Yesterday, Larry and Carri Williams were sentenced for the death of their adoptive daughter, Hana. (I have trouble using the word “daughter” and “parents” in this case. These people were not parents. They were monsters.)
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.