The weather that day in 2011 was overcast and cold. Hana died from starvation and hypothermia, right outside her family home where her adoptive siblings and mother were inside. She had been adopted from Ethiopia less than three years earlier. At the time of her death, she was 13 years old, five feet tall, and 78 pounds.
Larry and Carri Williams, Hana’s adoptive parents, were convicted in 2013 of killing her, and are now in jail. They will be there for decades. The Williamses’ minor biological children ended up being adopted, likely by family members. Immanuel, the other Ethiopian child adopted by Larry and Carri Williams, is (not surprisingly) struggling, from what I have heard. During the murder trial, we learned that he had been diagnosed with PTSD. Larry and Carri Williams were convicted not only of Hana’s death but also of abuse of Immanuel.
I can’t imagine what life has been like for the Williams’ children: to have witnessed the abuse by their parents of Hana and Immanuel, to have witnessed the death of Hana, to have testified at their parents’ murder trial, to have described in public the abuse that their parents imposed on Hana and Immanuel, and to have lost their parents to jail for at least 25 years. On September 28, 2011, a detective from Skagit County Sheriff’s office requested an arrest warrant for Larry and Carri. The document recounts what the Williams’ children said about how their parents treated Hana and Immanuel. At Larry and Carri’s sentencing, the judge suggested that the children’s testimony may have been the most compelling in getting the guilty verdict.
Many people keep Hana in their hearts: her family in Ethiopia, those of us who attended the murder trial, Ethiopians in the Seattle community and around the world, and those who have been moved by her story.
In the last five years, Ethiopia has sharply decreased the number of children placed in the United States. Ethiopian courts have annulled 3 adoptions of Ethiopian children placed in Europe. Staff members of a US adoption agency working in Ethiopia have pled guilty to fraud and bribery charges. The adoption agency that placed Hana and Immanuel, Adoption Advocates International (AAI), has closed. A vital Facebook organization, Ethiopian Adoptees of the Diaspora, has been created. Some of the changes are obviously positive; some are less clear.
There is debate over whether the decrease in adoptions is a good thing. Maybe fewer children will be placed in orphanages illicitly. Maybe more children will stay with their families. Maybe children in genuine, desperate need of families will never get one, or never get the medical care they need, care that they might have received as a result of adoption. Maybe more or fewer children will suffer.
Could Hana’s death have been prevented? The list of “If Only’s” is long: if only she had been adopted by a different family. If only she had been able to stay with her biological family. If only Larry and Carri had been better prepared, or more willing to seek help, or had connected with the adoption and Ethiopian communities. Had AAI made them aware of resources? Did AAI make sure that the WIlliamses would feel comfortable asking for help? If only so many things had happened.
There’s a great deal of justified, vocal anger in the adoption community these days. I want to think that it means the time is ripe for positive, effective changes that truly and effectively put the needs of children first. A veil has been lifted from the idyllic, romanticized version of adoption that has permeated our global culture.
The Williams’ murder trial lifted not a veil but a heavy, carefully placed curtain that had covered a family’s life until it was horrifically raised, on May 12, 2011. Four days before Hana’s death was Mother’s Day that year. Hana may well have spent the day with little or no food, locked in the closet that Carri Williams kept her in, with no light switch, no room to stretch in, let out only for bathroom breaks in an outdoor port-a-potty or a cold water shower outside. What could any child have done to deserve the treatment that Hana received?
May Hana rest in peace, in power, in grace, and in our hearts.