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.
“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.