Reflections on Hana: Acknowledging the Failure of the Adoption Community

One week from today, on July 22, the trial of Larry and Carri Williams, accused of the murder of Hana Alemu (Hannah Williams), is scheduled to start in Skagit County, Washington State. Hana did not deserve or cause the suffering she went through. May Hana receive justice, and may those who made her suffer and caused her death receive the punishment they deserve. I pray that no other children will suffer so at the hands of adoptive parents. May all children be safe and loved. 

Some people, understandably, don’t want to even read the details about what happened to Hana Alemu after she arrived here in the United States from Ethiopia for adoption. It’s too wrenching, infuriating, horribly sad. As an adoptive mother, I look at my own children, especially my twin daughters from Ethiopia, and wonder how things went so wrong for Hana.

Whatever happens in the upcoming trial of Hana’s adoptive parents, I believe we need to reflect on how we in the international adoption community (I include myself) failed Hana and other children who have suffered abuse or worse in the course of adoption. We cannot change the past, but perhaps we can improve the future for other adopted children.

Hana was placed for adoption through a Washington State licensed agency, Adoption Advocates International. AAI is a member of the Joint Council on International Children’s Services, and also accredited for Hague Convention Services through April 2016 by the Council on Accreditation (COA).

So that may well be the first failure: Is accreditation truly meaningful, especially with regard to both pre-adoption preparation and post-adoption services? In February I wrote an Open Letter to COA posted on Land of Gazillion Adoptees. In the letter, I ask several questions about the value of accreditation, including how a COA-accredited agency, Christian World Adoption, could suddenly declare bankruptcy, given the ostensible rigors of accreditation.

In full disclosure, I worked for JCICS from 1995-2000. I worked for two adoption agencies between 2000 and 2006. I’m generally familiar with how US and international adoption agencies work, though I’m out of current loops. I have no insider knowledge about AAI or about Hana’s adoption or her adoptive family, the Williamses. What I am writing about here is publicly available in multiple forums.

AAI commented on Hana’s death and on significant revisions to its policies in a letter to adoptive families, according to this website, in October 2011.

I believe most (though not all) adoption agencies operate in good faith, with decent motives. I have no doubts that some have lost track of the most important focus in adoption: the best interest of the child. Some just view adoptive parents exclusively as the client, as if only their needs matter: they are, after all, the only ones getting billed for services.

Given the large amounts of money, and thus the power also held in their hands, prospective adoptive parents often (not always) go to adoption agencies with a sense of entitlement: looking for the youngest, healthiest child, through an agency with the least waiting time and the lowest price. Some parents retain a strong sense of entitlement as they go through the process; some lose it as they begin to understand the realities of international adoption. We can only hope that prospective parents, as they decide what route to take, will listen and learn about trauma, loss, grief, attachment, as well as the value of racial identity, retention of language and culture, and the establishment of trust.

And here’s the challenge, the balancing act for adoption agencies: preparing parents well and thoroughly for adoption, without scaring them off completely. That said, some should be scared off, and that may well be the best outcome, as they may not have been good adoptive parents. People who just want to “give an orphan a loving home” are often rattled by hearing about the long-term impact of neglect and abuse, Reactive Attachment Disorder, food hoarding, sensory integration problems, sleeping disorders, failure to thrive, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and all the other conditions that cause some children to end up being adopted, or that some children display upon arrival in the US.

That’s another failure: Some agencies do not prepare their families well at all. Some parents do not hear what is being told to them. We adoptive parents, especially those with both good and hard experiences, need to do a better job at sharing what we’ve learned. For Pre-Adoption Groups, It’s not enough for new adoptive parents just back from Korea to bring in their cute toddler. Far better for adult adoptees to speak to prospective parents, as well as adoptive parents who have brought their kids to multiple therapists, who have struggled to figure out what’s adoption-related and what’s just being a kid, who have listened deeply as their beloved children grieve the loss of their first family.

The home study process is a critical element of the adoption journey. Here is a link to the detailed requirements of the home study. I have no idea what the home study looked like for Larry and Carri Williams. The US State Department provides a handy tip sheet with lots of examples of what a good home study should look like, so maybe it followed this formula. By the way, to say that the home study process needs overhaul is an epic understatement.

It’s absurd and shameful that the international treaty governing adoption, the Hague Convention, mandates an abysmally small number of hours for adoption preparation: ten. And parents can take the classes on-line.

The adoption community fails adopted children in requiring that prospective parents receive such a tiny amount of preparation. We adoptive parents and professionals in adoption need to speak up much more loudly about why extensive training and preparation truly matters.

If adoptive parents are well-prepared, they are better able to handle transition and adjustment issues of adopted children, at the time of placement and for years after. Some children adjust smoothly, and have very few bumps along the way.  Some have occasional struggles, manifesting more during teenage years. Some have significant troubles throughout their lives.

Children who are placed for adoption have experienced trauma. That’s true whether they were placed at birth or at age 12. Serious research shows that children separated from their mothers experience trauma: really, how could it be otherwise? We are biologically hard-wired for survival to depend on our mothers. Separation is significant. And some children are less resilient than others.

Here’s an excellent article from a Bay Area Adoption Services newsletter about the powerful impact of trauma,  Attachment 101: A Primer for Parents. A quote:

“I believe that adoptive parents need a more informed understanding of attachment, especially those who assume that attachment just happens more or less naturally. Sometimes what comes naturally, instead, are maladaptive responses, crystallized during a period of critical brain development and traumatic experience. Adopted children come to us with largely unknown, often difficult histories that can impact their emotional health, cognition, social competence, and ability to form healthy and happy relationships throughout their lifetimes.”

Hana arrived here as a 10-year-old, and 10 years is plenty of time to have had plenty of life experiences during periods of critical brain development. Older children who are placed for adoption, whether internationally or through US foster care, have experienced deep loss. At a minimum, they’ve gone through separation from their first family, who may have loved them deeply. There are children who end up being adopted solely because of their first family’s poverty, for example, or because of social stigma. Other children may have also dealt with neglect and abuse, and neglect can be more detrimental than abuse.

One area where the child’s past and the parents’ expectations can collide disastrously is discipline and punishment. Treating an older, adopted child “just like” one’s biological children, or even like one’s other adopted children, using the same disciplinary strategies, may be a recipe for failure, not for equality. Traumatized children can learn to trust. They can adapt and adjust. But it can take time, and new strategies, and patience, and one step forward, three steps back. Abuse is never acceptable. Never.

Empowering social workers during the home study process to ask about disciplinary approaches of prospective parents, and to be comfortable discussing why some punishment strategies are not appropriate for adopted children, is critical. Finding a balance of respect for religious beliefs about discipline and for recognition that those beliefs may further traumatize children is a fine line to walk. But damn it, we need to do a better job of it.

Finally, we fail as a community to impress upon adoptive families that they need to reach out for post-adoption services and resources. This unfortunately is a double-fail: the community does not provide sufficient post-adoption services and resources.

In September 2012, the Washington State’s Office of Children Issues prepared an excellent report, tragically prompted by the severe abuse of 17 adopted children, including Hana and her adoptive brother, also from Ethiopia. The report includes powerful, pragmatic, much-needed recommendations. In the section on post-adoption needs, they note:

“Lack of support services for adoptive families was identified as a contributing factor to failed adoptions. In one study almost 57 percent of families with an adopted child said that they needed child guidance and mental health services, but only 26 percent reported actually receiving these services. Issues that are not addressed early in the adoption can become significant problems later and lead to involvement with the juvenile offender or dependency systems. As previously discussed in this report, other agencies, both public and private, are leading efforts to address unmet support needs of adopted families and improve access to mental health services. These efforts should be expanded.

Adoption support services should include a range of services including education and referral, respite, advocacy, therapeutic counseling, academic tutoring and preservation of families in crisis. Services must be coordinated across systems such as schools and medical or mental health providers and connect families with a range of resources…The range of support services must also be designed to provide ongoing assistance and be able meet the family’s needs as their situation changes.

To effectively work with adoptive families, service providers must have specialized knowledge related to adoption and foster care. Adoptive parents must be educated about the benefit and range of post-adoption services available. Services must also be offered in a in a non-judgmental empathic manner. A parent’s willingness to recognize challenges and seek assistance should be viewed as a parental strength and not a weakness. Families should perceive these services as beneficial support and not as needless oversight or supervision.”

As of next year, international adoption agencies will have new requirements: the Uniform Accreditation Act. Information from the State Department is available here. I’m skeptical. Will it just be more bureaucracy and more expense, or will it truly meet the needs of children, first parents, and adoptive parents? Let’s see in July of 2014, when the law takes effect.

In the meantime, let’s have the courage to look at our failures, to work genuinely together in the adoption community to keep children safe, and to speak out about the need for change.

11 thoughts on “Reflections on Hana: Acknowledging the Failure of the Adoption Community

  1. I would love to know where/who the therapists are who are equipped to help adoptees and their adoptive parents. We adopted my son at birth, and still are having trouble finding services for him. His counselor is recommending long-term residential care. We want to get true help for him, us, and his younger siblings.

    • It’s an excellent question. I’d hope that your adoption agency can offer some names of competent therapists. Much can depend also on where you live, since some states have better services than others. For example, I’m very familiar with the Center for Adoption Support and Education in Maryland. You could try them ( and maybe they can provide you with names in your state. Other resources might be the North American Council on Adoptable Children (, PACT: An Adoption Alliance (, and the Society of Adoptee Professionals in Adoption (on Facebook; sorry I don’t have the site). The many international adoption clinics may be a resource as well, whether your son is a US or international adoptee.

      That said, therapists well-trained in adoption are scarce, though in demand. I wish you and your family well, as I know how difficult the journey can be. Take good care of yourself too.

  2. Thank you. I believe all families adopting should have their therapists, doctors and support people lined up prior to approval. If they don’t need services, fine. But, more than likely, they will and need to be prepared for their entire life to be rocked…including their marriage. Thank you again.

  3. Excellent post!!! We recently adopted a 13 year old. Yes, with only 10 hours of training required by Hague. My friends and I have often discussed these various issues. Thank you so much for articulating it so clearly!!!

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  6. You are so spot on with this posting. We used an agency considered to be one of the most reputable, but they assured us that Ethiopian children have very little difficulty with attachment — which we all now know is way off the mark. I knew almost from the get-go when we met our son that we were in deep trouble. I could tell by the looks on the faces of the Addis staff as they watched him doing nothing but looking for ways to get into trouble. They would look at him, look at us, and shake their heads. I could tell they were wondering if we were up for the task. They had given up. They were just waiting for someone to come along and take him off their hands. They admitted that they would sometimes lock him in a room by himself when he misbehaved. Not one staff member hugged or kissed him when it was time for us to leave. I imagined they were heaving a huge sigh of relief. That concept of a “honeymoon period”? We had none. Zero. Not so much as a minute. Part of the problem, I think, is that no one ever explained to him in his original language, what was happening. I think they told him in Amahric, but he had one month of Amharic immersion before coming home with us — so how much did he understand? It took him five months here before he could converse in English enough for us to have a conversation about why he needed a new mommy and daddy. He tells us now that he had no idea he was never going back to his mom and dad. He had no idea who we were or why he was here. Oh, the anger. I feel like we kidnapped him. He liked the plane ride good enough, but he didn’t realize there would never be one back.

    Then, when I called the agency at a week home to say we were in way over our heads, they told me they would have the older child adoption case worker call me when she got back from wherever she was — in two weeks. Can you imagine? You’re drowning and all they can do is promise a call in two weeks. And two weeks came and went and *I* had to make the call AGAIN. And I was pretty much told, “This is normal; it will go away in a couple of months.” Well, it’s been three and a half years and it’s not gone, although being kicked in the shins is no longer an hourly occurrence, but attachment issues linger. And I can’t help but wonder if I’d been better prepared (and I did everything that was recommended and more) if we’d still be in this boat. I think probably, based on the amount of trauma my son endured — I think living with developmental trauma is going to be a lifetime struggle for him, but maybe if I’d had the tool kit I have now back when we first came home, maybe things would have been better. I have no doubt that I contributed to his trauma by not understanding his trauma. For that, I weep.

    So your paragraph on what adoption support services should include gets a standing ovation from me. The main reason I started my own blog was to help educate parents considering older child adoption. I kept having to answer the same questions via email and decided that referring people to a blog would be much more efficient. I’m sure I’ve scared people away. My heart aches for the children lingering in orphanages, but sending them to under-prepared homes and ditching the families as fast as possible is not doing them any favors either.

    • Hi Karen,
      I don’t know when you wrote this but oh how I totally get where you are. Are you doing better? I don’t get pee’d on or bitten any more but the mind games and control issues continue crazily. My daughter master bates at random, sometimes intentionally in front if people. The most recent while I was with a massage therapist last week and the time before that was when finishing up business to finalize her adoption. She told me she did it intentionally…a way to attempt to control me. If by chance you get this please seek a Nancy Thomas trained RAD therapist. Find a RAD (reactive attachment disorder) parent support group. You are not losing your mind. I also want you to know there us a non profit out if Oregon that helps in failed adoptions. Lisa helps find new families for children. I cannot remember the name but Lisa is the director of the India adoptions at America World Adoptions.

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