Teeth and Truth: Ignorance of Realities

Imagine this: You (a white American) bring your (white American) child to the dentist. You ask a question about when the child’s molars are going to appear. The dentist says, “I have information about how that happens in African children, but I’m not aware of any research about Caucasian children’s teeth.” You’d nod your head and just use that information, right?

Perhaps not. But that’s the scenario provided as evidence in the Larry and Carri Williams’ trial regarding Hana’s dental records.

Hana’s age at time of her death is a big issue in the murder trial. Larry and Carri Williams’ defense attorneys argue that Hana was at least 16 at the time of her death. This matters because the charge against Larry and Carri of homicide by abuse carries a higher punishment if the victim is under 16 years of age. The main job of the defense is to show “reasonable doubt” about Hana’s age–that she could have been as old as 16.

Dr. David Sweet, a forensic dentist, testified Thursday for the defense (that is, on behalf of Larry and Carri Williams) about his findings regarding Hana’s age based on her teeth. You can find Gina Cole’s Skagit County Herald article about Dr. Sweet’s testimony here.

A salient quote from the article:

Forensic dentist Dr. David Sweet testified Thursday that Hana “could be 15 or slightly older,” based on his analysis of x-rays of her teeth. He said Hana’s second molars were completely formed — a milestone that typically happens at about age 15.

Teeth in people of different races can develop at different rates; for example, black Americans’ teeth tend to develop sooner than those of white Americans, Sweet said. None of the studies Sweet referenced in his analysis were of African children because he does not know if any such studies exist, he said.

Read that last sentence again: None of the studies Sweet referenced in his analysis were of African children because he does not know if any such studies exist, he said. 

Don’t gloss over it, or nod your head in acceptance. It’s really important. Why?

Hana was African, from Ethiopia specifically. It matters that this expert has no referenced analyses about African children. Their genetic structures could indeed be different, and that could impact analysis of her age.

More than that, this expert has dismissed the reality of Hana’s basic identity, and of Africans generally.

This expert does not know if any such studies exist about African children.

Don’t assume that these studies don’t exist.  If you do, you risk the danger of thinking, even subconsciously, something like “Well, sure, studies of the teeth of African children don’t exist. Why would they?”

I did a quick Google search and found several studies.

Third Molar eruption in East African Males

The development of primary teeth in children from a group of Gambian villages, and critical examination of its use for estimating age

A quote from a study: “Parallel to earlier reports on different ethnic groups, the results of this study indicate that the permanent teeth of Tanzanian children erupt earlier in girls than in boys, and the mandibular teeth erupt earlier than the corresponding maxillary teeth. The difference between boys and girls was found in both the first and second transitional period. Permanent teeth in Tanzanian children clearly emerge earlier than in Caucasian children.”

I’m not a dentist. I can’t vouch for the research here, and I spent about 3 minutes. The point: research does in fact exist about tooth development in African children, and it is wrong and unprofessional to be unaware of it. Anyone listening to the testimony (such as the jury) should see a red flag here.

I wrote a post about health issues specific to Ethiopian children. One is the potentially dangerous reactions of Ethiopian children to codeine, commonly prescribed after tonsillectomies, for example. You can read about it here.

Hana’s realities as an adopted, Ethiopian child are consistently being glossed over in this trial. The biggest concern is the fact that spanking and hitting children who have experienced trauma (such as separation from their family, the loss of language, isolation, significant untreated illness, repeated punishment) serves essentially to re-traumatize them, and does not improve their behavior. It often makes the behavior worse. Hana was likely not “rebellious,” but was traumatized repeatedly, and responding to that.

The issue of an expert who knows nothing about African children’s teeth (never mind Ethiopian) diminishes Hana as well. Her teeth may have reflected that she was about 13-14, not 17 or older, especially if Ethiopian children’s teeth form and erupt earlier than Caucasian teeth.

Ignoring these realities about adoption and about race is a disservice to a child who is now dead. Justice for Hana, justice for Immanuel.

Hana Alemu (Williams)

Hana Alemu (Williams)

9 thoughts on “Teeth and Truth: Ignorance of Realities

  1. One of my Ethiopian daughters, R, came to us in 2007 at the age of 3 (from the same orphanage as Hana and Immanuel Williams). She had already had teeth fall out and some permanent teeth in place. The dentist could not believe that R was 3, insisting that she had to be at least 6. Our tiny, toddler-like daughter was part of a sibling group with a teenage sister who knew exactly when her little sister was born. All the women in my circle, family, the adoption doctor and teachers all watched R for the first few months after arriving and consensus was that she was 2-3 years old. No one considered her teeth. If a dentist’s assessment was used to determine the age of R it would be much older than she really is.

  2. Pingback: Williams Trial – Day 23: More Forensic Dentistry | Why Not Train A Child?

  3. My research on several cites leads me to believe that this Canadian dentist’s estimate is different from the norm because it appears from random conventional sites that the 2nd molars are formed around age 12-13. So I am confused as to why he thinks they are fully formed later? I still think that the last picture of her does not look like a 16 year old. Most 16 year olds look like women–that picture looks like a young girl beginning puberty.

  4. Thank you for following and reporting on this trial. I hope the prosecution is leaving no stone un turned. I would think that her accepted age would be more important than her actual age, in applying the law. The Williams’s believed she was 13 at the time of her death and that was their reality. They were torturing a 13 year old who had very little physical strength. When a 40 year old believes he is chatting with a 13 year old in an online chat room and flies somewhere to have sex with the 13 year old, and is met by a female rookie cop who looks young, he is still arrested.

    Since Hana died of hypothermia, have there been any experts to testify about hypothermia? The wikipedia entry describes what happens during the moderate to severe stage of hypothermia. The victim becomes delirious and combative and in some cases feels they are burning up and they start tearing off their clothes to try to cool down. This is described a paradoxical undressing. If Cari had tried to get her to come in the house she would have been in this stage of dying from hypothermia. Coming in the house at that point would not have saved her. Her core would have had to be warmed up aggressively.

    Adult victims of these Christian baby beating books have started to speak out about their PTSD and how they would disassociate while being tortured. I think Hana would disassociate. One of the children described a blank look on her face while she was beaten.

  5. And to top all of what you so eloquently wrote, off, he even went so far as to provide his expert prediction that she clearly could even be older than her estimated age due to the fact that she was from a developing country and (paraphrasing here) “she likely suffered from malnourishment (clearly an assumption as he had no history on this child) and so her teeth were likely behind in development, therefore he can only speculate she was on the older end of the age deviation”. All I could do was shake my head in disbelief as I listened to him talk. Wouldn’t you think a pediatric international adoption doc would be able to provide current data on adoptees (his studies that he used dated back to early 2000s)????

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