had lots of variations on the short theme since then. My friend Karen once called me “the girl of a thousand haircuts.” And it’s true. My mom has had virtually the same hairdo for my entire life, so, you know. Figure it out, Freud.
So, anyway, I’m 43 and I think the cute pixie ship has sailed. But I think I want to cut my hair off. The long thing is annoying me.
Bini’s got a little kindergarten bromance going on with another kid in his class, a kid I’ll call Marco. To hear Bini tell it, Marco is the best football player in his class and the best runner in the whole school. All the boys like him, and all the girls have crushes on him. (Bini has learned what a crush is — “it’s more than like but not as much as love.”)
Every day, we talk about school — how it was, what he did, who he played with at recess. Inevitably, Marco is the leading man, with several other supporting players. Marco knows how to read. Marco can do s’es better than anyone in class. Marco gets to buy lunch every day. Marco gets to stay for after-school care.
Marco, Marco, Marco.
I also hear about other kids. There’s Inesh, who pulls the erasers off all the pencils. And, Angelica, who uses potty words. I envisioned, respectively, a kid who was one step away from mutilating animals and a little girl who was Ke$ha-in-training.
Last week, I volunteered at Bini’s school for an art class. I was interested to see Marco, and Inesh and Angelica, along with the aforementioned extras. I was ready to size them up, and if they were little menaces, maybe put clay down their shirts.
They all trooped in to the Art & Science room, tiny little people in pigtails and light-up sneakers and Captain America t-shirts. They sat down and started to do the art lesson, and I circled the room, looking for kids that needed assistance. Inesh was struggling to turn his clay into an egg, so I helped him. “Thank you, Bini’s mommy,” he said, with eyes as big and brown and shiny as a puppy’s.
Angelica, of the potty words, finished her clay project early and moved on to the painting portion. When I walked over, she was mixing red and white to get pink. “Nice job with the mixing,” I said. She beamed. Later, when I circled back, she pointed to a flower she’d painted. “I made that for you,” she said.
And then, Marco. He and Bini sat next to each other, making their clay creations and mixing all the paint colors to get a dull brown. He didn’t look like a football phenom or more crushable than my adorable son. He actually seemed to be … quite taken with my boy. Or, at least, the admiration was mutual.
“Bini,” I heard him say more than once. “Watch this.”
Then, two minutes later, Bini would say, “Marco, look what I can do.”
Later, when Bini was at home, I asked him if he wanted to have Marco come over to play. To my surprise, he shrugged. “Sure, I guess.” This was puzzling. Usually, Bini’s on me to set up play dates with his buddies.
It occurred to me that maybe Bini doesn’t yet want his mommy involved in this particular friendship. Marco is the first friend he’s made entirely on his own. I’m not friends with his mother. The two kids didn’t meet at a playgroup when they were 18 months old. And as much as he cherishes his pre-kindergarten friendships, this one is special. I think I get it. Kindergarten is the beginning of my son having a life completely separate from home, and from me. And that’s … OK.
If you’re on Facebook, you’ve probably had some baffling run-ins with Facebook friends: Out-of-the-blue defriendings that feel as hostile as a slap, friend requests from people you don’t know, rants from a guy you barely knew in high school about the sanctity of the Second Amendment.
So, how do you know if your Facebook “friends” are really friends? Here’s a useful guide, which is by no means comprehensive.
High-school reunion friends: You know it’s time for your high school reunion when you suddenly get a flood of 25 friend requests from people you nodded to at lunch or took shop with. Haven’t spoken to them since high school, and you haven’t spoken to them since you accepted their friend request.
Facebook takers: You know these people. They really irritate me. They post things like: “Wow! I just lost 1,000 pounds and I’m so happy!” and they get 65 likes and 200 comments. But the person never says, “Hey thanks!” or reciprocates, like actual friends do. They’ve never liked your kid’s baby picture. Never wished you well on your birthday. Prime candidate for defriending.
Real friends: These are people who actually engage with you. Some comment on every post, and some only comment occasionally, but you know they actually, you know, LIKE you. I have some real friends that I see in real life, and some I don’t see at all. One of my favorite real friends I haven’t seen in over 20 years, but we’ve rekindled a tight friendship on Facebook. Fortunately, most of my Facebook friends (including the ones reading this post — thanks guys!) fall into this category.
Friends for political reasons: They don’t pick fights, and they’re mostly silent, but defriending would be decidedly unfriendly.
Stalkers: Friends who never post and never comment, but when you see them in person, they can recite your posts from six months ago.
Friend of your significant other: This one comes courtesy of Steve. He says he received friend requests from friends of mine just so they could see pictures of my kid.
Pokemon friend: Gotta catch ’em all! Friend you added a long time ago, when you first joined Facebook, but you have no idea who they actually are. Prime candidate for hiding. See also: Promiscuous frienders.
Likers: They won’t commit to commenting, but they’ll like the hell out of your photos, your status updates and even your comments on their page. Likers are the Switzerland of Facebook.
Family: People who can be counted on to chime in and embarrass you with anecdotes about your teenage years. Or your prom pictures. See also: Friends for political reasons.