Remembering Hana Williams, Three Years After the Guilty Verdict

Three years ago today, a jury found Larry and Carri Williams guilty of the death of their daughter, Ethiopian adoptee Hana (Alemu) Williams. She would have turned 18 this year, had she lived.

Hana (Alemu) Williams

Instead, Hana died on May 12, 2011, at 13 years of age. The causes: hypothermia and malnutrition. About two years after her death, the case went to trial in the summer of 2013. Her adoptive parents were accused of the homicide of Hana, and of the abuse of Immanuel, an Ethiopian boy adopted in 2008, at the same time as Hana. I attended most of the five-week trial, blogged about it, and posted this on the day of the jury decision: Williams Trial Verdict In: Justice for Hana and Immanuel.

In October 2013, Larry and Carri Williams were sentenced to jail for decades. They also have seven biological children. They lost custody of Immanuel, of course, but also lost custody of their five minor biological children as well. The children were all adopted by relatives, as I understand it. At one point, Carri tried to get back custody of her children, but failed. I have no details on Immanuel, except that he continues to struggle. All of the children struggle in many ways, I would guess.

In recent years, adoptions from Ethiopia have dramatically declined for a number of reasons, one of which is surely Hana’s death. I am not minimizing the tragedy of her death when I say that it is an anomaly, an exception. I don’t want her to be forgotten. I want her to be remembered as a light in the world, and still in our hearts.

 

Hana Williams Died Five Years Ago Today

Hana Alemu (Williams)

Hana Alemu (Williams)

The weather that day in 2011 was overcast and cold. Hana died from starvation and hypothermia, right outside her family home where her adoptive siblings and mother were inside. She had been adopted from Ethiopia less than three years earlier. At the time of her death, she was 13 years old, five feet tall, and 78 pounds.

Larry and Carri Williams, Hana’s adoptive parents, were convicted in 2013 of killing her, and are now in jail. They will be there for decades. The Williamses’ minor biological children ended up being adopted, likely by family members. Immanuel, the other Ethiopian child adopted by Larry and Carri Williams, is (not surprisingly) struggling, from what I have heard. During the murder trial, we learned that he had been diagnosed with PTSD. Larry and Carri Williams were convicted not only of Hana’s death but also of abuse of Immanuel.

I can’t imagine what life has been like for the Williams’ children: to have witnessed the abuse by their parents of Hana and Immanuel, to have witnessed the death of Hana, to have testified at their parents’ murder trial, to have described in public the abuse that their parents imposed on Hana and Immanuel, and to have lost their parents to jail for at least 25 years. On September 28, 2011, a detective from Skagit County Sheriff’s office requested an arrest warrant for Larry and Carri. The document recounts what the Williams’ children said about how their parents treated Hana and Immanuel. At Larry and Carri’s sentencing, the judge suggested that the children’s testimony may have been the most compelling in getting the guilty verdict.

Many people keep Hana in their hearts: her family in Ethiopia, those of us who attended the murder trial, Ethiopians in the Seattle community and around the world, and those who have been moved by her story.

In the last five years, Ethiopia has sharply decreased the number of children placed in the United States. Ethiopian courts have annulled 3 adoptions of Ethiopian children placed in Europe. Staff members of a US adoption agency working in Ethiopia have pled guilty to fraud and bribery charges. The adoption agency that placed Hana and Immanuel, Adoption Advocates International (AAI), has closed. A vital Facebook organization, Ethiopian Adoptees of the Diaspora, has been created. Some of the changes are obviously positive; some are less clear.

There is debate over whether the decrease in adoptions is a good thing. Maybe fewer children will be placed in orphanages illicitly. Maybe more children will stay with their families. Maybe children in genuine, desperate need of families will never get one, or never get the medical care they need, care that they might have received as a result of adoption. Maybe more or fewer children will suffer.

Could Hana’s death have been prevented? The list of “If Only’s” is long: if only she had been adopted by a different family. If only she had been able to stay with her biological family. If only Larry and Carri had been better prepared, or more willing to seek help, or had connected with the adoption and Ethiopian communities. Had AAI made them aware of resources? Did AAI make sure that the WIlliamses would feel comfortable asking for help? If only so many things had happened.

There’s a great deal of justified, vocal anger in the adoption community these days. I want to think that it means the time is ripe for positive, effective changes that truly and effectively put the needs of children first. A veil has been lifted from the idyllic, romanticized version of adoption that has permeated our global culture.

The Williams’ murder trial lifted not a veil but a heavy, carefully placed curtain that had covered a family’s life until it was horrifically raised, on May 12, 2011. Four days before Hana’s death was Mother’s Day that year. Hana may well have spent the day with little or no food, locked in the closet that Carri Williams kept her in, with no light switch, no room to stretch in, let out only for bathroom breaks in an outdoor port-a-potty or a cold water shower outside. What could any child have done to deserve the treatment that Hana received?

May Hana rest in peace, in power, in grace, and in our hearts.

 

Court Affirms Conviction of Larry and Carri Williams

A Washington state appellate court has affirmed the convictions of Larry and Carri Williams in the homicide of Hana (Alemu) Williams. Both Larry and Carri had appealed their convictions, but the appellate court judges said there is no reason to change the decision made by the Skagit County jury in October 2013: the Williamses will remain in jail.

More information is available here: “Court affirms convictions of WIlliamses in adopted daughter’s death.”

May Hana rest in peace.

Carri Williams Cannot Stop Adoption Proceedings for 5 of Her Children

Carri Williams, sentenced for 37 years for the death of Ethiopian adoptee Hana Alemu, gave up custody of her minor biological children in September 2013, when she was convicted of homicide by abuse. This past January, she tried to overturn a ruling to stop the adoption of her children. Appellate court judges disagreed.

This means that Carri Williams cannot stop the adoption proceedings of 5 of her children, who range in age from 11 to 18. The two oldest biological children are over 18.

Read “Appellate Court Affirms Ruling on Convicted Mother’s Dispute Over Adoption of Her Children” from the Skagit Valley Herald for more information.

 

Carrie Williams, looking toward the jury

Carrie Williams, looking at the jury during her 2013 trial.

 

Appeals Court Oral Arguments for Larry and Carri Williams

This morning the Washington State Court of Appeals heard oral arguments for Larry and Carri Williams, who are seeking to overturn their convictions for the death of their adopted Ethiopian daughter, Hana Alemu. Many thanks to those who were able to attend the 40 minute hearing: there were about 25 people there for Hana, several from the Ethiopian Community Center as well as others who have held Hana in their hearts. It was a great showing of support for Hana. The courtroom does not have space for many more people than were there sitting behind the prosecuting attorney today.

Neither Larry nor Carri were in the courtroom. Both are in jail in Washington state, and this was a strictly legal process. It will likely be weeks before we hear the decision of the court.

As always, I must say that I am not a lawyer, so am writing about this with a non-legal background. In October 2013, Carri Williams was found guilty of homicide by abuse of Hana; Larry Williams was found guilty of manslaughter of Hana. Each filed appeals for their convictions in the death of Hana. Information about their sentencing is available here.

Three appeals court judges today heard the oral arguments by attorneys first for Carri Williams’ case, then for Larry. The attorneys for Larry and Carri had submitted significant legal documents for the appeal, which of course the judges had read prior to today’s hearing. The entire hearing was under an hour. This was not a re-trying of the case–it was a legal process to see if errors had been made at the 2013 trial which were signficant enough to reverse the convictions.

The main argument offered by the attorney from the Washington State Appellate Project on Carri Williams’ behalf involved the failure of the original trial judge to grant a mistrial after Hana’s Ethiopian uncle essentially disappeared, failing to return to Ethiopia. The prosecution had brought the uncle to the US, and he had testified (through translators) that he had proof in a family Bible about Hana’s age. Hana’s age mattered for the homicide by abuse charge; Hana had to be under 16 years old for Carri to be charged for that crime. There was controversy about Hana’s actual age, and dental and other experts were witnesses at the trial. The disappearance of the uncle was problematic. The trial judge struck all of the uncle’s testimony, telling the jurors to ignore it. The lawyer for Carri argued today that the mistrial should have been granted.

The attorney from the Skagit Country Prosecutor’s Office (representing the state on half of Hana) argued that the decision to strike the uncle’s testimony was appropriate. One of the Appeals Court judges today asked about the torture definition, as the standard of “torture” was a necessary element for the homicide by abuse charge. The attorney explained that one act in itself (food deprivation, outside shower, or locking in closet) might not have reached the level of torture, but the cumulative effect over time did, and so experts were consulted during the trial about the nature of torture.

Again, no one was arguing about the factual horrific events that led to Hana’s death. The appeals process is focused on whether proper legal procedure was followed in the 2013 trial. Hence, there were discussions today about whether the dental witness should have testified for a longer time, whether the instructions to the jury were adequate, and whether the timing of witness lists was correct.

The hearing then turned to Larry Williams’ appeal. Larry was not home the night Hana died, but had been aware and involved in the various disciplinary techniques by Carri Williams. There was discussion today of whether, from a legal perspective, Larry was an “accomplice” or a “principal” in the events that led to Hana’s death. The attorney representing Larry acknowledged that Larry “doesn’t have entirely clean hands” in the case, but that doesn’t make him an accomplice in Hana’s death that night. In response, the prosecutor argued that Larry breached his duty as a parent by denying Hana basic necessities of life, and participated in deprivation to Hana that was reckless. The jury at the trial believed Larry was a participant; one legal question in this appeal is whether both Larry and Carri were principals in Hana’s death, or whether Larry was an accomplice.

Neither Larry nor Carri has appealed their convictions of assault of a child, which involved their Ethiopian adopted son Immanuel. Today’s hearing was solely about the convictions for Hana’s death.

The judges could take weeks or months to issue a decision. If the convictions are not overturned, the Williamses can file more appeals.

Hana, we are standing with you.

Hana Alemu (Williams)

Hana Alemu (Williams)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Appeals Court Info on Williamses’ Case

There will be an appeals court hearing for Larry and Carri Williams on Monday, November 16, at 9:30am.The address is One Union Square, 600 University Street, Seattle.  I wrote about the hearing here, and I want to share some additional thoughts, especially if you were interested in attending.

It is a public hearing; all are welcome. There will be 20 minutes of oral arguments for each case, so the hearing itself will last about 40 minutes. There will be no decision made that day by the judge. It is not a huge room, and attorneys for other cases get preference in seats, but there is certainly room for the public. You may want to allow time to get through the security and get a seat.

I know there is great interest in the case, and enormous support for Hana. It will be great to have a strong showing of folks in court for Hana. I want to be sure everyone understands that this is a brief event, a legal process, lawyers talking to the judge. I will be there, and I know several others in the Seattle area who are planning to attend. If you can easily attend, wonderful. If you are unable to be there. we know you are joining us in spirit, and we will update you as soon as possible after the hearing.

Many thanks for all those who have kept Hana in their hearts.

 

 

Update on Hana Williams: Larry and Carri Williams Have Filed an Appeal to Their Murder Convictions

Hana Alemu (Williams)

Hana Alemu (Williams) Photo from Facebook page: Remembrance of Hanna Williams

In late October 2013, Larry and Carri Williams, the adoptive parents of Ethiopian adoptee Hana Williams/Hana Alemu, were convicted and sentenced to jail for Hana’s murder and associated torture. You can read about their sentencing here.

Larry and Carri have filed appeals of the conviction, and the Seattle Appeals Court has scheduled oral arguments for the appeals on Monday, November 16, at 9:30am. I will be there, and I hope many other folks in the Seattle area will be there also. A good showing by the public on Hana’s behalf could be a powerful statement to the judges. Many thanks to all who have kept Hana in their hearts.

I feel certain that many folks in Washington State, in the US, in Ethiopia, and around the globe will be watching this case closely.

We haven’t forgotten you, Hana.

Remembering Hana: May 12, 2011

Hana Alemu (Williams)

Hana Alemu (Williams)

Rest in Peace. Rest in Power. Rest in Paradise. Hana Alemu, we are thinking of you today and honoring the life that ended much too soon.

It was four years ago today that she died outside her adoptive family home, from malnutrition and hypothermia, having suffered through so much.

Many people have kept her memory alive, and remember Hana as a source of inspiration to fight for the safety and well-being of all children.

Her cousin Haimanot helped raise Hana in Ethiopia before Hana came to the US. Haimanot has a potentially life-threatening medical condition for which she has received surgery, but will need more. You can read about her here, and you help by donating to or sharing the fundraising site here. Haimanot is working hard to survive and thrive. Any help you can give her would be wonderful.

Hana’s adoptive parents, Larry and Carri, remain in jail in Washington State, having been convicted in September 2013. Both filed appeals in fall 2013 to their murder convictions, and the process is moving slowly through the appellate courts.

Today, let’s think of Hana. May all children be loved and safe.

 

 

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.

Reflections on Hana: Acknowledging the Failure of the Adoption Community

One week from today, on July 22, the trial of Larry and Carri Williams, accused of the murder of Hana Alemu (Hannah Williams), is scheduled to start in Skagit County, Washington State. Hana did not deserve or cause the suffering she went through. May Hana receive justice, and may those who made her suffer and caused her death receive the punishment they deserve. I pray that no other children will suffer so at the hands of adoptive parents. May all children be safe and loved. 

Some people, understandably, don’t want to even read the details about what happened to Hana Alemu after she arrived here in the United States from Ethiopia for adoption. It’s too wrenching, infuriating, horribly sad. As an adoptive mother, I look at my own children, especially my twin daughters from Ethiopia, and wonder how things went so wrong for Hana.

Whatever happens in the upcoming trial of Hana’s adoptive parents, I believe we need to reflect on how we in the international adoption community (I include myself) failed Hana and other children who have suffered abuse or worse in the course of adoption. We cannot change the past, but perhaps we can improve the future for other adopted children.

Hana was placed for adoption through a Washington State licensed agency, Adoption Advocates International. AAI is a member of the Joint Council on International Children’s Services, and also accredited for Hague Convention Services through April 2016 by the Council on Accreditation (COA).

So that may well be the first failure: Is accreditation truly meaningful, especially with regard to both pre-adoption preparation and post-adoption services? In February I wrote an Open Letter to COA posted on Land of Gazillion Adoptees. In the letter, I ask several questions about the value of accreditation, including how a COA-accredited agency, Christian World Adoption, could suddenly declare bankruptcy, given the ostensible rigors of accreditation.

In full disclosure, I worked for JCICS from 1995-2000. I worked for two adoption agencies between 2000 and 2006. I’m generally familiar with how US and international adoption agencies work, though I’m out of current loops. I have no insider knowledge about AAI or about Hana’s adoption or her adoptive family, the Williamses. What I am writing about here is publicly available in multiple forums.

AAI commented on Hana’s death and on significant revisions to its policies in a letter to adoptive families, according to this website, in October 2011.

I believe most (though not all) adoption agencies operate in good faith, with decent motives. I have no doubts that some have lost track of the most important focus in adoption: the best interest of the child. Some just view adoptive parents exclusively as the client, as if only their needs matter: they are, after all, the only ones getting billed for services.

Given the large amounts of money, and thus the power also held in their hands, prospective adoptive parents often (not always) go to adoption agencies with a sense of entitlement: looking for the youngest, healthiest child, through an agency with the least waiting time and the lowest price. Some parents retain a strong sense of entitlement as they go through the process; some lose it as they begin to understand the realities of international adoption. We can only hope that prospective parents, as they decide what route to take, will listen and learn about trauma, loss, grief, attachment, as well as the value of racial identity, retention of language and culture, and the establishment of trust.

And here’s the challenge, the balancing act for adoption agencies: preparing parents well and thoroughly for adoption, without scaring them off completely. That said, some should be scared off, and that may well be the best outcome, as they may not have been good adoptive parents. People who just want to “give an orphan a loving home” are often rattled by hearing about the long-term impact of neglect and abuse, Reactive Attachment Disorder, food hoarding, sensory integration problems, sleeping disorders, failure to thrive, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and all the other conditions that cause some children to end up being adopted, or that some children display upon arrival in the US.

That’s another failure: Some agencies do not prepare their families well at all. Some parents do not hear what is being told to them. We adoptive parents, especially those with both good and hard experiences, need to do a better job at sharing what we’ve learned. For Pre-Adoption Groups, It’s not enough for new adoptive parents just back from Korea to bring in their cute toddler. Far better for adult adoptees to speak to prospective parents, as well as adoptive parents who have brought their kids to multiple therapists, who have struggled to figure out what’s adoption-related and what’s just being a kid, who have listened deeply as their beloved children grieve the loss of their first family.

The home study process is a critical element of the adoption journey. Here is a link to the detailed requirements of the home study. I have no idea what the home study looked like for Larry and Carri Williams. The US State Department provides a handy tip sheet with lots of examples of what a good home study should look like, so maybe it followed this formula. By the way, to say that the home study process needs overhaul is an epic understatement.

It’s absurd and shameful that the international treaty governing adoption, the Hague Convention, mandates an abysmally small number of hours for adoption preparation: ten. And parents can take the classes on-line.

The adoption community fails adopted children in requiring that prospective parents receive such a tiny amount of preparation. We adoptive parents and professionals in adoption need to speak up much more loudly about why extensive training and preparation truly matters.

If adoptive parents are well-prepared, they are better able to handle transition and adjustment issues of adopted children, at the time of placement and for years after. Some children adjust smoothly, and have very few bumps along the way.  Some have occasional struggles, manifesting more during teenage years. Some have significant troubles throughout their lives.

Children who are placed for adoption have experienced trauma. That’s true whether they were placed at birth or at age 12. Serious research shows that children separated from their mothers experience trauma: really, how could it be otherwise? We are biologically hard-wired for survival to depend on our mothers. Separation is significant. And some children are less resilient than others.

Here’s an excellent article from a Bay Area Adoption Services newsletter about the powerful impact of trauma,  Attachment 101: A Primer for Parents. A quote:

“I believe that adoptive parents need a more informed understanding of attachment, especially those who assume that attachment just happens more or less naturally. Sometimes what comes naturally, instead, are maladaptive responses, crystallized during a period of critical brain development and traumatic experience. Adopted children come to us with largely unknown, often difficult histories that can impact their emotional health, cognition, social competence, and ability to form healthy and happy relationships throughout their lifetimes.”

Hana arrived here as a 10-year-old, and 10 years is plenty of time to have had plenty of life experiences during periods of critical brain development. Older children who are placed for adoption, whether internationally or through US foster care, have experienced deep loss. At a minimum, they’ve gone through separation from their first family, who may have loved them deeply. There are children who end up being adopted solely because of their first family’s poverty, for example, or because of social stigma. Other children may have also dealt with neglect and abuse, and neglect can be more detrimental than abuse.

One area where the child’s past and the parents’ expectations can collide disastrously is discipline and punishment. Treating an older, adopted child “just like” one’s biological children, or even like one’s other adopted children, using the same disciplinary strategies, may be a recipe for failure, not for equality. Traumatized children can learn to trust. They can adapt and adjust. But it can take time, and new strategies, and patience, and one step forward, three steps back. Abuse is never acceptable. Never.

Empowering social workers during the home study process to ask about disciplinary approaches of prospective parents, and to be comfortable discussing why some punishment strategies are not appropriate for adopted children, is critical. Finding a balance of respect for religious beliefs about discipline and for recognition that those beliefs may further traumatize children is a fine line to walk. But damn it, we need to do a better job of it.

Finally, we fail as a community to impress upon adoptive families that they need to reach out for post-adoption services and resources. This unfortunately is a double-fail: the community does not provide sufficient post-adoption services and resources.

In September 2012, the Washington State’s Office of Children Issues prepared an excellent report, tragically prompted by the severe abuse of 17 adopted children, including Hana and her adoptive brother, also from Ethiopia. The report includes powerful, pragmatic, much-needed recommendations. In the section on post-adoption needs, they note:

“Lack of support services for adoptive families was identified as a contributing factor to failed adoptions. In one study almost 57 percent of families with an adopted child said that they needed child guidance and mental health services, but only 26 percent reported actually receiving these services. Issues that are not addressed early in the adoption can become significant problems later and lead to involvement with the juvenile offender or dependency systems. As previously discussed in this report, other agencies, both public and private, are leading efforts to address unmet support needs of adopted families and improve access to mental health services. These efforts should be expanded.

Adoption support services should include a range of services including education and referral, respite, advocacy, therapeutic counseling, academic tutoring and preservation of families in crisis. Services must be coordinated across systems such as schools and medical or mental health providers and connect families with a range of resources…The range of support services must also be designed to provide ongoing assistance and be able meet the family’s needs as their situation changes.

To effectively work with adoptive families, service providers must have specialized knowledge related to adoption and foster care. Adoptive parents must be educated about the benefit and range of post-adoption services available. Services must also be offered in a in a non-judgmental empathic manner. A parent’s willingness to recognize challenges and seek assistance should be viewed as a parental strength and not a weakness. Families should perceive these services as beneficial support and not as needless oversight or supervision.”

As of next year, international adoption agencies will have new requirements: the Uniform Accreditation Act. Information from the State Department is available here. I’m skeptical. Will it just be more bureaucracy and more expense, or will it truly meet the needs of children, first parents, and adoptive parents? Let’s see in July of 2014, when the law takes effect.

In the meantime, let’s have the courage to look at our failures, to work genuinely together in the adoption community to keep children safe, and to speak out about the need for change.

http://dogonews.com/2010/4/15/icelands-spectacular-volcano-eruption-causes-chaos