Larry and Carri Williams’ Appeals Hearing, and the Contrast of Ethiopian Resilience and Hope

Ethiopian adoptee Hana Williams died in 2011 of malnutrition and hypothermia, weighing less at death the she had when he arrived in the US three years earlier. In 2013, her adoptive parent were found guilty of homicide, child abuse, and manslaughter. Last week, (June 2), I attended the one hour appeals court hearing in Seattle regarding Larry and Carri Williams’ request that their 2013 convictions be overturned or, failing that, that they get a new trial. The three appeals court judges listened to the arguments of the lawyers. They asked a few questions.

I am not a lawyer, but I know the appeals court process does not re-try the case. No new evidence is introduced; there are no witnesses. The question in an appeal is whether there were legal errors made in the trial that were sufficient to overrule the conviction.

Larry and Carri were not there. Several of Carri Williams’ relatives were at the hearing and conferred with their lawyer afterward; Larry’s relatives may have been there too, but I did not recognize them from the trial. 

The attorney arguing for the overturning of Carri Williams’ conviction for Hana’s homicide and immanuel’s abuse was James Lobsenz, a partner with the law firm of Carney Badley Spellman in Seattle. The attorney arguing for overturning for Larry Williams for ,manslaughter and abuse was Todd Maybrown, a partner with the law firm of Allen, Hansen, Maybrown, and Offenbecher. in Seattle.

The attorney for the state of Washington, requesting that the convictions be maintained, was Erik Pedersen, a Skagit County prosecutor. Pedersen argued successfully in 2015 when Larry and Carri also appealed their convictions.

We don’t know when the judges will make a decision on the case. My understanding is that appeals court decisions can take a week, or they can take months. Right now, decisions are filed on Mondays. If you go to the Washington State Court of Appeals website, you can click on Opinions and sign up for notifications of Appeals Court Division I decisions.

I have no insider information about this, but I do find it interesting that Larry and Carri have private attorneys for this 2019 appeal. Perhaps Mr. Lobsenz and Mr. Maybrown are doing this work pro bono (for free, as volunteers, “pro bono publico” which means for the public good). Perhaps family members or friends are underwriting the costs. I do know that neither of the lawyers was at the 2013 trial to see the autopsy photos of Hana’s emaciated, scarred body, nor to hear the testimony of the Williams’ children about the isolation, deprivation, and punishments that Hana and Immanuel endured.

I for one pray that justice is served, and that the convictions for homicide, manslaughter, and child abuse will be upheld.

Had she not died from torture, hypothermia, and malnutrition 3 years after arriving for adoption from Ethiopia, Hana would now be about 21.

Immanuel is now about 18 years old, and is apparently doing fairly well. He hopes to return to Ethiopia with his new, loving family. Immanuel is deaf. (One of the punishments Carri Williams sometimes used with Immanuel was requiring that no one communicate with him in sign language.) His family now includes people who know sign language, and they will travel with him to Ethiopia, in part to help with signing and with deaf culture issues. It will be, I would guess, an emotional, complicated trip. The death of Hana was among the reasons that Ethiopia closed to adoptions, and many Ethiopians around the world deeply grieve her death, and of course want Immanuel to heal and thrive as well. There is a GoFundMe campaign for Immanuel and his family’s trip back. Please contribute if you are able.

Painting of an Ethiopian woman cradling her baby.
Original Art © Adanech Evans.

I want to close this post with a mention of another Ethiopian adoptee, Abai Schulze. Abai is the founder and Creative Director of ZAAF, “a collection of premium leather goods and accessories handcrafted by artisans in Ethiopia.” The products are stunning. They have been featured at New York Fashion Week, in Elle, Lucky, Vogue, and Forbes.

Abai came from Ethiopia to the US for adoption at around 11 years old. Her adoptive family encouraged her not to lose her Amharic language and to keep her connections with Ethiopia. She holds a degree in economics from George Washington University, learned about design and fine arts, and returned to Ethiopia to establish ZAAF in 2014. You can read more about her in Tadias and elsewhere.

Abai recently gave an incredible, inspiring Tedx talk, available here. The theme of the Tedx was a “A World of Change, A World of Hope,” and Abai’s talk was titled ” ‘Made in Africa’ The Power of Shifting Perceptions.” She briefly discusses adoption, but the focus is much more on the tremendous potential of Ethiopian and African creativity and business power. Abai offers an important view into alleviating poverty not through charity or saviorism, but through liberation of talent and ingenuity. She gives a solid business plan based in economics, pragmatism, resilience, and hope.

It’s resilience and hope I want to focus on, as we keep Hana in our hearts always. May justice be served.

For lawyers and others who may be interested, here is the link to appellate briefs in Carri Williams’ petition. Her case is number 77416-6.

Here is the link to appellate briefs in Larry Williams’ petition. His case number is 77460-3.

Larry and Carri Williams Request New Trials And Release From Prison

The Skagit Valley Herald has reported that Larry and Carri Williams, convicted in 2013 of the homicide of their Ethiopian adopted daughter, have requested new trials, and to be released from prison in the meantime.

Larry Williams was sentenced for 27 years, and Carri Williams for 36 years. They have been in jail since their jury trial in 2013. In 2015, they appealed their convictions, saying that evidence was incomplete and that the court made multiple errors. The appellate court denied their appeal.

This time, they are arguing that they received deficient legal representation, and that their convictions should be vacated; Carri has asked to be re-sentenced for a lesser charge than first-degree manslaughter.

A hearing will be held on Wednesday, June 12, in Seattle.

More information is available here: Skagit Valley Herald, “Wliiamses ask for new trial, release.”

Remembering Hana Williams on the 8th Anniversary of Her Death

On May 12, 2011, three days after Mothers Day, Ethiopian adoptee Hana Williams died in the Washington state backyard of her adoptive family. The cause of death was hypothermia; the other reasons were malnutrition, bruises, beatings, isolation, loneliness, and fear. She was 13 years old, and she had been in the United States for less than three years.

The photo is of Hana when she was in Ethiopia. She is wearing a striped shirt and has a slight smile.
Hana in Ethiopia, prior to adoption. May she Rest in Peace.

This year, the anniversary of her death falls on Mothers Day here in the United States. Hana’s adoptive mother Carri Williams has been in jail since her conviction for homicide by abuse. In Washington state, where Hana lived, homicide by abuse means that the death was the result of “extreme indifferent to human life,” as well as a pattern or practice of assault or torture” of a child under 16 years old. It’s a tough charge to prove, and the Skagit County prosecutors were able to do so because of the horrific ways that Hana had been treated over time.

I have written about Hana many times. I attended most of the 2013 trial which ended in long jail sentences for her adoptive parents. I often wonder how the Williamses’ biological children are doing. Their testimony was pivotal to their parents’ felony convictions. The siblings all witnessed their parents’ abuse and torture of Hana over years; several of them also witnessed her death.

All around the globe, and especially in Ethiopia, people have grieved for Hana. No human being, no child, should ever go through what she experienced in her too brief life. We all keep her in our hearts in different ways. She would have been 21 now.

I offer a few suggestions for honoring her memory.

One is to support the hopes of her adopted brother, Immanuel. He was adopted from Ethiopia at the same time as Hana. Immanuel was also severely abused by his adoptive parents. Like all the minor Williams’ children, Immanuel was removed from his home after Larry and Carri Williams were accused of homicide and abuse in 2013. He was placed with a foster family who had experience with deaf children like Immanuel, and was later adopted. He will soon turn 18, and would like to return for a visit to Ethiopia. His new adoptive family is helping him achieve this dream through a GoFundMe campaign. Please consider helping Immanuel in this way. He has been through so much.

Another possibility is to support a campaign to provide much needed medical care for two brothers in Ethiopia who have the extremely rare and painful disease Epidermolysis Bullosa. E.B. means extremely fragile skin and constant blisters that must be cleansed and treated daily. The condition and the treatment are painful. The boys, who are 7 and 13 years old, were only recently correctly diagnosed with E.B., and as a result have suffered from painful infections, loss of skin in some places, and a compromised immune system. This fundraiser has already delivered medical supplies and the boys’ parents have been trained how to best care for their sons. This is about family preservation as well: keeping children with their parents, even as the boys have significant medical issues and the parents have few resources. This is about life and love. You can learn more about this family and the GoFundMe campaign to keep these boys as healthy as possible. My dear friend Jemal Countess knows the family and has set up the funding campaign, as well as assisted with the arrangements to get the medical supplies to the family.

I would also suggest donating to and sharing information about Ethiopian Adoption Connection-Beteseb Felega. EAC provides free services to reunite Ethiopian adoptees with their Ethiopian families. They have a database in Amharic and English where individuals can share information about an adoption, and have been successful in reconnecting families. They also provide emotional and social support for Ethiopian first/birth families through caseworker-led support groups. You can learn more about them here.

Many people have expressed concern about the end of Ethiopian adoptions, which occurred in January 2018. All international adoptions to the United States have generally declined in recent years. Take a look at my post “Lamenting the Decline in International Adoptions? Take Action.” There are many ways to still support vulnerable children and families in Ethiopia: adoption was never the only way to help.

There is a Facebook site, In Rememberance of Hanna Williams, that may be of interest.

My biggest suggestion is to treasure those you love, and to let them know it. I think of Hana so often, and of her Ethiopian mother and family. So much loss.

An Adoptee’s Reflection on Trauma, Love, and Adoption

Every Thanksgiving, one of the most wonderful and emotional traditions in my family is to light a candle for the people who aren’t there: for those who have died, who are alive but far away, who aren’t with us for whatever reasons. Sometimes the person lighting the candle says the names out loud of the people he is thinking about and missing. Sometimes the person just lights the candle, then smiles, or tears up. We leave the candles on through the meal.

Adoption, for all its joy, happens only through loss. Children have lost or lose their first family in order to be adopted. That can be necessary, if the child was in danger or had been abused or neglected to the point of needing a new family. But it’s still loss: loss of what could have been, or should have been, or would have been if only…

Adoptive parents, you can love your child deeply. Your child can love you deeply as well, and also feel grief and trauma that are real. It’s okay. It may manifest in different ways over time, in angry words or silent tears. There may be what seem puzzling outbursts at certain times of year—traumaversaries are real too. Join your child on the journey: encourage conversation, honor their grief, know that every child is different, love them, be silent with them, respect their realities at 3 or at 30.

I am a mother because of adoption. I love my children more than I can possibly put into words. Each of my children has been affected, in different ways, by the fact of being adopted. I am a firm believer that the stories (events, memories, traumas, happiness) they have lived through are theirs alone to tell.

My daughter Aselefech Evans has chosen to tell her truth today, to share her lived experience. This is a beautiful, poignant, and powerful essay. Please read, reflect, share.

The Unwanted Arrival of Trauma in Adoption

 

And maybe light a candle to keep warm the realities of those who are both present and absent in our lives.

US Embassy-Addis and US State Department: No Role In Post-Adoption Support?

I had an idea: Ask the US Embassy in Addis if they would be interested in an event focused on adult Ethiopian adoptees who are now Americans.

They said no. I then asked the Office of Children’s Issues at the State Department. Nope.

Should our US government, the entity responsible for oversight of international adoptions to the US, have any role in post-adoption support? International adoptees are here  because the US government allowed them to enter, coordinated the adoption process, researched the background of the child and birth parents, and signed off on visas and other documents. Those are all enormous, significant, life-changing responsibilities. Does our government then close the door on adoptees when they grow up?

Since 1999, the US Embassy in Addis Ababa has processed some 16,000 adoptions. While the legal procedure has had some changes, US State Department staff at the Embassy handled a great deal of adoption paperwork; listened to many adoptive families, adoption agencies, and birth families; and worked hard to make sure all those adoptions were legal and appropriate.

The US Department of Homeland Security, of course, plays a large role in intercountry adoption as well, including issuing Certificates of Citizenship. I believed the U.S. Embassy in Addis would be a more appropriate possibility for an in-country event with adoptees, and hence I contacted them.

Adoptions have closed now from Ethiopia, for a number of reasons.The history of adoptions has been rife with challenges and controversies. That said, the US Embassy has signed off on thousands of adoptions from Ethiopia. They have been closely involved with adoptive parents and adoption agencies for decades.

I thought, perhaps naively if optimistically, that an event like this might be a chance for our U.S. government working in Ethiopia to welcome back Americans who began their lives in Ethiopia, who could provide a unique perspective on their experience as adoptees, and could provide a tremendous bridge between our two countries. Healing, transparency, communication, connections. Why not? I emailed the Embassy last May.

After several weeks, they finally wrote: “Unfortunately, we generally do not go as far as organizing conferences for groups from outside Ethiopia as our programmatic resources are focused in-country. That said, we…recommend that you reach out to adoption advocacy groups and/or Ethiopian media if that’s of interest to you.”

Huh.

After that first turndown from the Embassy, I tried again. I can share the full exchanges with anyone interested, but here a snippet.

From me to the Embassy: “I applaud the Embassy’s efforts to fund proposals that empower women, youth, and underrepresented voices, as well as to strengthen independent media through media literacy. We all believe, as Ambassador Mike said, that when Ethiopia succeeds, when it taps the potential of all its people, not only Ethiopia but the region, the United States, and the world also benefit…We have a tremendous opportunity to bring fact-based information about adoption, and to heal some of the misinformation around adoptions. You brought the Eastern Shore Network for Change to Ethiopia during Black History Month 2018 to heal history and promote constructive change, an outreach to the next generation of Ethiopian leaders. Partnerships like that one and the many others that you promote can, indeed, improve understanding and provide hope for a more equitable future.

Beautiful, complicated Ethiopia. © Maureen McCauley

A program with adoptive parents and especially adult Ethiopian adoptees would bring accurate information around a subject that has had a great deal of misunderstanding. It could promote important connections. It could build astonishing partnerships among young Ethiopian and American leaders, and between the US and Ethiopia.”

They were not interested:

“The role of the Embassy in intercountry adoption is to facilitate the lawful placement of children with American adoptive families. We do support the inclusion of all voices as you pointed out, but we hope you understand that that does not mean we can create a program for every proposal that we receive. And while we certainly think there is value in having Ethiopian adoptees share their stories and be involved in their home communities, we do not see that as an appropriate space for us to take the lead. That said, there is nothing at all preventing adoptees from organizing such outreach on their own – one potential avenue might be to reach out to adoption placement agencies that have been working in Ethiopia – and we wish you every success should you choose to do so.”

I then tried the Office of Children’s Issues (OCI) at the US State Department, the one that is the Central Authority under the Hague Convention to oversee adoptions.

Their 21 full-time OCI employees have several adoption-related responsibilities, including this one: “Working with U.S. embassies and consulates on diplomatic efforts with host governments about adoption laws and procedures.”

OCI, however, had no interest in my idea either. They noted that their focus and that of the Embassy was to complete pending cases.

“Although we understand the Embassy is currently unable to get involved in this particular event, we certainly support and encourage the involvement of private individuals and organizations in promoting these positive stories. As the Embassy mentioned, you may want to consider contacting adoption advocacy and/or child welfare organizations in Ethiopia to support these efforts. We would appreciate learning the outcome of any events you should organize.”

My response to OCI: “I understand the focus of both the Embassy and State in recent months is to complete pending cases. You note that the processing of the current cases is the focus of the Embassy. You don’t cite any other reasons to oppose this idea.

Thus I conclude that once the current cases are resolved, the Embassy and State would then be open to considering an event of some sort. Am I correct? That would be wonderful.”

The OCI response to me: “We would refer you to the Embassy’s public affairs section for the answer to that question.”

And that’s a wrap.

A few final thoughts:

Why the suggestion of working with adoption agencies is naive at best:

When the US Embassy suggested working with adoption agencies, I realized we were at an impasse. Many adoption agencies these days have slim budgets and are struggling, especially in light of the decline in international adoption. Adoption from Ethiopia has ended. Some agencies are not interested in providing post-adoption services to adult adoptees without charging fees, if they in fact offer post-adoption services at all to adopted adults. Among the reasons adoption from Ethiopia ended was because of adoption agency behavior: One adoption agency, International Adoption Guides, had its staff indicted for fraud, bribery, and corruption in Ethiopian adoptions. Another big agency, Christian World Adoptions, was the subject of a powerful expose for possible trafficking in Ethiopia; CWA suddenly closed it doors due to bankruptcy. The death of Hana Williams at the hands of her adoptive parents in Washington state is one reason that Ethiopian adoptions closed. AAI, the agency that placed Hana and hundreds of other Ethiopian children, is out of business. Many other agencies working in Ethiopia have also closed for various reasons. The new accrediting entity, IAAME, has suspended or evoked accreditation for several agencies. 

No, adoption agencies would be unlikely partners.

What the U.S. Embassy-Addis did for Black History Month:

In February 2018, for Black History Month, the Embassy sponsored three speakers from the US, specifically from the Eastern Shore Network for Change, to visit Ethiopia for a week “to heal history and promote constructive change, an outreach to the next generation of Ethiopian leaders.” The folks from the Eastern Shore (MD) organization spoke at Addis Ababa University, the African Union, the Nativity Girls’ School, the Jesuit Refugee Center, and St. Mary’s University. They held a roundtable with the Ethiopian Women’s Journalists Association, and did live broadcasts on Facebook that reached some 11,000 people. They went to a reception at the US Ambassador’s home.

As a result of seeing all the press and support that the Embassy gave to this visit, I thought they might be open to something similar for American citizen Ethiopian adoptees. I was wrong.

The idea for an event is not dead, by any means. We are pursuing other options.

I wish, though, that the US Embassy in Addis and the US State Department’s Office of Children’s Issues, having been involved with thousands of adoptions, had embraced the idea of supporting adult Ethiopian-American adoptees. Instead, they turned down the opportunity, as I see it, to promote healing, listen to adult adoptees, and advance understanding.

 

 

 

 

Thinking of Hana Williams, Seven Years After Her Death

Had she not been murdered by her adoptive parents seven year ago today, Hana Williams would now be 20 years old. We will never know what might have been, what kind of light she may have shone in the world. We have not forgotten you, Hana. You are firmly in our hearts.

Hana Alemu (Williams), in Ethiopia

Since the anniversary of her death last year, adoptions have closed in Ethiopia, in no small part because of the reaction there to the abuse and murder of Hana in 2011, as well as the abuse of her adopted brother Immanuel. There have been other reasons given for the ban, among them the failure of adoptive parents to send in post-placement reports, failure of adoptive families to maintain the children’s Ethiopian culture, fraud and corruption, policies to promote in-country adoption, and more. I think, though, we’d be hard pressed to think that Hana’s death was not a major reason.

That she died as a result of her adoptive parents’ treatment is horrifying enough, but when those of us who attended the 8 weeks’ long trial in 2013 heard about the abuse she endured during the three years she lived in America—well, it’s almost unbelievable. Suffice to say she weighed less at the time she died (78 pounds) than she had when she arrived from Ethiopia in 2008.

Her adoptive parents will remain in jail for many more years. I often wonder how the seven Williams’ siblings are doing. The judge, at the sentencing, said it was largely their testimony that convinced the jury of the heinousness of the crimes.The Williams’ siblings witnessed the abuse of Immanuel and Hana, and then Hana’s death from hypothermia in the family’s backyard. I continue to hope they have found healing.

I don’t have any update on Immanuel. He may have been adopted by another family who could provide resources to heal the trauma, who could help him navigate well as a deaf person, and who could deal with his PTSD.

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day in the United States. Hana died three days after Mother’s Day in 2011. I’ve often wondered what her Ethiopian mother would have thought of this tragedy, and I grieve for all of Hana’s Ethiopian family.

If you are so inclined, do something for the vulnerable children of Ethiopia, or vulnerable children anywhere. May Hana’s memory bring some good to the world. May she rest in peace.

The Heartache of Another Adoptee Suicide: Rest in Peace, Kaleab Schmidt

On April 30, just three days ago, Kaleab Schmidt ended his life. He was 13. He was an Ethiopian adoptee. May he rest in peace and in power. May his family, his adoptive parents and his sisters, also adopted from Ethiopia, find healing and consolation.

Before I go on, I need to say that most adoptees do well. I do not want to pathologize adoptees in any way. I share this news with, I hope, respect for the family, for Kaleab, and for all those who struggle. We have to be able to acknowledge suicide, even as we long to prevent it.

Kaleab lived in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, in the city of Regina. According to his obituary, he loved his family, played lots of sports, was on the honor roll at school, was great with pets. He looks, from his photo, like a beautiful young man who should have had a long and wonderful life.

My understanding from folks who know is that there may have been bullying involved. It was probably bullying based on race.

My heart aches so.

What can we in the adoption community do?

We can contribute to the GoFundMe for the funeral and other expenses.

We can offer prayers for the family, if that’s our faith tradition.

We can learn about suicide prevention; that’s a U.S. based resource. A Canada-based resource for suicide prevention is here. We can learn about suicide and adoption.

We can acknowledge the reality and extent of bullying.

We can learn about and believe the realities of race-based bullying.

We can acknowledge the need for racial mirrors and mentors for adoptees.

We can hold our children close, and try to give them both room to talk as well as tools for dealing with their struggles.

We white adoptive parents can recognize and endorse the importance of race and the reality of systemic racism in our global society. We can support other families and adoptees, offering help and resources.

This is the third time I’ve written about an Ethiopian adoptee who died by suicide. Each was deeply loved by their families. Each left behind parents and siblings and others who had to recover from the loss. I am so terribly sorry for each young person and their families.

Again, I acknowledge that there are thousands of adoptees who do not die by suicide. There may well be some additional risk for adoptees nonetheless, and we would be naïve not to consider that. More research is needed.

I’m so damn sad.

May Kaleab be remembered for his life. May his family, in Ethiopia and Canada, find peace.

The Problem of Post-Placement Reports and Ethiopian Adoptions

The Ethiopian Parliament ended international adoptions in January. However, according to a Facebook posting by an adoptive family, some adoptive parents and Ethiopian officials apparently want to “prove to Ethiopia’s parliament that adoptive families in the US are a great resource for the orphan crisis in Ethiopia.”

(Spoiler alert: This perspective completely excludes the experiences of adult adoptees and of Ethiopian birth parents. Without their voices, this whole undertaking will fail.)

A recent meeting took place in Washington, DC, at the Ethiopian Embassy, with four adoptive families, an official from Ethiopia’s Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs, and embassy officials. The main takeaway of the meeting: to create a flood of post-placement reports from adoptive families, because, they said, Ethiopian “adoptions are closed because families vow in court to do post-adoption follow-up reports on the health and well-being of the children before getting custody, but the majority don’t turn in reports. So the measure of adoption success is not measurable.” To prove that adoptions are successful, “they need a flood of post-adoption reports from families!”

The failure of families to submit post-placement reports was perhaps one reason for Ethiopia to end adoptions, but it’s hardly the only one. Other reasons include the death of Ethiopian adoptee Hana Williams and attendant outcry, the failure of adoptive families to preserve and honor their child’s Ethiopian heritage, the ongoing concern about fraud and corruption, various reports about Ethiopian adoptees being “re-homed,” and, one would hope, a sincere desire to strengthen the child welfare system in Ethiopia to protect the rights and meet the needs of vulnerable children.

So what’s the deal with post-placement reports? Why don’t families send them in?

Here are a few reasons:

  • Many American adoptive families have no confidence that the reports are read, filed, and stored safely in Ethiopia.
  • Some adoption agencies told adoptive and birth families that the Ethiopian birth families would be able to access the reports to know how their children are doing. That simply hasn’t happened.
  • Some families have learned that the story they were told about why their child needed to be adopted was not true. The children aren’t orphans. There was coercion and fraud. The Ethiopian family thought the children were going to the US for education and would return to their Ethiopian family. Given the lies, families stopped sending reports.
  • Adoption agencies closed or were shut down, and left no information about how to follow-up with the reports.
  • Some families just got busy. Since there is no enforcement mechanism, there’s no way to mandate the reports.
  • Increasing numbers of families are in contact with their children’s Ethiopian family, and therefore feel no need to send the reports to the government.

In any case, there’s now a campaign of sorts to get adoptive families to flood the government with post-placement reports. The reports, according to an adoptive family who attended the Embassy meeting, “should include 6-8 photos and a summary of the child’s well-being—physical health, emotional health, education/activities, relationships within family, family summary (jobs, church, people, etc.) and any incorporation of Ethiopian heritage (this goes a LONG way!)”

(Spoiler alert: Way too many US families don’t live anywhere near Ethiopian people, or black people, or other-than-white-people. Incorporation of Ethiopian heritage should be a core value for adoptive parents, one that means more than art on the walls and a summer heritage camp once in a while.)

I understand the value of the post-placement reports: to reassure a sending country that their children are alive and well. I doubt that the reports will make any inroads to the Parliament officials who banned adoptions in Ethiopia, and they won’t do much to help current vulnerable children.

What, besides post-placement reports, can begin to heal the damage done by fraud, corruption, bribery, and trauma to children through the adoption process? How can the good outcomes be noted and discussed? What can possibly be done to effectively help vulnerable children in Ethiopia, now that adoptions are ended?

I suggest that adoptive parents sending in a post-placement report include the following  points along with their photos and updates:

  • We would like to have clarification about the reports we send: Are they translated into Amharic? Are they stored and filed safely? If my child’s Ethiopian birth family wants to see the reports, how does that work?
  • We would like to know what services and resources are offered to Ethiopian mothers and fathers after they have placed a child for adoption. We have many resources for adoptive parents and families here in the US. What is available for birth families in Ethiopia?
  • We would like to understand why adult adoptees are not actively invited to participate in these meetings and forums on Ethiopian adoption. Are we wrong that the outreach seems to be almost exclusively directed to adoptive parents with young children?
  • How can we adoptive parents better promote family preservation and in-country adoption in Ethiopia? Here’s what we are doing about that now: (Families can then describe how they are promoting both preservation and in-country adoption.)
  • We heartily endorse and encourage adoptive families and all interested parties to support the work of Beteseb Felega / Ethiopian Adoption Connection. They are doing work that is vital to the Ethiopian adoption community.

Whether you send a post-placement report or not, you can still send these talking points to the contact person: mulugeta@ethiopianembassy.org.

Bottom line: More post-placement reports from adoptive parents of young children are not the solution. Critical engagement and involvement of adoptees and birth families are long overdue. I do not understand why their inclusion has been such an afterthought and oversight.

There are concrete steps:

  • The Ethiopian government can confer with organizations such as Ethiopian Adoptees of the Diaspora. Many Ethiopian adoptees around the globe are already actively helping vulnerable children and families in Ethiopia, whether their own families or via nonprofits or businesses, and many more would welcome the opportunity to do so.
  • The government can invite adult adoptees to return to Ethiopia and help them with getting to know their country of origin.
  • The government and adoption agencies can provide follow-up services for Ethiopian mothers, fathers, grandparents, and siblings who have been impacted by adoption.
  • The government and adoption agencies can insist on post-placement reports from Ethiopian birth families. I’d like to hear from agencies about why this isn’t done currently, in terms of best practice for all those affected by international adoption.

These steps could help achieve several important goals: to increase family preservation, to promote in-country adoption, and to bring light and transparency to Ethiopian adoption history. Until we stop excluding adult Ethiopian adoptees and Ethiopian birth parents, there will be no substantive change.

What NPR Got Wrong in its Story About Ethiopia’s Adoption Ban

NPR recently did a soft story: “In Ethiopia, A New Ban on Foreign Adoptions Is About National Pride.”

Here’s what went wrong with it:

In a story about Ethiopian adoptions, not one adult adoptee was included for perspective. Nor was an Ethiopian birth parent quoted, if any were even consulted.

The tragic death of Ethiopian adoptee Hana Williams was glossed over. Her murder by her adoptive parents was considered homicide by abuse, and roiled the Ethiopian adoption community as well as Ethiopians in Ethiopia and in the diaspora.

Fraud and corruption didn’t even get a mention in this story. Staff from one agency were indicted by the US Justice Department, pled guilty, and were given jail time. That’s not insignificant. Many adoptive families and adoptees from Ethiopia have learned that the reasons that adoption agencies provided for their adoption were not true or accurate. For example, many adoptees have living birth family members, though the adoptive parents  were told the children were orphans. A conversation with adult adoptees who have searched and reunited with their Ethiopian parents would bear this out multiple times.

Further, there are Ethiopian adoptees who have been “re-homed” when the adoptive family cannot or will not care for them anymore. There are Ethiopian adoptees in the US foster care system. Ethiopian adoptees have annulled their adoptions.

There are many ways to help vulnerable Ethiopian children and families that do not involve adoption.

Oh NPR. You’re certainly not the only news service to omit adult adoptees and birth parents when discussing adoption issues. The impulse apparently is to engage adoptive parents, and that’s it. Well, sometimes prospective adoptive parents are also interviewed. Birth parents and adult adoptees are afterthoughts, if they are considered at all.

And that tired narrative, that lazy approach, has to stop.

Media: Don’t give the mic solely to adoptive parents. And maybe not to them at all.

The main person interviewed and photographed for the story by NPR East Africa  Correspondent Eyder Peralta is a white woman from Ohio who has adopted two Ethiopian children, the second one in January when the Ethiopian Parliament passed a law ending international adoptions.

Thus the only person with a role in adoption who was interviewed to talk about Ethiopian adoption was a white woman of very young children. Not an Ethiopian adoptee, nor an Ethiopian birth parent, either of whom could have provided far more insight into the impact of the ban on adoptions in Ethiopia than a new adoptive parent. I say that as an adoptive parent whose Ethiopian children are now 29 years old.

Why Ethiopia ended adoption: (1) Failure of adoptive parent to keep children connected with their heritage and culture

The first point here, and it is not a part of the story at all, is that Ethiopia has the right to make decisions about its children. The rest of us can disagree, but recognizing the Ethiopian government’s rights as a sovereign nation is important.

The reasons the Ethiopian government provided for the ban on adoption had to do (1) with the adopted children losing their heritage and connection with culture and (2) the response to the murder of Hana Williams.

In the NPR story, Peralta writes about Niki and Brad Huelsman, the white parents who adopted their Ethiopian son in January, saying “They want Girma and his 6-year-old sister to learn about their heritage.” Unfortunately, there is no discussion or insight here about how complex that learning can be, how deeply racism impacts black Americans, and the fact that the Huelsman family’s village of Morrow, Ohio, is 96% white. Are these two Ethiopian children a significant part of the 0.4% of African-Americans in the tiny town?

That sort of pointed question is a valid one in the context of Ethiopian adoptions, and especially when, as Peralta writes, Ethiopian lawmakers ended adoptions because they were “worried that Ethiopian children taken abroad could suffer identify crises and psychological problems.” The adoptive parent confirms those fears of the Ethiopian lawmakers. The children featured in the article will be raised in a small, white village in Ohio, and unless the family is moving to a far more diverse area, the children will likely grow up loved and also lacking in a genuine sense of what it means to be Ethiopian, black, and Ethiopian-American—exactly one of the fears of Ethiopian lawmakers.

Why Ethiopia ended adoption: (2) The death of adoptee Hana Williams and abuse of adoptee Immanuel Williams at the hands of their adoptive parents

The Ethiopian government was also concerned with the physical abuse of their children. I was deeply disappointed when Peralta referred to Hana Williams but did not say her name. In fact, all he said was that the “Ethiopian child from Seattle died after she was left outside in the cold,” a description that is dismissive, disrespectful, and insufficient.

Hana died from hypothermia and from malnutrition, having wasted away to a weight (78 pounds, at age 13) that was less than what she weighed on arrival from Ethiopia three years prior to her death. She died from abuse and torture she endured over a period of months, having been locked in closets, made to eat outdoors, being given frozen food to eat, being forced to shower outside, having her head shaved because she cut the grass too short, and otherwise slowly abused to death. Her adoptive mother was convicted of homicide by abuse. Her adoptive father was convicted of manslaughter.

Hana Alemu (Williams)

Hana died, and her adopted Ethiopian brother Immanuel also was abused; he will bear the lifelong scars. Hana’s tragic death in 2011 at the hands of her adoptive parents horrified Ethiopians around the world. It horrified many people, including adoptive parents like me, as well as adoptees and of course birth parents in Ethiopia.

Yes, it is an isolated incident. We all understand that. But the fact that it happened was jarring at best for anyone who had previously thought that Ethiopian children were being adopted to a better life. We cannot talk about the adoption ban without consideration of that mindset.

The Bigger Picture on Adoption

The NPR story ended with a wistful, naïve, narrow note:

“The Huelsmans made it back to the United States in January with Girma in their arms ‘This transition is about as good as it could have gone,’ Brad Huelsman said. Big sister is a little jealous, but Girma has learned to love the family dogs and has even adjusted to the cold. ‘Sometimes I look at him even now and think I can’t believe he’s home,’ Niki Huelsman said.

But it’s a shame, they say, that other American families won’t know this joy.”

The naiveté is the notion that adoption is about bringing joy to American families. NO. Adoption from Ethiopia is/was not about bringing joy to American families. It was, and should have been, about finding families for Ethiopian children who have endured loss and trauma, and who genuinely have no other options.

Adoption also has to be about acknowledging the losses by the Ethiopian birth families, and the fact that adoption agencies offered them virtually no follow-up or counseling post-adoption, in marked contrast to what is offered to adoptive parents. In my trips to Ethiopia, and I’ve heard this from other visiting adoptive families, it is not at all unusual to have Ethiopian birth parents show tattered photos and ask adoptive parents, “Do you know where my child is?” Unlike American adoptive parents, Ethiopian birth parents rarely have received any sort of counseling or post-adoption services from the adoption agencies, or even any information about their children, though oftentimes they had been promised they would get news. An important resource has been Beteseb Felega, Ethiopian Adoption Connection, which has reunited many Ethiopian birth parents with their children.

For my final note here, I will say that while there will be no more adoptions for the foreseeable future, adoptive parents and others can still help vulnerable children in Ethiopia. The NPR story, like so many that follow only the tired narrative, seems to suggest that only adoption can help the children, and that is simply not true. There are sponsorships available, for some $30 or $50 a month, far less than the $50,000 for a single adoption, that will allow children to go to school, to have decent meals, to receive much needed medications. Roots Ethiopia provides (among other resources) supplies for children with Down syndrome.

Here’s a post that skims the surface of the multiple ways to help Ethiopian children and families.

We need to stop romanticizing adoption as a delightful fairy tale and acknowledge the losses as well as the gains. We need to insist that the voices of adult adoptees and of birth parents be at least equal with those of adoptive parents; I’d argue they should be considered the ones with greatest insight in adoption. And we need to stop throwing up our hands and acting as if international adoption is the only way to help vulnerable Ethiopian children.

Here’s hoping media catches up with this reality, and stops promoting stories that don’t begin to tell the full story.

 

Post script: Be sure to take a look at an Ethiopian adoptee’s comments on Twitter: @AselefechE

Consider emailing Eyder Peralta, the writer of the NPR story, at eperalta@npr.org, or tweeting your comments about the story to @NPR and to the writer, @eyderp.

Ethiopia Moves to Officially End International Adoption

Several Ethiopian news sources have reported that the Ethiopian Parliament is considering a new draft bill amending current law to end the adoption of Ethiopian children by foreigners. What are the reasons? No doubt there are many. Ezega news reported that the “inability by biological parents to trace their children and adoptees being denied the chance to communicate with their biological parents have been major issues that have been echoed in parliament.”

Those two reasons—Ethiopian parents being unable to learn anything about their children post-adoption, and adoptees being unable (due to adoptive parents’ refusal?) to contact their Ethiopian parents—exemplify deceitful practices by adoption facilitators who promised Ethiopian parents they would have contact with their children after adoption, though there was no guarantee of that since adoption permanently severs ties legally. The reasons also represent lost opportunities for adopted children (who grow up, and who I hope will learn their truths) to know their Ethiopian parents, even as they were raised by adoptive parents in the United States and elsewhere.

According to U.S. Department of State statistics, over 15.000 children were adopted from Ethiopia to the U.S. between 1999 and 2016, and of course thousands of others to Canada, Europe, and Australia. About 50% were three years old or younger at the time of adoption. In 1994, when my twin daughters arrived at six years old, there were 54 other Ethiopian children adopted to America. Adoption from Ethiopia has been fraught for years with so much: the murder of adoptee Hana Williams, the federal indictment of the adoption agency International Adoption Guides for fraud and corruption, and at least two temporary suspensions of adoptions by Ethiopia. At least three Ethiopian adoptees, from Netherlands and Denmark, annulled their adoptions. Many families discovered that the children they adopted were not orphans at all, but children who had clear and vivid memories of their mothers and families. Many families traveling back to Ethiopia with their adopted children encountered Ethiopian mothers desperately searching for their children. Adult adoptees have traveled to Ethiopia in search of their original families and have sometimes found them, finding also that their Ethiopian families had been deceived into placing them for adoption. Some have been unable to locate their original families, despite great efforts to do so.

While there certainly have been new families formed for children who needed them, there have also been multiple scandals and heartaches.

The Ezaga article notes that “due to problems especially with foreign adopters, over the past few years the issue of adoption has been stirring heated debates among various members of the community, including MPs (Members of Parliament).”

Ethiopian officials have been watching closely what has happened to the children adopted from Ethiopia. So have Ethiopians in the diaspora, as well as those in cafes in Addis, or in Hawassa, Shashemene, Gambela, and elsewhere.

There are many reasons for ending adoptions, especially those adoptions that resembled trafficking much more than any ideal of child welfare. Maybe the precise reasons don’t even matter, though I am not dismissing the tragedies of families deceived and the losses of children who were never orphans.

That said, what also matters now is what happens to the children who genuinely need families, and especially those who need medical care that is not available or not provided in Ethiopia.

Ending adoption does not mean that children don’t still need help, safety, and families. I often wonder about the children in Russia after Putin ended adoptions to the US, and in Guatemala after adoptions ended there. The needs of the children remain as extensive as ever.

So yes, let’s hope that domestic in country adoption will be a priority. Let’s hope that family preservation will flourish, and that there will not be more children dying, or begging in the streets, or suffering in isolation. As the Ethiopian officials have watched adoptive families, let’s hope the world watches and helps them to care for Ethiopian children. Perhaps Ethiopia will establish adoption programs for older children and for children with special needs, rather than ending all adoptions. Perhaps efforts like this campaign to help an Ethiopian child with a rare, painful disease, difficult to treat in Ethiopia, will gain more support–it’s a great example of family preservation. Please help if you can.

Sofoniyas and his mother

 

Let’s hope that the community of adoptive parents will rise up. In so many ways, we should be the ones leading the charge to make sure that, whenever possible, children can grow up not adopted but with their original families, and within their original cultures. No more saviorism or rescuing. It’s time for us to step up and support our children’s brothers and sisters.

 

 

Let’s hope adult adoptees continue to connect with Ethiopia, and with their Ethiopian families, with the support of their adoptive families. Let’s hope that the Ethiopian families who are searching for their children, for the knowledge that their children are alive, will be able to gain information, and maybe someday, peace.

Let’s hope this is a wake up call for anyone involved with adoption about the role of money and the vulnerability of children.

And let’s do a lot more than just hope. In the next few weeks, I’ll be posting information about ways to sponsor children and to promote family preservation, for far less than the cost of even one international adoption. It’s time.