Homeschooling, Christians, Identity, and Isolation

Today is Back To School Day for many American children: tears at the bus stop (some shed by children, mostly by parents), sparkling classrooms, dedicated teachers, sharpened pencils, lots of possibilities.

For homeschoolers, this may be just another Tuesday. I have not written much about homeschooling in relation to the trial of Larry and Carri Williams. It’s a volatile, emotional topic, hard to write about without offending or losing one’s audience, no matter which side the writer or reader is on. Also, I’ve known many homeschoolers–in my experience, they are a hard-working, thoughtful, nice group of parents and kids.

The same cautions exist for me around writing about Christians, fundamentalist or evangelical: hard to write about without sweeping generalizations and without offending or angering, and I know plenty who are nice, hard-working, thoughtful parents. I enjoy a proselytizer as much as the next person, if that means “not at all.” While I don’t share or even completely understand their beliefs, we can easily enjoy each other’s company, our kids can play together, we can read the same books, and find lots of (other) common ground.

And that’s why I believe what went on in Larry and Carri’s house was not Christian-based parenting, at least insofar as Hana and Immanuel were concerned.

As to the homeschooling, I respect the choices parents make, as they are usually in the best interest of their children.  Larry and Carri (Carri, mostly) had years of homeschooling experience with their 7 biological children. They had a schedule, a system. They had fulfilled all legal requirements of Washington State to homeschool.

The homeschooling families I know (some devout Christians, some so not) put effort into their kids’ socializing with non-homeschooled kids, usually via sports teams or community service activities. That seems, to me, a good balance, and that’s the model I’m most familiar with. It’s exactly the model that did not happen with Larry and Carri Williams, or, more to the point, with Hana and Immanuel.

“Isolation” is an element of torture, according to a witness early in the trial. It’s easy to see how a systematic deprivation of contact with others can break one’s spirit and trouble one’s mind, especially over time, especially for a child. The isolation of a shower room, a barn, a closet, an outhouse: how can that be other than devastating over time, and when repeated? Especially when it’s done by the people who are supposed to love and take care of you.

So it’s not the homeschooling as such that I take issue with here. It’s the isolation. Adopting two, older, Ethiopian children (one who is deaf) should have meant ensuring that the children are exposed to (if not surrounded by) others like them: Ethiopians, people of color, deaf people, adopted children, adopted adults.

We will, of course, never know whether anything might have turned out differently for Hana, Immanuel, and the entire family, if they had not kept themselves and their two adopted children isolated from the community. My understanding is that by 2011, the Williams family stopped going to their church as much, and certainly stopped bringing Hana and Immanuel; they used the nursery/music room for home-church. That’s the room with the closet that Hana was locked in, where Carri played gospel music for Hana. I can only wonder at how abandoned Hana felt.

In this context, the idea of role models for adoptees is almost laughable. All adopted children should have those role models, especially transracial ones, in order to form healthy identities and self-understanding. It’s not a small thing.

In the world of Hana and Immanuel, of course, self-understanding took an enormous back step to survival.

Six school-age biological Williams’ children are now in the care of relatives or foster families, as best I know. The oldest, Joshua, is in the US Army, and will soon be serving in Korea; he may be there now. Immanuel is in foster care, with a deaf foster mom who has taught him to sign well. He is thriving, while still facing many challenges, from what I’ve heard. I don’t know how many, if any, of the children are now in public school. If today was a Back To School Day for them, I genuinely wish them all the best.

The trial resumes at 9am tomorrow, September 4, at 9 am. The judge will give instructions to the jury, and the lawyers will present their closing arguments. The jury will then begin deliberations.

Justice for Hana, justice for Immanuel.

30 thoughts on “Homeschooling, Christians, Identity, and Isolation

  1. I do have a question. If you are adopting children from another country shouldn’t you learn about their culture, visit the country, and learn all you can about the child before you start expecting them to assimalate into your culture?

    • Absolutely right. Understanding and honoring the child’s country of origin is hugely important in good adoption practice.

      Further, imagine if you or I were suddenly put on a plane, and brought to a family that knew nothing of our language, our food, our, culture, our loved ones. How would we as adults cope with the loss of everything we knew? Even if we were better off economically, we would still experience huge grief and loss. Few of us get over huge grief in a matter of months, even if we are well-loved. And if we are not, if we are isolated, degraded, have our food limited or inedible, receive no medical or mental health care when we could likely benefit from such–well, we would waste away at the hands of people who are supposed to love us, in our new country. Imagine if we are children enduring this.

      The Williamses did not travel to Ethiopia, and so never saw the country. They made no effort to connect with the Ethiopian community, with other adoptive families, with adopted adults from Ethiopia–all these people exist not that far from where they lived, thought it would have taken some effort on their part to make those connections.

      There was just so much isolation, so much stripping away of dignity and meaning for those children. It’s everything gone wrong in adoption.

  2. I am a Christian, which means I strive to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ and believe the bible to be truth. While I try very hard not to judge the hearts of others, the bible makes it clear that we are known by our actions. Jesus had zero tolerance for people who claimed to love God but mistreated others: the Pharisees/hypocrites. His greatest commands were to love God and one another. And he was very clear about what will happen to those who hurt children (to paraphrase, he said they’ll wish they’d never been born once he’s done with them.)

    Based on Jesus’s teaching vs. Carri’s actions, I have a whole lot of trouble believing she is a Christian. She called herself one but she lied about lots of things, didn’t she? I see no evidence that she truly knew Christ nor tried to obey his teachings which are very heavy on justice, mercy, and love, ESPECIALLY for the poor and oppressed – none of which Hana or Immanuel received.

    Carri was, based on the evidence, the very opposite of a Christ follower. The very type of person Jesus opposed.

    I can call myself anything. That doesn’t make it so.

  3. I think the book “The Connected Child” would have been more beneficial than the Pearl book. I think every adopted parent should read it. I have five adopted children and it gives me a point of reference.

    I think if people are going to home school, it should be a quality education. And I think there should be someone checking up on the kids just as there is in the public school. This tragedy happened beause the family was so isolated that no one knew. If she’d gone to school, the teacher would have picked up on the weight loss. The kids would have received services. They would have learned English (or sign) quicker from using it and hearing it more. They may have been better able to understand what was expected from them.

    Families might complain that outside interference in home schooling is against their rights, but the child has the right to a good education and someone needs to make sure that is happening. Whether there should be a monthly visit or a mandatory interview and testing with the children each grading period, I don’t know. But something needs to happen so children aren’t totally cut off from the world.

    Most home school families I know belong to a co op and get together for field trips or for each parent to teach some special class such as painting or Spanish.

    • It was particularly sadistic that Cari isolated Imanuel from the local deaf community. Someone wrote on facebook that she went to a sign language class, but didn’t bring him along. He should have been attending the nearest school for the deaf.

      Hellen Keller’s behavior was purported to be pretty atrocious before she was able to communicate.

      • Also the children were told not to sign to him so that left him pretty much isolated while surrounded by people! Crazy. How in the world does that encourage bonding and better behavior?

  4. Thank you for the updates on this tragic life taken by Larry and Carri Williams. Hopefuly out of all this there will be laws enacted to either stop all foreign adoption or strictly enforce the monitoring process espcially in families who are sucked into the whole Born Again theology and myths. Also out of this I hope law makers make it no difference what age a person is that has endured even a fraction of this abuse that the laws will be equal rather you are over sixteen or not. Also think its time for the school districts to start monitoring more closely homeschooling households to make sure they are all learning in a productive manner. In this day and age it doesn’t take much common sense to know that child abuse and neglect are illegal and not a healthy way of being a human. They can never be rehabilitated for what they did. I hope the jury sets precedent that forth more oversight into all this.

    • With regard to stopping foreign adoptions, the foreign countries are taking care of that. I believe a few countries have already closed their doors to American adoptions. If I’m not mistaken, Russia now prohibits Americans from adopting because of some high profile incidents where a child died. The Russians were also none to happy when an adoptive mother bought a one way ticket to Russia and put the child on the plane accompanied by a return to sender note. The orphan collecting promoted by Above Rubies may have prompted some African countries to tighten things up.

      The age thing seems arbitrary. Normally if you treat a teen like that, the child will take off and make their own way to the guidance counselor or police and be able to save herself. This poor girl had no escape. In some ways she was like a battered woman, or like the women held captive by Ariel Castro. .

  5. Pingback: Some Looks At The Williams | Why Not Train A Child?

  6. At the risk of offending even more people, I would like to raise the issue of mental health. Having worked for years as a mental health counselor with an occasional client who had entered into an adoption of a child from a country where treatment of the child prior to adoption was already horrendous, I can say that these adoptions are difficult. Larry and Carrie Williams probably entered into the quest to adopt with the best of motives. Once they had adopted two children with such extreme needs, I doubt they felt competent. The skills they used with their own children just didn’t work. As frustration levels rose, neither of these parents were equipped to cope. I did not hear Carrie William’s testimony, but from reading excerpts, it seems her mental health is certainly fragile at this point. I can only imagine that it was fragile during the behavior problems with Hana and Immanuel. I can only wonder how her mental health was before she embarked on the adoptions. Her testimony seemed so cold and detached. The isolation of this family made everything so much worse. What a tragedy!!!

    • There is a facebook page in remembrance of Hana.

      There are several people on there from Carri’s town and her church, who knew Carri personally. Some have commented about interactions with her before the adoptions, and those comments are insightful. I got the impression Carri has never been very pleasant. Carri could have benefited from seeing a therapist, although there would be a lot of unpacking that would need to be done there. With the two adopted children, she should have started with a pediatrician who would have referred them to a therapist. I don’t know about the Boeing health plan, but being a big government contractor, they probably had a premium plan.

      The extreme religious beliefs of the Williams prevented them from seeking, worldly, mental health services. Even if the kids were all kinds of terrible as Carri described, as a parent she should have said to herself, or out loud, “this isn’t working, I need help”. The book “To Train up a Child” does address what to do next when the “training” techniques are not working perfectly. The book advises to do more beating, hosing down and starving. Up the intensity of the “chastisement”.

    • I think this all speaks to pre-adoption preparation as well, plus access to post-adoption resources–and willingness for parents to take all of this to heart. Just because one has parented children doesn’t mean that the next child (adopted or otherwise) will have the same needs, outcomes, or abilities. I am a huge believer in the value of mental health services and therapies. I wish we could erase some of the stigmas associated with seeking help. In the case of adoptive parents, I would love to see their seeking help post-adoption as a strength, not as a sign of failure or incompetency. I can’t speak to Carri’s state of mind, but so much was out of control in their home, and resources were available to assist. We will never know if therapists or counseling might have saved everyone, but surely it might have helped. I only hope that perhaps awareness of the need and the value of mental health services has been increased as a result of this tragedy.

  7. Maureen, thank you for your boundless sensitivity and your heroic efforts in being objective. You seem to handle this case focusing truly on the victim(s) and I appreciate your restraint in not injecting your own beliefs (religious, moral, or otherwise). I await your report on the verdict; thank you for sacrificing your time and sanity to cover the case.

  8. I just don’t get why its taboo to question homeschoolers. To be certified to teach English, I have to have an English degree and an education graduate degree. The math teachers have math degrees and so on. This is for middle and high school and single subject certification. For the little ones, you must have education in early childhood development. If we won’t let a math teacher teach our children English, why would we let someone who is not a teacher at all teach these children everything?

    • Because it questions the unfettered ownership of children by their parents. I have a masters degree, and I wouldn’t presume to believe I could provide as good an education as our public schools offer. My youngest son is dyslexic, and he is receiving an amazing education, with up to speed teachers. I shudder to think how that would go if I was homeschooling him. I think there are situations where homeschooling is a good choice or a temporary choice. If for example, a child is gay and the atmosphere at the school is not accepting.

      For these large families I think it comes down to logistics. Carri had seven bio children and was in her late thirties. Who knows how many children she would have had if she hadn’t successively lost her fallopian tubes with ectopic pregnancies. Getting 7+ kids all off to school and dealing with after school activities, sports, volunteering in the classroom, birthday parties etc. becomes logistically impossible. It’s far easier for everyone to stay put and make their way through workbooks and have the older ones teach the younger ones without leaving the house.

      I spoke with my formerly Mormon friend about this case over the weekend. You don’t hear much about Mormons homeschooling. The Mormon approach of being in the world not of the world seems to be a better strategy for keeping everyone in the fold without getting too cultish.

    • In Massachusetts where I live you do not have to have a history degree or a math degree to teach those subjects you have to have a Education Degree which is really just a ” secular huminst” petagree, I know this to be the case in most places (MTEL in Ma Praxis almost everywhere else. ) thus your point is moot. I know a woman without any college save for an accounting course who homeschools her kids and her seven year old is speaking a second language and can find almost any country on a map, even Andora. Now you show me his equivalent peer whose teacher has a masters degree in his given subject. You can’t becuase American government schools suck and not every one can afford private schools.

  9. I have followed you from the outset of this trial as well as from the first that I heard about the tragic circumstances of these children. I first want to thank you for your dedication, honesty and objective viewpoint it has been very good. I certainly do not want to detract from the justice needed for Hanna and Immanuel, but I must ask if you are not a Cristian then what are you? You seem to hae some very strong views against Christians although it appears that you tolerate them. So what do you call yourself?

    • Thank you for your kind words on my viewpoint.

      Your comment confirms what I note in my blog post: it’s hard to write about religious beliefs without misunderstandings occurring. When my mom was dying a painful death from cancer, she called Jesus her best friend; I’ve always been so grateful for the comfort that faith provided. I have on my bookshelves books by Henri Nouwen and Thich Nhat Hanh that also provide me with hope and consolation. May we all find kindness and compassion in our religious and spiritual beliefs.

      • The question was merely curiosity, not a debate. Did not mean to offend as others seem to think.

      • As a Christian, I have not noted any strong views against Christians, only strong opinions about abject abuse and lack of duty on the part of parents to provide what is necessary for their adopted children.

        I have been grateful for the compassionate concern for children that I have read here, legitimate and pragmatic concerns about the practices of adoption, and sober concern regarding the duties that adoptive parents owe to the children that they receive into their families, hopefully as their own.

    • It’s doesn’t really matter if you are a Christian or not. Sorry to tell this above person who posted this but there are a lot of good people in this world who don’t subscribe to Christianity who are perfectly good people. Carri and Larry believed this stuff but did the worst kinds of evil to another human and still claimed they were good Christians. This us against them stuff that goes oninmodernday Christianity is so dangerous and destructive and also very naive and ignorant way of thinking. I know people of all religions and also a lot of atheist too that live in the present and are the best people in the world and not living behind a book of stories that gets misinterpreted all the time. The Williames would have never got this far if they didn’t get caught up in all the scripture stuff
      and the fact that they will be god forgiven and supposedly in heaven in the end

    • Also it was appropriate that the prosecutors focused more on the series of crimes being committed over the long period of time rather than the Pearl book. It shouldn’t take any rationality to know the difference between abuse and child raising techniques devrived from the bible. Most people know the difference from right or wrong unless you are people like The Williams, who knew and went on anyway, using the ” Gods Forgiveness” formula as a way out. If the Williames wouldn’t have been so sucked into this evil vs good us against them mentality that a lot of these contemporary Christian churches are spewing out they may have been able to see and correct this worst criminal behavior. I’m really curious to know the backgrounds of these people and what churches they were raised in

      • I hope the jury focuses on the pattern of abuse over an extended period, otherwise they could fall into a trap of thinking that Carri made a one time mistake of not getting Hana to come in which ended tragically. The pattern of abuse is all they have in making the argument of homicide by abuse for Larry since he wasn’t involved in the final incident.

        Cari probably doesn’t believe there is anything she needs to be forgiven for. If that oppositional child hadn’t killed herself, she would still be the matriarch of one big happy family.

        These books are dangerous and well meaning Christian parents can get deeper and deeper in and not realize what they have done to their children until it is too late. I don’t think the line between the child raising techniques and criminal abuse is a bright line at all. As Larry had implied, the techniques that Cari used seemed to work beautifully with their seven children. How can you argue with success.

        These well trained children become adults, many of whom suffer from PTSD and other mental health issues that they spend their adult life trying to get out from under. Here is a letter from one such adult child. Different book, same Christian child raising advice.

  10. I was reflecting on Hana getting her period in that house of horrors. I think I read there was only one bathroom for the eleven people. Hana probably didn’t have appropriate sex or health education. She didn’t have a group of friends at school to talk to about tampons and pads and to get advice from and exchange embarrassing stories with. No doubt there was smeared blood in the bathroom. She probably had to get in and out in two minutes without the proper supplies. Then she had to deal with the monthly issues in the dark in 2′ x 2′ port a potty.

    The only resource Hana would have had was the sexually repressed Carri with her own dysfunctional body image issues.

    I hope the three older boys get some counseling before reeking havoc on the world. They need to deal with the fact that they hit a teenaged girl, for not exercising, as she was dying.

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