One year ago today, Larry and Carri Williams were found guilty for the death of their adopted Ethiopian daughter, Hana Alemu, and for assault of their adopted Ethiopian son, Immanuel.
Yesterday, I visited Hana’s grave site in Union Cemetery in Sedro-Woolley, Washington. I knew I was going to write about her today, and though I am not a big fan of graves and cemeteries, I wanted to pay my respects. I left on the grave a tiny token purchased during my recent trip to Ethiopia, and told Hana she was not forgotten.
The Williams’ family did not place a gravestone of any sort on Hana’s burial place until after the trial had concluded, so some 2 years after she had died this marker was installed. It shows Hana’s birth year as 1994, which would make her over 16 at the time of her death, not 13, which was what her age was said to be by the adoption agency and possibly Ethiopian family records. The Williamses were charged with homicide by abuse, which requires children to be younger than 16 and carries a significant punishment. They argued during the trial that Hana was not 13 at the time of her death, but was older. The jury did not believe Hana was older than 16 when she died, and Carri Williams was found guilty of homicide by abuse. This grave marker suggests that Hana was 16, not 13, at the time of her death, though the Williamses never legally changed Hana’s age during her life.
During the hour or so drive from and back to Seattle, I thought about what Hana and Immanuel might have been thinking as they went from SeaTac Airport to their new family, in August 2008.
The view along the highway would have been so different from what they may have seen in Ethiopia. Instead of RV dealerships and fast food restaurants, in Ethiopia there are children along the roadside herding goats and cows, women washing clothes in muddy rain puddles, and men hauling loads on donkey-driven carts. Instead of towering pines, in Ethiopia Hana would have seen acacia trees. She must have been a bit overwhelmed by the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, along with the malls, businesses, and restaurants. This was her new life, with the promise of a family, safety, and love.
Less than 3 years after her arrival in the US, Hana died from malnutrition and hypothermia on May 12, 2011, at the hands of the adoptive parents who were supposed to love and protect her. Those same parents were also found guilty of assault of Immanuel. On October 29 last year, Larry was sentenced to just over 28 years in jail, and Carri to 36 years. They are currently serving their sentences in Washington state.
You can watch Judge Susan Cook’s sentencing of the Williamses here.
Next week, in Pennsylvania, Judge Jeffrey Manning will be sentencing another pair of adoptive parents of Ethiopian children. Douglas and Kristen Barbour, unlike the Williamses, chose not to have a jury trial and instead pled no contest in June to charges of child abuse and endangerment. Their two adopted children were removed from them by the state as a result of lesions, weight loss, hypothermia, healing fractures, and retinal hemorrhaging.
Are these 2 cases comparable? Both families already had biological children when they adopted 2 Ethiopian children. Both families have a stay-at-home mom and a working- outside-the-home dad. Both practice Christianity. According to a Post-Gazette article, Douglas Barbour wrote about Biblical motivations for adoption. Kristen Barbour wrote openly about her faith on a now defunct blog. In both families, the adopted children had eating and other issues common in older child international adoptions. In both cases, the families did not appear to have sought help, and instead relied on their own methods. In both cases, there were no charges of abuse regarding the bio children, only the adopted children. In both cases, the bio children witnessed their parents’ treatment of their adopted siblings. Both cases have a child’s significant weight loss and hypothermia as factors of abuse.
Both families appeared to have had a perfect storm of unrealistic expectations for children who have experienced trauma, and both appeared to have handled the adopted children with systematically increased punishments that did not achieve the intended results. In both cases, young children were grievously harmed.
I don’t mean to be facetious when I say at least in the Barbours’ case, both children are still alive. I have heard that Immanuel Williams and the Barbour children have all done well in their foster homes.
In the case of the Barbour children and Immanuel, it is safe to say these children have been harmed, abused, and endangered significantly, at the hands of the very people who were supposed to care for and protect them. The children have a long road of recovery ahead of them; they were innocent victims of people who they should have been able to trust. They have physical and emotional injuries that are serious and will affect them for their entire lives, injuries that never should happen to any little child.
Judge Cook, in sentencing Larry and Carri Williams, asked “What does justice require?” She talked about the materials the attorneys had given her about imposition of sentences, and said they had left one important part out. “The sentence needs to reflect society’s response to the conduct that the defendants engaged in.” In this case of the Williamses, she said, the sentence could be seen as an expression of society’s outrage about two children being horribly harmed.
I am hopeful that Judge Manning will also take the seriously the significant harm done to the two Barbour children. It is an outrage that children could be so deeply hurt by adults, and the offenses of abuse and endangerment deserve appropriate punishment–not probation. The children have to live the rest of their lives with the impact of what their adoptive parents did to them. I hope that the judge sees that clearly.
There is still time to send a message about fairness for these young adoptees. I wrote about why this is so important here.
May Hana rest in peace. May all children be safe and loved. May we all speak up for the children.