Rape, Race, Education: How Justice Failed a Black Adoptee

The judge says it was not a rape case, nor was it about racial bias. While the determination of rape may be legally correct, the case was assuredly about race.

On February 24, Idaho Judge Randy Stoker sentenced a white high school football player, John RK Howard, to probation and 300 hours of community service for an attack in which a black, developmentally disabled teen (also on the football team) was lured into a hug with a teammate, and then another teammate shoved a hanger in the teen’s anus. Howard kicked the hanger further into the teen. Howard was initially charged with forcible penetration by use of a foreign object, and ultimately pled guilty to a lesser charge of felony injury to a child.

The black teen is a transracial adoptee. It’s taken me a few days to post about the case, given its tragic outcome. While there certainly can be gains in adoption, there is also loss, and this young man has lost a great deal.

I cannot imagine the psychological and physical pain the young man has endured as a result of that vicious incident. My sense is that he was struggling to fit in, as a black person in a tiny almost all white, Idaho town, thinking that the football players were his friends, putting up with bullying and taunts because he wanted to be accepted in a football-focused town.

Probation and 300 hours of community service seems an astonishingly light punishment for the perpetrator. What a message it sends to a locker room culture that tolerates, if not encourages, violence and racism.

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Equally disturbing, though, are remarks the Judge Stoker made about the case as he discussed his rationale for sentencing.

Stoker said it was not a rape case. I am not a lawyer, but I am guessing that this perspective is based on Idaho’s sexual assault laws that say rape is defined as the penetration, however slight, of the anal (or oral or vaginal) opening with a penis. Stoker said, “This is not a rape case. This is not a sex case…Whatever happened in that locker room was not sexual. It wasn’t appropriate.”

No, inserting a hanger in someone’s anus is not appropriate. It should be criminal.

Stoker also said this “was not a case about racial bias.” Speaking to Howard, the judge, a 66-year-old white man, said, “If I thought you had committed this offense for racial purposes, you would go straight to the Idaho penitentiary.”

It’s hard to see the judge’s statement as anything but naïve, disingenuous, and dangerous.

Howard and other members of the Dietrich High School football team, in a town of 335 people, had taunted and bullied the victim for months before the October 2015 event. One documented pre-season incident, not directly connected with this case, reminded me of a scene from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I wrote about it here: Battle Royal: Racism, Football, and an Adoptee in Idaho.

But this case, says Stoker, was not about racial bias. Stoker may well be a qualified judge (elected to the district court since 2007). His understanding of racial bias, though, is, and I am being polite, sorely lacking.

“The coaches admitted the victim was called fried chicken, grape soda, and Kool-Aid, but only because he said he liked those things.” (You can see video of the judge’s comments here.) Judge Stoker then said, “I don’t think that’s a racial slur. If it is, I guess I’m not very educated.”

I guess not. Those are all slurs, longstanding and historic. Here are a few explanations:

Making Fried Chicken and Watermelon Racist

Judge says Dietrich locker room crime was not racially motivated.

Where Did That Fried Chicken Stereotype Come From?

The judge might want to take a look at Code Switch and Black People Are Not Here To Teach You About Race. He might have more free time to peruse these things, as there is a change.org petition with over 166,000 signatures calling for his removal from the bench.

This is not a case entirely about race, I realize, though white privilege is absolutely at its core. At the end of the day, it is about the horrific, violent way one young human being treated another young human being. It is about how power and privilege play out when racial slurs are considered nicknames, when a vulnerable youth is abused verbally and otherwise yet school officials look away, and when bullying becomes physical violence in a locker room. Make no mistake, though: race plays a central, painful role here.

Imagine if it were your child, wanting to be part of the team, who was so violently violated. Learn, act, and do not look away.

 

Small Town Football, Schizophrenia, and Transracial Adoption: A Devastating Perfect Storm

In the U.S., we have lots of small towns where high school sports are entrenched. There are many traditions, and much enthusiasm, for the games, the players, and the coaches. Playing high school football is tough work: memorizing dozens of plays, completing and repeating complex drills, working through pain, following instructions that are yelled, living up to history and traditions of the team. Sometimes there is also character building, camaraderie, and excellence in sportsmanship.

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Dietrich High School football team practice

I can understand why young men in high school, especially in a small town, would want to be on the football team. I can understand why those who didn’t play sports would feel like excluded outsiders. Take tiny Dietrich, Idaho, for example. Why not try out for the Blue Devils team? The whole town (all 330 people) would know and maybe love you.

 

If you were part of an unusually big (25 kids) family, your family was the main reason the town had a black population at all, and you were a black 17-year-old who wanted to be part of the team and the town, maybe you’d try out for football. Maybe your only role models for black men were pro football players that you’d seen on tv. Maybe you’d hope to fit in, be part of a community where, as a transracial adoptee, you felt like an outsider, an “other.”

I get that.

What I don’t get is why a teen with disorganized schizophrenia would be considered by his parents or his coaches as a good candidate for lineman on a small high school football team.

The adoptee’s mother has said in news reports that her son, adopted at age four, was exposed to drugs and alcohol (Fetal Alcohol Effect or Syndrome?) before he was born, and was diagnosed with disorganized schizophrenia. “He struggles to carry out tasks that involve a sequence. When writing the first sentence of an essay, for instance, he may forget the point of the project. He carries this huge backpack” full of all his books so he can be sure to have the one he needs, the teen’s adoptive mother told news media.

People with disorganized schizophrenia have disorganized speech and thinking, and grossly disorganized behavior, They often have a flat affect, and inappropriate emotions and facial responses. Treatment for disorganized schizophrenia is more difficult than most of the subtypes of schizophrenia. They can be successful in life, of course–with support.

A teen with disorganized schizophrenia would not likely be safe or successful on a high school football team, unless appropriate safeguards and resources were in place, where people (coaches and teammates) were willing to work with him closely and intensely.

For this teen, playing football had to have been a nightmare. “As a lineman with the football team, the teen could seldom avoid jumping offsides; the quarterback’s play calls confounded him,” say news reports. Imagine–under the best circumstances–how that affected the teen himself, and imagine the responses of his coaches and teammates.

Add to that baseline the horrific racist taunting that (apparently) the coaches and the high school staff knew about and condoned. Add to that physical bullying in the locker room. Add to that being humiliated by teammates taking naked pictures of him on the team bus.

Add to that sexual assault by 3 teammates–a coat hanger in the rectum.

I hope that the alleged criminals–his teammates–are prosecuted to the full extent of the law, for “forcible penetration by use of force or a foreign object,” and for every possible charge. The federal criminal lawsuit will take time to wend its way through the system, as information is gathered and witnesses deposed. I wonder if one of the witnesses will be Hubert Shaw, who owns Dietrich’s feed lot, and is related to the main defendant, John Howard. Shaw is quoted saying about Howard and the other two defendants: “They’re 15-, 16-, 17-year-old boys who are doing what boys do.”

The adoptive family has filed a $10 million civil lawsuit, and that will no doubt take a long time to settle as well. The Dietrich school system has a $2 million annual budget. Maybe they have a lot of liability insurance. I don’t know how that works. I am heartened that the Dietrich School coaches, principals, and other staff members are explicitly named in the suit. They must be held accountable. Everyone who let this teen down in such a cruel, traumatizing way must be held accountable.

The mentality of small town sports can be overwhelming and consuming. Football is a tough, unforgiving, complex sport.

Adoption is complex, and can be traumatic. Children adopted at older ages (and 4 is older in adoption) have likely gone through some difficult experiences, or otherwise would not be placed for adoption. Adoptees often need and can benefit from clinical and other support services, especially in the teen years.

Transracial adoption has its own challenges. A good adoption agency and any adoption-competent licensed therapist would recommend that families have access to resources, role models, racial mirrors, same race mentors, and a deep understanding of racism (both on an individual and systemic level).

Treatment of mental illness often involves medications, therapies, counseling, and other services. Schizophrenia is particularly serious. I agree that stigma needs to be removed from mental illness. But mental illness is real, and should be treated with appropriate care.

There’s so much misunderstanding of special needs and of mental illness, of the realities of racism for people of color, and of the complexity of adoption. What a devastating perfect storm for this teen in Idaho.

 

 

 

 

 

Update on Adam Crapser: Fairness and Justice for All International Adoptees

Who holds the power in international adoption: adoptive parents or adoptees? Let’s talk fairness and justice. A case study:

The adoptive parent serves 90 days of jail for horrific abuse of children. The adopted son serves 25 months in jail for burglary (no one was hurt), and then could be deported.

In 1991, adoptive father Thomas Crapser served 90 days after being convicted for 12 counts of cruelty and abuse of children. One of those children, Adam Crapser, got into trouble as a teen and adult, and spent 25 months in prison for burglary.

Adam now faces deportation, because he is not a US citizen. Adam is 40 years old, with a wife and children. He has served time for his crimes, and has worked hard to be a good, productive member of the community.

Thomas Crapser received no punishment at all for failing to get citizenship for his internationally adopted son Adam, who was among the children beaten, burned, clubbed, kicked, gagged, and worse. Thomas also received no punishment for refusing for years to give Adam the documents needed to obtain citizenship.

No one is condoning Adam’s crimes. But let’s be fair. Let’s consider justice: 90 days for horrific cruelty to children. 25 months for burglary and then, deportation.

What a message about international adoption, and what it means to be a “forever family” in the United States. Every adoptive parent should be speaking out about this.

Here’s an article about the 1991 arrest of adoptive parents Thomas and Dolly-Jean Crapser:

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1991 Arrest of Adam Crapser’s parents

According to a recent Columbian newspaper article: The state launched an investigation in June 1991. The Crapsers were arrested in September 1991 and initially charged with 34 counts of rape, sexual abuse and criminal mistreatment across six years. The case went to trial in Marion County Circuit Court in June 1992. Testimony reported in The Salem Statesman Journal was that eight children had been kicked, punched, gagged, bitten, burned, slammed into walls and beaten with garden tools and belts.

Convicted on 12 counts, Thomas Crapser was sentenced to 90 days in jail, a fine and probation; Dolly-Jean Crapser’s 90-day sentence was suspended, and she was ordered to perform community service. An investigation report had recommended years in prison for both. The state unsuccessfully appealed the sentences.

When Adam Crapser was about 4 years old, he was adopted to the US for a better life with a loving forever family. Well, no. He was adopted–twice–by cruel, abusive parents. He was separated from his sister, shuttled around foster care, and grew up knowing far more abuse than love or even safety. There is no doubt that our US child protection system failed Adam.

Among the parents’ cruelties was the fact that the Crapsers withheld Adam’s basic immigration/adoption documents from him. That’s not a crime as such, to refuse to give a child his legal documents. Nor is it a crime to fail to get citizenship for an internationally adopted child. That failure though can result in devastating consequences.

Growing up in troubled, abusive “families,” Adam made mistakes, for which he admits remorse and has served time.

Again according to the Columbian article, Adam Crapser said middle school bullying was so bad that he wound up lashing back and serving time in juvenile jail. By his late teens, he was living in a car and fending for himself.

Over the next couple of decades, he tried to live a good life, he said, but he racked up several more criminal convictions — starting with burglary for breaking back into the Crapser home to retrieve childhood keepsakes like his Korean Bible. For that, he spent 25 months in prison. Back outside and fearing for his safety, Crapser said, he got hold of a gun — strictly forbidden for a convicted felon — and wound up in prison again.

He decided he had to turn himself around. He studied cosmetology and auto mechanics. He earned his G.E.D. and worked as a collision-repair estimator. “I’ve worked so many jobs for 90 days at a time,” he said, because every employer faced a deadline to require proof of legal status. Crapser’s permanent legal status — his Green Card — had long since expired. He couldn’t get a new one without documents that he said the Crapsers withheld.

Once he did finally get the documents in 2012 and applied to renew his green card, Adam’s criminal convictions brought the possibility of deportation. Here in the US, convicted felons who are not US citizens can be deported. That possibility of deportation extends to international adoptees who were brought to the US, without having any choice or say in the matter, by legal US citizens, with the awareness and permission of their country of origin and of the United States government.

Internationally adopted children did not automatically receive US citizenship prior to 2000. Read more here.

Adam Crapser’s initial deportation hearing was held on April 2, and resulted in a continuation until June 18. You can learn more here in the UK’s Guardian, here on MSNBC, and here on CBS News. Google “Adam Crapser” and you will see many major and local news outlets featuring articles and interviews.

The international adoptee community has been tireless in its advocacy for Adam and for changes in citizenship laws, urging retroactive citizenship for all international adoptees. Legislation is being proposed in the US Congress to correct the absurdity that children internationally adopted by US citizens do not receive US citizenship as part of their legal relationship with their family.

Fairness and justice.

 

 

Kristen Barbour Asks for Reduced Sentence for Abuse of Adopted Children

Kristen Barbour pled no contest to two felonies of endangering the welfare of the two little children she and her husband adopted from Ethiopia. In September, she was sentenced to 6 to 12 months alternative housing (outside of her home) and 5 years of probation. Her attorney, Robert Stewart, recently filed a request to change that “alternative housing” to home confinement, saying that the Barbours’ two biological children would then be left with no one to care for them.

The district attorney, Jennifer DiGiovanni, objected to any changes in Kristen Barbour’s sentence, saying that “Doing so would dilute this court’s sentence. This would not adequately address the severity of the crimes of which the defendant was convicted.”

You can read the full story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette here.

The two children are doing much better, following removal from the Barbours’ home. May justice for them be served.

 

Removed From the Barbours, The Children Have Flourished

In “Help, Thanks, Wow: Three Essential Prayers,” Anne Lamott wrote…”Nothing can possibly make things okay again. And then, people and grace surround the critically injured person or the bereft family. Time passes. It’s beyond bad. But people don’t bolt. Love falls to earth, rises from the ground, pools around the afflicted. Love pulls people back to their feet. Bodies and souls are fed. Bones and lives heal. New blades of grass grow from charred soul. The sun rises. Wow.”

Many people have asked how the two adopted Ethiopian children adopted by Douglas and Kristen Barbour are doing. The little ones arrived from Ethiopia in March 2012, were removed from the Barbours by the state of Pennsylvania in October 2012, and went to a foster home. The Barbours pled “no contest” in June 2014 to abusing and endangering the children, and terminated their parental rights this summer. They were sentenced this week: probation for him and a prison term of 6-12 months for her, which she may well serve at her home, not in prison. Read more here.

The children, a boy and girl, now 8 and 3, are flourishing since being adopted by a new family that includes parents Alison and Kevin Patterson, plus 3 siblings. It’s such good news, and the only happy part of this whole miserable case.

The following information is from the Victim Impact statements Alison and Kevin submitted to the court for the Barbours’ sentencing hearing this week; the statements and the photos below are part of the public record from the sentencing.

Alison Patterson’s statement:

“E  is an athletic, intelligent and good-humored boy with a handful of close friends. He debates between a future in engineering or medicine, though sometimes he considers professional sports or the circus.

“He also struggles with his self-esteem, has some separation anxiety when parted from the other children in our family, has light scars from the sloughing of skin (“peeling like paint” was the language used to describe the condition), and has intrusive thoughts about the summer and early fall of 2012. These symptoms have decreased significantly over the past year, and he is a far different child from when he arrived, small and fearful in October 2012.

“The first day we met, E asked me which bathroom he could use. When I told him that he could use any bathroom he wished, he told me that his ‘body was unsafe for other people.’ I told him this was certainly untrue. But he believed it to his core — why would he have been kept in the bathroom in the dark if it wasn’t true?

“He feared the dark, which we corrected by using nightlights. He feared the bathroom fans so much so that he would break into a cold sweat, and we replaced them with whisper-quiet fans. He asked where he could eat, what he could eat, whether he was allowed to eat the same foods as other family members, and whether he was still allowed to use the same bathroom or eat the same food when we had guests. He could not be upstairs alone, and feared that if he went to his room unaccompanied we might forget and leave him there.

“He told us that after what had happened, he ‘[did] not know how to play with other kids anymore.’ Our other children amazed me and my husband with their intuition and with their compassion. We supervised playdates closely to promote positive peer interactions, and his post-traumatic stress disorder therapy helped him to see himself as not so alien to other people. He began to make lasting connections.

“It has been suggested that many of the behaviors observed were adoption-related, and that E was ‘troubled’ and ‘overwhelming.’ But his life in Ethiopia was no more ‘troubled’ than that of many other adopted people. While his first family could not provide for him, he was and is adored by his Ethiopian foster mother K, and her grown children W and EE.  K says that she ‘call[s] him my son’ and she misses him. EE keeps E’s picture at her own home, and thinks of him every day. I debated revealing this very private bit of information, but I hope it helps [the court] to think differently about ‘orphan.’ E has been loved by many, and he is the son of many who are proud to call him son.

“For (the daughter) R, anti-seizure medication had to be taken exactly on time to avoid seizure activity, this in a child with no seizure history prior to a traumatic brain injury in September 2012. When she arrived in our home, she had no reflexes, and she would not catch herself if she leaned while sitting. She had to learn to walk again, but we could not risk a fall. Thus, I had to be within literal arms’ reach at all times.

“But she learned to walk. And then to run. And soon, with therapy and role modeling by the children around her, to talk. She is a marvel: funny and warm-hearted.

“She also has poor impulse control, and a combination of high intelligence and the significant likelihood of permanent learning disability as a result of frontal lobe damage.Her vision has improved. Her Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation specialist is pleased by her progress, but cautions that school will be a challenge. Most of her disability will be invisible, and a private struggle.

“R is too young to speak to you about her experiences, and perhaps too young to have any speakable memory of the events. But someday she will have to come to terms with the fact that her difficult start in Ethiopia was followed by her near death in Pittsburgh. E says little these days about 2012, and he functions marvelously in a large and loving family. But he also has a lot to live with for a little person, and as loved as he is, his life will never be normal. He will not always be a PTSD patient, but he will always be a child who almost starved to death in the midst of plenty.

“E and R, like all child victims, deserve the court’s protection, as well as a sentence proportional to the harm done and permanency of the damage and reflective of society’s understanding of the value of these children’s lives.”

Little R Looking at a Llama– Photo by Heather Kresge Photography

Kevin Patterson’s statement:

“R is exuberant. She brings life to every room that she enters, and she has a smile that lights up everyone around her. She is active and smart. She likes to take care of baby dolls, and her hugs are strong and insistent. She is impulsive and trusting, throwing herself off of a climber at the playground and into my arms – ‘You catch me!’ she said with a smile and without having considered the risks. She knows that she is adored.

“As her father, I know that someone tried to kill my little girl, and that someday I will have to help her come to terms with that knowledge.

“I want for my children what any good father would want. I want them to know that they are valuable, that their existence as people is important and meaningful. I want them to find joy in the world without feeling like it may all come crashing down at any moment. I know that, despite my love for them, I shouldn’t have them. The conditions under which they came to be my children are those of a dangerous and unjust world.

“I have done and will continue to do everything in my power to expose them to the parts of the world that are lovely and good. I ask for your (the court’s) help in that mission. I would like to, one day, be able to say to them, and show them the proof, that their lives were valued not only by our family, but by our society. Given the seriousness of the crimes committed, the lasting effects on my children, the lack of admission of guilt or even expression of remorse for the children’s pain and for all they have lost, I ask for the maximum sentence possible for the crimes to which the Barbours have pled no contest.”

Kevin and Alison are not taking questions about the case, and have not commented on the Barbours’ sentence except in the Victim Impact statements above. A September 15 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article “Franklin Park couple sentenced for abusing adoptees” is available here.

Kevin and Alison shared the following thoughts with me, thanking the community, referring to Hana and Immanuel Williams, noting that no child should be abused, and that all children deserve justice:

We extend our sincere thanks to all who have expressed their love and support for the children. We are especially thankful to all those who have spoken up for our son and daughter when they could not speak for themselves and when we could not speak for them. Maureen McCauley Evans, amaseganallo (thank you in Amharic).

Hana Williams is in our hearts today, as are Immanuel and his family, and all children who have been blamed for the violence committed against them. It is worrisome that we have to assert repeatedly that it is never, ever, ever the child’s fault, but assert it we must.

Patterson Family Photo

My thanks to Kevin and Alison, and all good wishes to the children. May they always be safe and surrounded with love. Bones and lives heal. Wow.

Remembering Hana, Hoping (Again) for Justice in Adoption

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.

Hana's grave at Union Cemetery. Photo taken September 8, 2014.

Hana’s grave at Union Cemetery. Photo taken September 8, 2014.

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.

The view along I-5, heading north from Seattle.

The view along I-5, heading north from Seattle.

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.

 

Crime, Punishment, and the Undervalued Lives of Adopted Children

Imagine you are the mother or father of a 5-year-old little boy and a 1-year-old baby girl. For complicated reasons, you must put the children in the care of others. In this case, the children will be sent to live with a lawyer and his college-educated wife who live in a big house with a nice yard for kids. Good people.

About 6 months after your children have been with this couple, your baby daughter is diagnosed with retinal hemorrhaging, brain injuries, and fractures of the skull and femur. Baby girl’s leg apparently was broken for about 3 months before the couple sought medical help. Your little boy is hospitalized because of a body temperature of 93.6, an infection, possible hypothermia, and malnourishment. In fact, the boy had lost about 10 pounds, or about a third of his body weight, at the time he was admitted to the hospital. Both children are removed from the “care” of the couple, and now, after this abuse, violence, neglect, and trauma, are placed in foster care and must find a new family.

Imagine these are your beloved children. What do you think a fair punishment would be for the people who were entrusted with your little ones?

How about probation? No jail time. PROBATION.

If a stranger had broken into the Barbour home and harmed the children the way their parents did, he would be sentenced to far more than probation.

That certainly sends a message, doesn’t it, about the value of the adopted children, and the punishment a court will mete out for breaking their bones, starving them, and denying them care, as well as for violating the understanding that an adoptive family will care for and cherish children who need families.

The couple, Kristen and Douglas Barbour, adopted 2 Ethiopian children, ages 5 and 1, in March 2012. They had 2 biological children who were about 3 and 5 at that time. In October 2012, Mr. and Mrs. Barbour (he was a state prosecutor; she a stay-at-home mom) were arrested for assault and endangerment of the two adopted children. They pled no contest to the charges this week. They will be sentenced September 15. Douglas Barbour will receive probation, according to news reports. Kristen Barbour will request probation, though it is possible she will get some small amount of jail time.

Where is the adoption agency in all this? Pound Pup Legacy reports that the home study agency was Bethany Christian Services. This means that Bethany did the home study with the Barbours, who would have attended their classes and met whatever requirements Pennsylvania, the US government, the Ethiopian government, and the agency have. The placing agency was, according to Pound Pup, International Adoption Guides of South Carolina. IAG would have referred the children from Ethiopia to the Barbours, and Bethany would be responsible for the post-adoption work with the family.

IAG closed its doors recently, as its staff was arrested due to a Department of Justice investigation for fraud and corruption. You can read about the IAG indictment here. Thus it’s unclear what sort of cloud these children arrived here under, given the reputation of and allegations against IAG. It adds to the overall heartache for this little boy and girl.

It may be that Bethany Christian Services is stepping in and helping now, though a tragic amount of water is under the bridge. I’d welcome news that they are advocating aggressively for these children.

Where is the court in all this? The judge is on record in this case as saying that this whole thing seems to be “a significant act of charity gone awry.”

To me, that statement is shallow, naïve, and callous. It condones the abuse and cruelty of defenseless children at the hands of people who have been selected to protect them, after their original family was unable to do so. It reeks of a sentiment that suggests the children came from a destitute place, and anything they get is better than what they had–and maybe more than they deserve.

Amanda H.L. Transue Woolston (MSW, author of/contributor to many books, adopted person, The Declassified Adoptee, founder of excellent resource Lost Daughters) phrased it this way: “If the court can think of no better conclusion than abuse of adopted children as “an act of charity gone awry,” clearly it has failed to acknowledge the humanity of these children. Adoption is not charity. Adoptees are not charity cases. The rights of these children have been violated and the court’s response is morally bankrupt at very best.”

The court and the defense attorneys apparently also believe there was no malice here.

From news reports: “They tried to do something wonderful to provide a better life for these kids,” said Kristen Barbour’s lawyer, Robert Stewart. “This wasn’t an act of malice.”

Multiple fractures, malnutrition, possible blindness, another loss of family, emotional abuse.

“It appears this simply became a situation that was overwhelming,” said Charles Porter, Douglas Barbour’s lawyer.

Adults who had parenting experience, who had resources, and who had choices in how to care for children, were overwhelmed. These adults refused to act on the advice of medical professionals, failed to bring a child with a broken leg to get medical help, and insisted that “rules must be followed in our house.”  Until the children were removed by the state.

Allegheny County Common Pleas President Judge Jeffrey A. Manning said he believed the couple acted without malice.

What would it take for this treatment of vulnerable children to reach the level of “malice”? My understanding is that, as a legal term, malice means there was a deliberate intent to harm someone else, a wrongful act done intentionally, without just cause.

I cannot imagine what the “just cause” was, then, for the treatment the adopted children received, since it was significant enough for the state to remove them and terminate the Barbours’ parental rights. Broken bones, retinal hemorrhaging, weight loss, infections–all inadvertent?

The Barbours seriously harmed their adopted children, physically, emotionally, and psychologically. They are smart, well-educated people, who apparently decided, deliberately and knowingly, to ignore the advice of medical and other professionals. They continued to inflict harm on young, adopted children, harm they did not inflict on their biological children. The bio children, who likely witnessed their parents’ mistreatment of the Ethiopian siblings, were returned to the parents: the people who had two children removed from their care by the state because of the harm done to them.

Would you be okay with your children being in the care of people who had endangered and abused two little children, who pleaded “no contest” to the charges? I wonder if the people who returned the bio kids to the Barbours thought, “Well, they’ll be okay. It was just the adopted kids that were the problem.”

The Barbours are, after all, “good people,” according to their lawyer. I doubt that would be the view held by the Ethiopian government, who trusted that the children would be safe. I doubt that would be the view held by the children’s original families, whose vulnerable voices are silenced here. As an adoptive parent of 4, including twin daughters from Ethiopia, I struggle mightily with that characterization. I struggle also with the court’s narrow view about the harm that has been done to these adopted children, now in foster care, who are left to recover from tremendous, undeserved losses and injuries, at the hands of people who freely and legally agreed to protect and care for them.

People who will likely receive probation as punishment.

Share your views about that punishment by writing to Allegheny County President Judge Jeffrey A. Manning, Court of Common Pleas, 330 Frick Building, 437 Grant St., Pittsburgh, PA 15219.

 

 

 

A Tragic Echo of Abused, Adopted Ethiopian Children

Am I foolish to think there will be a public, powerful statement from the international adoption community, especially adoption agencies and policymakers, demanding that these parents receive more punishment than probation for the endangerment and abuse of 2 very young adopted children?

Kristen and Douglas Barbour of Pennsylvania today pled “no contest” to endangering the welfare of their two adopted Ethiopian children, placed with them in March 2012 through the adoption agency Bethany Christian Services. The Barbours were charged with assault and endangerment in October 2012. The “no contest” plea, as I understand it and I am not a lawyer, is often a result of a plea bargain. It means they are not pleading guilty, but they recognize there’s evidence sufficient to convict them if they were to go to a trial. Sentencing will take place September 15.

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Douglas and Kristen Barbour

You can read the story in today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette here.

Last summer around this time, I was attending the Washington state trial of Larry and Carri Williams, who were convicted for homicide and abuse of their adopted Ethiopian children, Hana and Immanuel.

The similarities between the Barbour case and the Williams case are eerie.

Two unrelated Ethiopian children were placed in a family with other biological children. Hana and Immanuel were about 10 and 8 at placement; the Barbour children were 5 (the boy) and 13 months (the girl).

Things went well at first, with happy photos and cheerful blog posts.

Then things became more challenging, and the families withdrew to use their own discipline and approaches. The Barbours apparently did seek out some help from an intentional adoption clinic doctor, but then “balked at his advice,” according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The little boy in the Barbour family weighed 46 pounds the first time he saw the doctor after arriving in the US. When the children were taken into custody and the parents arrested in fall 2012, he weighed 38 pounds, and was diagnosed with malnutrition–just like Hana, though of course Hana died. The boy was made to eat his food in the bathroom because he soiled himself, and lived in a sparse bedroom, very similar to the treatment of Immanuel.

The baby girl was diagnosed in fall 2012 with retinal hemorrhaging which has resulted in blindness, as well as a brain injury and several healing fractures, including her femur and toe. A baby. I can barely tolerate typing that.

The Barbours are not accused of abusing their two biological children. The Williamses were not accused of abusing their seven biological children.

The adopted children in both families did not apparently comply sufficiently with the rules of the households into which they had been placed. The little Barbour boy, for example, didn’t play fair in Candy Land, according to a blog post by Kristen Barbour. One of the most puzzling parts to me in the Williams’ trial was that horrible, disproportionate  punishments were doled out to Hana and Immanuel for behaviors such as adding numbers incorrectly, not saying thank you after a meal, and trimming the grass too short.

The little boy placed with the Barbours had toileting issues, something common in internationally adopted children, and not unusual in a lot of non-adopted children. Immanuel Williams had his struggles too, that resulted in being denied meals or sleeping in a bathroom. These are issues that are certainly frustrating, but there is so much research, techniques, and support available that do not involve endangerment to children.

Both the Williamses and the Barbours are Christians, and appeared to have been motivated by their faith to adopt. Douglas Barbour wrote a post titled “Biblical Motivations for Adoption.” citing a long list of reasons for Christians to adopt. This October 2012 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article explains more.

Both the Williams’ and the Barbour’s biological children will now live with the knowledge that their parents abused their Ethiopian siblings for whom they all prayed even before the children arrived. The biological children probably witnessed the abuse of and cruelty afflicted on the young adoptees by their parents as well, and that is its own type of trauma.

Connections have been made with Hana’s biological family in Ethiopia, and so they are aware of what happened to her. I wonder if the Ethiopian families of the Barbour children will ever know how they have fared since being adopted. I hope so, as sad as the news would be. They deserve to know the truth.

The judge in the Barbour case calls this “a significant act of charity gone awry.”

What?

The defense attorney says “the Barbours probably should have mellowed in their approach.”

“They are good people,” their attorney says.

Really?

On every level, this case is a tragedy. I am speaking out. International adoption agencies and adoption policy makers, where are your voices, on behalf of the children?

 

Larry and Carri Williams: Sentenced to Long Jail Times

This morning (October 29, 2013) at 9:30 am pdt, at the Skagit County Courthouse in Mount Vernon, WA, Judge Susan Cook presided over the sentencing hearing of Larry Williams, convicted of manslaughter (of adopted Ethiopian daughter Hana) and assault of a child (of adopted Ethiopian son Immanuel), and of Carri Williams, convicted of homicide by abuse (of Hana), manslaughter (of Hana), and assault of a child (Immanuel).

Larry and Carri both were in the Skagit County red prison uniforms. As would be expected, the attorneys for both defense and prosecution had various arguments and motions. Larry’s attorneys began by arguing for a new trial; the judge denied the motions. The judge vacated (dropped) Carri’s manslaughter conviction, because she was also convicted of a more serious offense, homicide by abuse, for the same conduct.

The prosecution asked for 333 months, or 27 3/4 years, of jail time for Larry Williams. The defense attorneys asked for 5 years, saying that Larry is ashamed for what he did, and that he has been punished enough.

The prosecution asked for 443 months (about 37 years) of jail time for Carri Williams.  The defense recommended 333 months (about 28 years) for Carri, saying she is not a danger to the community.

Larry Williams wanted to speak on his own behalf, but the motion was denied.

As she was about to hand down the sentences, Judge Cook said, “I am at a complete loss as to why this happened.”

The judge sentenced Larry to a sentence of 333 months. That is a surprisingly long sentence. The judge signed the judgment and sentence documents in regards to Larry, who was then led away to jail.

The Judge sentenced Carri to a sentence of 443 months, the full amount requested by the prosecution. Judge Cook said Carri probably deserved more. Carri was taken away immediately in handcuffs and chains.

Carri’s attorneys plan to file an appeal. They asked for bail during the appeal to be lowered to $600,000. The judge denied the motion, and set bail at $1.5 million.

Judge Cook had presided over the trial of Larry and Carri Williams, the longest in the history of Skagit County, Washington state. I have written dozens of posts about the death of Ethiopian adoptee Hana Alemu (Williams) and the assault of Ethiopian adoptee Immanuel, both of whom were placed for adoption with the Williams’ family in 2008.

The courtroom was, not surprisingly, packed to overflowing. Gina Cole of the Skagit Valley herald reported that trial jurors were there, as well as Carri Williams’s sister, Immanuel’s foster mother, and some witnesses from the trial. Lee Stoll, a reporter with KIRO7, said that 10 of the 14 jurors were in the jury box to watch the sentencing.

Many representatives from the Ethiopian community attended the trial, and many were again present today at the sentencing. The Ethiopian Community Center in Seattle sent an email out saying that they planned to place flowers and candles on Hana’s grave in the Sedro-Woolley cemetery following the sentencing hearing. There will also be a celebration of Hana’s life at the Ethiopian Community Center in Seattle tonight, at 6pm pdt. The address is 8323 Rainier Ave South, Seattle, WA 98118. Phone: 206-325-0304.

May Hana rest in peace, never forgotten.

Note: Many thanks to Skagit Valley Herald reporter Gina Cole, KING-TV reporter Erik Wilkinson, and KIRO7 TV reporter Lee Stoll for their “real-time” Twitter feeds.

KING-TV Photo from Erik WIlkinson's Twitter feed

KING-TV Photo from Erik WIlkinson’s Twitter feed

Snakes, A Child, and Defense Attorneys

I am not a lawyer. The trial of Larry and Carri Williams has opened my eyes quite a bit to the US court process. This is the first–and I hope last–criminal trial I’ve attended in any capacity. I’m astonished by the way our legal system can treat a child.

Larry and Carri Williams are accused of the same crimes: homicide by abuse and manslaughter in the death of their adopted Ethiopian daughter Hana Alemu and first degree assault of their adopted Ethiopian son Immanuel. They each have two public defenders. Carri Williams’ public defenders from Skagit County are Keith Tyne and Laura Riquelme. Rachel Forde is one of the two Snohomish County public defenders representing Larry Williams; Cassie Trueblood is the other. (Larry Williams is being held in the Snohomish County jail, though he is listed on the Skagit County jail roster.)

Sometimes these 4 attorneys are in agreement about a court procedure, a line of questioning, a piece of evidence. Sometimes they are not. The scuttlebutt is that either side could throw the other defendant under the bus. And I guess that’s their job.

During jury selection, the prospective jurors were asked about several things that might potentially affect or impair their ability to be objective, to be impartial. Was the idea of a child dying one of those things? What about beating a child? What about fundamentalist Christianity?

Ms. Forde spoke forcefully to the pool of possible jurors about her deep fear of snakes. She said that even the idea of snakes so affected her that she would not be able to have a clear, objective frame of mind if she were making an important decision. She asked potential jurors to reflect on their own “snakes,” the things that so disturbed them they couldn’t think clearly.

She also spoke quite candidly about her approach in the trial, that she would be outspoken and forceful. Would you as a juror be able to accept that, she wondered, and not see her as a “snake”?

I think about those questions now as I have watched her during this trial.

One job (I’ve been told it’s essentially the only job) of the defense attorney is to create reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors about the case and the witnesses being presented by the prosecution. That’s why Ms. Forde worked to discredit Immanuel’s therapist’s diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: maybe it’s really Oppositional Defiant Disorder?

Same with the forensic pathologist. Maybe Hana was not starved or malnourished: maybe it was anorexia?

We got a more intense insight of her approach during the cross-examination of the expert on torture.  She made statements, ending with “Correct?” The witness said “No, not correct.” She kept going, as if the witness had not disagreed with her, asking a follow-up question the same way, and getting the same response. She closed her cross with him noting how much he had earned as an expert witness, and wouldn’t appearing in this trial now allow him to make all sorts of lucrative future appearances? He said no, but the point had been made.

It’s one thing to watch her engaging this way with a grown man in his 60’s, a retired US Navy admiral, a lawyer with years in the military. It’s another to watch this with a 12-year-old adopted deaf boy who has endured abuse and who watched his adopted sister be abused.

Gina Cole, the talented reporter with the Skagit County Herald, reported Ms. Forde’s tactics this way on August 7, 2013:

“Tuesday afternoon, the Williamses’ adopted son returned to the witness stand for the third time. Larry Williams’ attorney Rachel Forde talked the boy through losing his biological parents, being found by police in a field and taken to an orphanage, flying to the United States and meeting the Williams family, trying to acclimate to his new home and at times disobeying his new parents.

Forde’s questions were phrased as statements, inviting the boy to confirm they were true. But as the questions went on, the boy often replied that something did not happen and the question that followed implied it did:

Forde: So, when there were no eggs and you were supposed to clean the chicken coop, they showed you how to do that.

Boy: No, they never told me.

Forde: And because they showed you how to do it, that’s how you knew you were supposed to do it, right?

Boy: No.

Several times, he told Forde the household rules were never explained to him, and he never understood the Williamses’ expectations. He also said he “never felt comfortable and liked it there,” through a sign-language interpreter.

Forde ended her questioning by asking the boy if he lied even though he knew he wasn’t supposed to, and the boy said he wasn’t sure what she meant. Forde then confirmed he knew the difference between the truth and a lie. The boy’s time was then up; he is limited to two and a half hours on the stand at a time.”

You can also follow Gina Cole on Twitter (Gina_SVH) at #Williamstrial; she posts directly from the court room.

So let me understand: Our court system protects minors vigilantly by insisting that they are identified only by their initials, to protect their privacy. But it allows children who have experienced trauma, who have been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, who have witnessed and received abuse, whose parents are accused of first degree assault against them, who were removed from their home by the state because of abuse –it allows the very adult system of badgering and goading to be used against a child in a public setting, with the defendants in the same room, and lots of adults staring at the child.

Well-adjusted, un-traumatized adults would have difficulty with this court room process of being repeatedly questioned in a harsh tone, of having answers ignored, of having to revisit and defend past, painful events. We expect them to cope, since they are adults.

Immanuel is a child, a child for whom the state of Washington had sufficient evidence to bring charges against his parents for assault on him and for the murder of his adopted Ethiopian sister. I am astonished and disappointed that the best our legal system can do for a child is to re-open wounds in a disturbing manner (through word choice, tone, repetition, confusing phrasing, eye-rolling, lack of eye contact, belittling), and treat a (traumatized, assaulted) child the same way as an adult on the stand.

Yes, in the eyes of the law, the assault is alleged. Still, we have heard from the defendants’ own biological children that the adopted children were isolated, put in closets, fed wet sandwiches, and hit with a plastic rod on the soles of their feet. We have heard from Immanuel’s well-credentialed therapist about his PTSD.

Yes, it is necessary for Immanuel to take the stand. Is it necessary for the child to be bullied by an adult in search of defending her client? Is this the best format we can arrange for a child to testify in our court system? Is this how we care for children?

Or is this the way we sacrifice them in pursuit of a defense?