All of yesterday, Wednesday July 31, was taken up by one witness, with the “direct,” the prosecutor’s witness giving testimony and being questioned by the prosecutor, and then “cross-examination,” questioning of the witness by the defense attorneys. The witness was Julia Peterson, who has been a mental heath therapist for nearly 24 years. She specializes in working with deaf children, and is deaf herself. There were 2 hearing interpreters who signed to her and spoke her responses out loud.
Ms. Peterson said her goal as a therapist with deaf children is to provide direct communication access in a safe environment. She spoke about her goals as a clinician: to be sure she is the right therapist for the child, to assess any other cultural issues (beyond and including deafness), and to be attuned to a child’s specific needs.
She began working with Immanuel in December of 2011, when he was with his foster family and was referred to her for therapy due to behavioral issues.
Ms. Peterson was both eloquent and informative about working as a therapist with deaf children. She talked about taking time to assess Immanuel’s communication skills; he was quite delayed in sign. She noted that signing itself is one form of communication, but that facial expression is as much a part of grammar and communication as well. Her job as a therapist was to develop a rapport with her clients so they feel safe in expressing themselves, and then building a plan with strategies to improve behavior.
Immanuel, she said, was deeply worried about making mistakes and being punished when he began therapy. He said “I’m sorry” excessively. He told her that he had bad dreams about what had happened to him and Hana in the Williams’ family, and did not want to go back there. Ms. Peterson said Immanuel knew the difference between right and wrong, and felt confused: he didn’t understand why the family hurt him and Hana. He told her Hana had been his protector.
One therapy option, according to Ms. Peterson, is drawing, as well as signing. Drawing pictures is a common approach in therapy, especially with children. In one session, Immanuel didn’t want to draw, but instead wanted to write down family names. He proceeded to write all the names except for Hana, and described what each had done. He told the therapist that Carri had hit him with a rod on the feet; that Larry had hit him with a rod on the bottom of his feet and on his head, and had used a belt to hurt him; that Joseph had hit him on the feet and often said “Boo boo” to him; and that Cara and Sarah would tell Dad if his underwear was wet, even a little. He said that Jonathan would stare at him in the bathroom, and often check his underwear; he was very fearful of Jonathan. Immanuel told Ms. Peterson that Larry and Carri would put him outside in the cold and spray him down with a hose when he wet himself.
Immanuel learned not to share his feelings in the Williams’ house, the therapist said, and when he got to the foster family, would show his emotions in an aggressive way. She has been working with him to express his emotions without being afraid of being punished, and to decrease the aggressive behavior.
Ms. Peterson has diagnosed Immanuel with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, based on what happened to him at the Williamses. The prosecutor reviewed all of the criteria from the DSM-IV, a reference book used by clinicians to diagnose patients.
Ms. Forde, the defense attorney, spent the rest of the afternoon reviewing Ms. Peterson’s diagnosis of PTSD, suggesting that perhaps Immanuel had Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Ms. Peterson said while Immanuel had oppositional behavior, ODD was not the appropriate diagnosis.
Much of this questioning and responding was filled with frustration, I’d guess– a lawyer trying to make certain hypothetical points, and a mental health clinician who saw a bigger picture, and was not comfortable dealing in hypotheticals. For example, Ms. Forde asked whether Immanuel’s experiences being abandoned in a field and found by police in Ethiopia could have been traumatic. Ms. Peterson said while Immanuel was sad that he had lost his parents, he had a sense of relief at being found: those events had not traumatized him.
At one point, the judge said to Ms. Forde: “Counsel, take a breath.”
Ms. Forde’s job, keep in mind, is to create reasonable doubt in the mind of the jury on behalf of her client. Thus, maybe PTSD was not the correct diagnosis. Maybe Immanuel had been traumatized before arriving in the US. Maybe Immanuel’s memories were incorrect. Maybe he fused memories from Ethiopia with what happened (or didn’t) with the Williamses.
Ms. Peterson spoke (signed) clearly and firmly with the voice of a clinician who knew and cared for her client well. She consistently brought her responses around to the specifics of Immanuel, and did not engage in hypotheticals.
Immanuel will testify this morning, Thursday August 1, at 9:30am.
It is unclear when and whether two of the older Williams’ sons will testify. There was much discussion by their lawyers about taking the 5th amendment so as not to incriminate themselves, since Immanuel has named them as hitting him. The lawyers for the boys asked for blanket immunity, which the judge did not grant. The question (I am not a lawyer) seems to be whether the boys can take the 5th for some answers but not others, or not for direct but for cross-examination. Everyone seemed to agree that it didn’t make sense for the boys to get on the stand and take the 5th for everything: that would be frustrating for the jury, and could put the defendants in a bad light. The lawyers were to review some case law and return with the information for the judge.
Ms. Forde, Larry Williams’ attorney, said yesterday that she was not going to further question Yohannes Kidane, the Ethiopian translator who had testified on Tuesday.