I spent last week in a courtroom for several days, watching the legal process unfold in the trial of Larry and Carri Williams. I listened to the judge and lawyers discuss the value of burden of proof, of impartiality, of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and of distinctions between bad decisions and criminal behavior. My writing last week was, I believe, fair and impartial. I wanted to give folks an idea of what was going on, in a relatively objective voice.
I will still try to be fair when I write this coming week, but my gloves are off. Testimony begins Monday, July 29, at 9am pdt at the Skagit County Courthouse. If you are a witness or juror, please stop reading. Please don’t do anything to jeopardize this trial.
I’m not a witness and I’m not on the jury. I’m an adoptive parent. I worked in adoption as an executive director for 3 adoption-related organizations. I am a fierce advocate for adoption policy that is transparent and has integrity–it’s a big goal that is not yet in our grasp, to say the least.
Here are some thoughts about fairness, the trial, and adoption.
Why wasn’t the issue of race even mentioned in the jury selection process?
Never once in the 3 1/2 days of jury selection was the idea of race, or of placing black children with a white family, or of transracial families, even raised.
Is that a big deal? Yes. We don’t know if there are jurors who believe that most black children behave badly. Or believe that the Williamses were foolish to adopt transracially, that it wasn’t going to work. Or have never met a black person in their lives, but have formed judgements about them.
Prior to selection, the jurors were asked if anyone had ever been to Ethiopia, or knew any Ethiopians. Not a hand was raised, and that’s not shocking in that part of Washington state. Skagit County is not that diverse, as far as I can see.
But the issue of race was never raised with the jury in any kind of conversation.
Race, it turns out, is a divisive issue in our country.
Why did Adoption Advocates International place 2 older, unrelated Ethiopian children with a family that had 7 children already?
i don’t know. Two reasons come to mind. One is a simplistic belief that an Ethiopian child would always be better off in America than in Ethiopia. That takes a certain amount of cultural arrogance to believe, though I realize that economically life is better here.
The second is money. Two placements are more cash flow for an agency.
There certainly are very big adoptive families in which children thrive, where the parents have good support systems and avail themselves of post-adoption resources.
Did this placement meet the needs of Hana and Immanuel?
Adoption should first and foremost meet the needs of the children.
Immanuel is deaf. He was placed with the Williamses because Carri loves sign language, taught her children sign language, worked as a sign language interpreter. On paper, that would seem a reasonable match–if the Williamses had received (1) full and substantial training in trauma and attachment, (2) were fully aware and informed of Immanuel’s life experiences up to that point, and (3) had a solid system of support and resources to call on in raising a deaf, transracial, older, internationally adopted child. They also needed to be willing to use those resources, not just a few months or a year after placement, but for years and years after.
Why was Hana placed with the Williamses?
Court documents surely suggest Hana was an afterthought of sorts. She was not Immanuel’s biological sister. In terms of adoption practice, much thought and consideration should be given to placing unrelated siblings together, especially when birth order in the adoptive family will be disrupted.
Court documents show that Carri Williams was disappointed that Hana was not a little girl. Regardless of all the discussion about Hana’s age, clearly Hana was at least 10. The adoption process can be complicated, but I don’t think the agency suggested that Hana was 3 or 5 or even 8. If Carri wanted a little girl, why did she accept a 10-year-old? That certainly set Hana up for a fall, through no fault of hers.
What options did the Williamses have, in terms of Hana and Immanuel?
They had many options. The most extreme would be to dissolve the adoption and terminate their parental rights to the adopted children. Their adoption agency had a program and resources for what’s called “re-homing” children.
Before that was necessary, though, the Williamses could have sought respite care. They could have moved the children to stay temporarily with friends or family. They could have put the children in therapy, gotten counseling, looked into medications–if those were appropriate for Hana and Immanuel. They could have sought out (on-line or on the phone) well-established resources such as PACT: An Adoption Alliance in California, C.A.S.E. (Center for Adoption Support and Education) in Maryland, the Attachment and Bonding Center in Ohio, or the North American Council on Adoptable Children in Minnesota. They could have connected with other adoptive families. They could have connected with the large Ethiopian community in Seattle. They could have asked their adoption agency for help, or reached out to the social worker who approved their home study.
That’s just a list off the top of my head. The Williamses had so many options, besides having a child die and another assaulted.
When is spanking no longer spanking?
Who knows what discussions the adoption social workers had with the Williamses about discipline? It’s a basic part of the home study process for adoption. It’s a tender subject, often especially in the Christian fundamentalist community, of which Larry and Carri are a part.
The defense attorneys in particular spent a lot of time during the jury selection process talking about spanking. The jurors talked about their own experiences. Some had been not spanked so much as beaten, and said they raised their own children differently. Many said there are lots of other options in disciplining children, especially after a child is out of diapers. Hana and Immanuel were approximately 10 and 8 years old when they arrived, 13 and 11 when Hana died.
Spanking is allowed in Washington state, as long as it doesn’t leave a mark. The Williamses spanked all their children. They used some sort of plastic plumbing implement. They raised their biological children that way. Hana and Immanuel thus came into a home that used significant corporal punishment as discipline.
Spanking or beating traumatized children is inappropriate. Children who are older at the time of adoption are often traumatized children: they have lost their first family at a minimum, and may or may not have experienced neglect, abuse, and other trauma. Often, the only impact that spanking or beating has is to further traumatize children, and take away any sense of trust they need to become bonded and attached in a family. Beating or isolating traumatized children doesn’t make them behave better. This is basic adoption social work, basic mental health policy.
But the Williamses didn’t just spank Hana and Immanuel, their only adopted children, on their bottoms, back of thighs, and soles of feet. They also locked them in cement-floor rooms or in small closets, with lights and locks controlled from the outside, for hours at a time.
As punishments, Larry and Carri Williams fed Hana and Immanuel cold leftovers with frozen peas on top, or wet sandwiches, and had them eat outside, all year round.They refused them birthday gifts and Christmas celebration with the family. They made Hana shower outside with cold water from the garden hose. They made her use a port-a-potty outside the barn, some 80 feet from the house. Carri told the other children not to sign with Immanuel as a form of punishment, thus isolating him in a uniquely powerful way.
The lawyers had many discussions about spanking with the jury prior to selection. They had some brief, general ones about food deprivation and about locking children in closets. They didn’t belabor these points, so as not (I would guess) to sway the jury too much. These are frightening, depressing topics if we think about them, and if we think about them in relation to children.
Imagine when children actually experience them, over a long period of time.
What did these children do to deserve this treatment?
The defense attorneys have used the words “oppositional” and “rebellious” in relation to Hana and Immanuel. I’d argue this could be an appropriate response to being beaten, being locked in dark, small rooms for hours, and being isolated from the family that was supposed to love and care for them.
The prosecutor said that Hana and Immanuel were beaten and otherwise punished for transgressions such as not completing homework correctly, making a bed wrong, leaving clothes on the floor, stealing junk food or bread, wetting themselves, and not obeying the rules of the household. Sometimes the rules apparently included standing at a particular distance. The defense didn’t dispute this.
Here’s what strikes me. Neither the defense nor the prosecutors have said anything to suggest that Hana and Immanuel endangered the parents or the other children, or harmed family pets, or set fires, or destroyed property. Those to me would be major transgressions. Hana and Immanuel did not do those sorts of violent, dangerous things.
I’m not suggesting that abuse is justified, whether transgressions were large or small. Never. These horrific things happened over what seems like normal childhood behavior. There are lots of resources available for parents dealing with small and large behaviors.
This next point is not a question, but a comment. The Williamses are willing, because of this trial, to have their children testify in court about all that they witnessed, including the beatings, punishments, and death of a sibling with them for 3 years. This includes Immanuel, who not only witnessed all that, but received enough abuse for the state of Washington to bring assault changes against the Williamses.
All the minor children have been in foster care for almost 2 years, and have not had contact with their parents. All the children were interviewed after their parents were arrested; all gave chilling descriptions of what went on in their home. The older children were apparently allowed or encouraged to discipline the younger ones.
Surely all these children will be re-traumatized, in having to see their parents in a court room after 2 years (they may well love their parents–we are hardwired that way, after all), having to answer questions from lawyers about abuse and death, having to hear their mother sob about it all, having to re-live the experiences of witnessing abuse and death. All this in public, in front of strangers in the courtroom, all being filmed for TV news.
What a hellish thing to put children through, especially Immanuel.
I guess that the lawyers and judge are okay with it, as well as the Williamses.
Why did Hana refuse to go inside the night she died?
The prosecutor said Carri went outside and hit Hana to get her to come inside. The defense attorney said the door was never locked, and Hana could go in anytime but refused. If you were a child who’d been constantly beaten, and locked in a closet, deprived of food, humiliated and degraded in front of and by your parents and siblings, would you go inside?