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.

 

 

East African Artists: “Crossing” Memories, Art, and (Forced?) Migration

We all struggle at times with “crossing,” the movement from one place to another, from what we know to what we don’t, from displacement of bodies, minds, and hearts. Sometimes, crossing means moving from life to death. Sometimes, it means traveling far from “home,” however we define it. Sometimes, memories cross our minds.

Last night I attended the Artist Reception for a show called Crossing: East African Artists and Social Change, held at the M. Rosetta Hunter Gallery at Seattle Central Community College. All three artists had roots in and work focused on Ethiopia and/or Eritrea. Their individual pieces of art  also provided broader views around longing, loss, searching, and migrating, both literally and metaphorically. Each artist had a theme of “crossing” in the art. Each spoke briefly about his/her work. It was wonderful.

Selam Bekele’s art included photography, collage, mixed media, and a short film. She referred to her art as “Tizita,” an Amharic word which has the sense of memory, or longing, or nostalgia in English. Having written about the fascinating, poignant story of Prince Alemayehu: The First Ethiopian Adoptee?, I looked forward to seeing Selam’s film “The Prince of Nowhere” at last night’s reception. It was a dynamic, evocative film.

IMG_7750

Selam Bekele, Hunter Gallery, February 2015 © Maureen McCauley Evans

In 1868, Alemayehu arrived at age 7 in England, far from his homeland of Ethiopia. The film, an exercise in crossing time and space, shows him as a handsome young man (he died at 18 years of age in 1879), in contemporary western clothing, on modern streets, in a modern classroom. His voice in the film has a British accent. Sometimes the images are blurred, and the light distorted, all reflecting Alemayehu’s life in an exile about which he had no voice. The brief film, like Alemayehu’s brief life, is poetic and sorrowful, a story of resilience and despair.

My friend Yadesa Bojia had several powerful pieces of art at the gallery, most with bright colors and passionate exhortation for the power of literacy and family. A brand new piece, exhibited for the first time, was titled “Hanna,” a heartfelt tribute to Hanna Alemu, also known as Hanna Williams. Hanna was an Ethiopian girl adopted in 2008 by a family in Sedro-Woolley, Washington. She died in May 2011, and her adoptive parents were found guilty of homicide by abuse in September 2013. Hanna died from malnutrition and hypothermia, according to the coroner, alone outside her home on a 40 degree night.

IMG_7754

Yadesa Bojia, Hunter Gallery, February 2015 © Maureen McCauley Evans

The painting has Ethiopia’s traditional colors of red, yellow, and green, with the image of Hanna in black outside behind the family home, beneath a stark bare tree branch. It’s wrenching to see in simplicity and vibrancy. I’ve written extensively about Hanna, and attended nearly all of the trial in the summer of 2013. Ethiopians all around in Yaddi, who is the designer of the current African Union flag, is also a singer and songwriter, and wrote about Hanna. His album information is available here.

The third East African artist was Yegizaw “Yeggy” Michael. His work included vibrant acrylic paintings about crossing the desert, and crossing the sea, from the perspective of migration and loss. He also had an amazing installation piece that depicted the tragedies of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

IMG_7753

Yegizaw “Yeggy” Michael, Hunter Gallery, February 2015 © Maureen McCauley Evans

Some 3,000 people in 2014 are estimated to have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean en route to Europe, according to this report. Yeggy’s art, about 8 feet long on the floor, had rocks and sand around a blue plastic sheet that held blue scarves and blue face masks. There was one black scarf, with peace symbols. Yeggy talked about how the journey these immigrants has an echo in the slave ships of the African slave trade, and how these “crossings” are terrifying and heartbreaking. We all make crossings, he noted. Some of us do not succeed.

The art will be on display at the Hunter Gallery in Seattle until February 13.

 

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.

What CHIFF Lacks and Why It Must Be Abandoned

I wrote a couple of days ago about the Children in Families First (CHIFF) Act, recently introduced in the US Senate as S.1530: Why CHIFF Will (and Should) Fail.

My main arguments were (1)  the legislation fails to include the voices of adult adoptees and of first/original international parents, and (2) the main supporters are adoption agencies, who have a significant economic stake in international adoption. Those 2 reasons are significant enough to suggest the bill is poorly grounded and inadequate (while being very expensive), and should be abandoned.

If that though isn’t enough, this post discusses additional reasons that CHIFF should be discarded.

It’s not because international adoption policy does not need to be reformed (it does), nor because children around the globe don’t deserve safe, loving families (they do), nor because family preservation should not be an essential priority (it should).

CHIFF should be discarded because it fails to include the perspectives of vital stakeholders (adoptees and international first parents) directly impacted by and knowledgeable about international adoption, though with nothing to gain financially from it, unlike adoption agencies, the bill’s current main supporters. Further, CHIFF should be discarded because it fails to acknowledge the astonishing problems facing us here in the US, while explicitly using substantial USAID and other taxpayer funds “to jumpstart implementation of a National Action Plan in 6 countries over 5 years.”

CHIFF In a Nutshell

Here’s a brief summary, drawn from their website, of the goals of CHIFF:

CHIFF “calls for programs funded with US tax dollars to focus on reducing the number of children living without families and increasing the capacity of other governments to better protect their own children.”

Specifically, CHIFF establishes a new bureau in the State Department (transforming and enlarging the current Office of Children’s Issues, apparently), as a “foreign policy and diplomatic hub on child welfare.” The new bureau will still be the Hague Convention’s Central Authority “for diplomatic purposes,” but “operational responsibilities will be under US Citizenship and Immigrations Services,” (US CIS) which is under the US Homeland Security Administration.

It “streamlines, simplifies, and consolidates responsibility for intercountry adoption cases under US CIS,” thus under the Department of Homeland Security, except for final immigrant visa processing, which remains with State. Adoption service provider accreditation will now be under Homeland Security too, not the State Department.

The new bureau is tasked with “building international capacity to implement effective child welfare systems, with particular focus on family preservation and reunification, and kinship domestic, and intercountry adoption.”

The CHIFF infographic cites adoption in 2 of the 3 potential intended results of the bill, with the third being a realignment “of foreign aid with American values.”

Here are additional reasons that CHIFF will and should fail:

CHIFF does not meaningfully address current needs here in the United States regarding international adoption policy, yet it would use USAID and other taxpayer money to increase international adoptions, to create new bureaucracy here, and to establish new programs around the globe, instilling American values.

It turns out we have plenty of work that needs to be done here at home.

  • CHIFF does not address the huge, gaping need for genuine, rigorous pre-adoption preparation nor for substantive, effective, accessible post-adoption counseling and resources here in the United States. We can craft adoption policy far better, in terms of preparation and counseling of birth/first parents and of adoptive parents prior to adoption, and in terms of post-adoption resources and services for everyone. I’d like to see some degree of equity in counseling and services (before and after placement) for international birth parents as compared to US adoptive parents. I’ve recommended re-vamping the US adoption tax credit as one means of doing this and wrote about it here.  No new money–just an equitable, sane distribution of revenue (billions of dollars) that the US federal government is already providing to adoptive parents.
  • CHIFF does not address the great, grim cloud of corruption and fraud in international adoption. Many US families have brought children to the US only to find out the children have families who wanted to keep them, but were trafficked or otherwise brought to the US in unethical circumstances. Adult adoptees have traveled back to their home countries and learned very different stories from what the agencies told their adoptive parents. One of the reasons for the slowdown in international adoptions is that adoption agencies and governments are now doing investigations about the truths of children being placed for adoption. It’s an effort by the agencies, arguably late in the game, and it’s costly and time-consuming, though perhaps will ensure more ethical adoptions. In any case, CHIFF minimally acknowledges the corruption that exists in international adoption. The fraud and corruption should be acknowledged, researched thoroughly, and (ideally) eliminated as a first priority.
  • CHIFF does not address the tragic and disturbing practice of “re-homing” here in the US, recently cited in the powerful Reuters series which looked at re-homing practices over 5 years. There are numerous reasons that re-homing has occurred, and perhaps some have been valid. But better preparation and better post-adopt services (including respite, training, access to therapists who understand adoption, trauma, and related issues) surely would have prevented some of these tragic cases.
  • The impact of the re-homing news has begun to create a global backlash. China is outraged. This article “China adoption agency furious over ‘child exchange’ report” quotes the China Centre for Children’s Welfare and Adoption as saying, “As to the report that refers to American families who are using the Internet to relocate children they have adopted and are not willing to keep raising, we are very shocked and furious.”
  • Further evidence of the global rippling effect: The Democratic Republic of Congo has just announced a 12 month suspension of adoptions, and specifically cited the re-homing of children as one significant reason. Here is a quote from the US State Department notice about the DRC’s decision: “This suspension is due to concerns over reports that children adopted from the Democratic Republic of the Congo may be either abused by adoptive families or adopted by a second set of parents once in their receiving countries.” Other countries likely have deep concerns about US adoption practices, and I would guess we will hear more in the near future.
  • CHIFF does not address the concerns of many in the adoption global community about what the Congo suspension alludes to: children being abused or killed by their adoptive parents. I have written dozens of posts about the recent Washington State trial and conviction of the adoptive parents for the murder of Hana Williams, an Ethiopian adoptee. The parents were convicted as well of first degree assault of Immanuel, also an Ethiopian adoptee. These tragic cases are not common, not representative of the vast majority of adoption, and not acceptable on any level. Note above that CHIFF specifically calls for “programs funded with US tax dollars to…increase the capacity of other governments to better protect their own children.”  Hindsight may suggest that the deaths and abuses here were preventable, but we need to be more proactive than ever in demanding rigorous scrutiny of prospective adoptive parents and in providing oversight and assistance to families in trouble. I wrote here about how the adoption community failed Hana. I also found the CHIFF FAQ answer cold and dismissive about these tragedies. I can only imagine what the perspective is of the families and governments of origin regarding these children.
  • CHIFF does not address the plight of international adoptees who are now in the US foster care system. Those numbers are difficult to know for sure, but there is clear evidence and research that many international adopted children end up in US foster care. They, like US-born foster care children, often age out and face difficult next steps. Nor does CHIFF address the international adoptees who are now legal adults and legal US citizens and who have been who have been discarded by their adoptive families, and are now struggling in “underground” communities. Many did not meet the families’ expectations (and again, this would seem to me to indicate poor preparation, or inappropriate placements, or inadequate post-adoption resources). I wrote about some of these concerns in my Case Study: Part 2, regarding the role of agencies.

There are other concerns, and I’ve no doubt other people will be writing about them. I would argue that, before we work toward increasing the numbers of internationally adopted children, and before we venture into other countries to tell them how to protect their children, we address the needs of current adoptees and their families here in the US.

Before anything like CHIFF goes forward, before we use additional funds and resources to increase the numbers of internationally adopted children, we need, at a minimum, the following:

  • Good data, solid research, and substantive information about current realities in the US international adoption community.
  • Good data, solid research, and substantive information about fraud and corruption in international adoption practices.
  • Inclusion and buy-in from adult international adoptees and from international birth/original parents, and not solely from adoption agencies and adoption attorneys.
  • Funding and training for pre-adoption and post-adoption resources that are effective and accessible.
  • Legislation and/or other resources that provides guidance and oversight for families in crisis, with transparency for adoption disruptions and services for children.

CHIFF excludes vital stakeholders, is expensive, and ignores genuine needs in the US and international adoption community. It should not move forward. Surely we can do far better than this.

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

Honoring Trayvon, Thinking About Hana, Hoping for Justice

George Zimmerman was found not guilty today in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. I am sad, disappointed, outraged, and tired.

A black teenager with a soda and Skittles was shot by an armed man.  The shooter is found innocent.

I send a prayer out to Trayvon’s family. I am the mother of two black sons, who were considered sweet and cute when they were little. As they have grown into young men, now 26 and 23 years old, both about 6′ 3″, I’ve seen how they been treated by police, by store managers, and by strangers who cross the street to avoid them, judged way too often by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character.

I send a prayer out to the universe for the upcoming trial of the adoptive parents of Hana Alemu. May her soul and spirit be at peace. May she receive justice. May we all find strength and healing.

IMG_8842

Hana Alemu Trial

Hana Alemu (Williams)

Hana Alemu (Williams)

In 2 weeks, if all goes according to schedule, the trial of Larry and Carri Williams, adoptive parents (and alleged murderers) of Hana Alemu (Hannah Williams) will take place: Monday, July 22, 2013, at 9am at the Skagit County Courthouse in Mount Vernon, Washington.

Jury selection will probably take 2 or 3 days, so the opening statements might begin on Wednesday July 24 or Thursday July 25. Additionally, there is a meeting among the lawyers scheduled for July 16, for last minute maneuvering. As I hear any news, I will post an update.

Please spread the word encouraging others to attend this trial if at all possible.  I plan to be there, to bear witness for Hana, in the hope that justice will be served.

For background information, please see my previous posts Update on Hana AlemuOn Mother’s Day, and In Remembrance of Hana.

The Williamses are accused of homicide by abuse: this charge means that they caused Hana’s death (May 12, 2011) due to a pattern or practice of abuse or torture. It’s apparently a difficult charge to prove, as a jury must believe beyond a reasonable doubt that a pattern of torture or abuse existed, and that the pattern caused Hana’s death. If the Williamses are found guilty, the average sentence is 23 years.

The Williamses are also accused of 2 other crimes. One is first degree assault on Immanuel, the other Ethiopian child they adopted. The charge means that they caused him serious bodily harm.

While much attention has rightly been placed on Hana’s death, Immanuel was certainly a victim here as well. May we all keep him in our hearts. What that child has apparently been through–terrible abuse by his adoptive parents, as well as witnessing Hana’s abuse and death–is wrenching. He will likely be called to testify at the trial. I have heard he is doing well in his foster home, where his foster mother is deaf (as is Immanuel) and is teaching him sign language in a safe environment. I wish him healing, strength, and justice.

The other criminal charge against the Williamses is first degree manslaughter of Hana, which means recklessly causing her death. That carries a sentence of 7.5 years.

I’m not a lawyer. It’s been over 2 years since Hana died, and the trial is only happening now. Her body has been exhumed and reburied. No doubt there have been dozens of meetings and hearings and other legal actions. No one knows what the outcome of the trial will be. We can hope for justice for Hana.  Whatever happens, we will not forget her.

And let’s remember Immanuel always as well.

Update on Hana Alemu: Trial in July

Hana Alemu was an Ethiopian adoptee found dead outside her adoptive parents’ home in Washington state over two years ago.  Many people–Ethiopians, Americans, adoptive parents, adoptees–were enraged and deeply saddened by the circumstances of Hana’s death.  I’ve written about Hana before, here and here. This Facebook group honors Hana.

Hana Alemu (Williams)

Hana Alemu (Williams)

A Brief Recap

Hana Alemu died May 12, 2011.  A report on her death cited by the Seattle Times said she died from “a culmination of chronic starvation caused by a parent’s intentional food restriction, severe neglect, physical and emotional abuse, and stunning endangerment.”

Her adoptive parents, Larry and Carri Williams, were charged with her death in September 2011. In November 2012, they pled not guilty to the charges against them: homicide by abuse and first degree manslaughter by domestic violence.

Carri and Larry Williams

One reason perhaps for the delay in getting to trial has been Hana’s age. She was thought to be 13 when she died.  Also in November 2012, the judge agreed to the prosecutor’s request to exhume Hana’s body to confirm her age. The exhumation took place in January 2013, but the findings were inconclusive. Lawyers are now trying to track down Hana’s Ethiopian uncle, who may have been present at Hana’s birth, and could thus verify her age.

Hana’s age matters because the “homicide by abuse” charge applies only to children younger than 16. My understanding is that the penalty for homicide by abuse is more severe than that of manslaughter by domestic violence. The prosecutors, on behalf of Hana, will argue for the Williamses to get the harsher sentence.

Update

On June 7 2013, a brief hearing was held in Skagit County to work out administrative details for the upcoming trial, expected to begin July 22, 2013. It could last for weeks. I expect it will get a lot of media coverage.

Many people from the Ethiopian community and the adoption community will be there, to honor Hana, hoping that justice will be served for her. I will be among them. We can’t forget her.

On Mother’s Day: A Prayer for Hana Alemu (Williams)

This is a prayer for Hana Alemu, born in 1997 in Ethiopia, brought to Washington state in the US for adoption in 2008, died naked at night alone in the cold, locked outside her adoptive family home, on May 12, 2011: two years ago today, Mother’s Day. She weighed less at her death than she had at arrival 3 years earlier from Ethiopia.

Hana Alemu (Williams)

Hana Alemu (Williams)

Hana, may we learn from the loss of your life, that no child should ever suffer as you did.

May we remember and pray for your Ethiopian mother, keeping her in our hearts always.

May your Ethiopian family, those who knew you and those who grieve for you (whether angry, heartbroken, confused, prayerful) find healing and comfort.

May we adoptive parents deeply understand the responsibility we have, to care for and treasure our children.

May all parents who need help in caring for their children reach out and receive that help.

May adoption agency workers, child protective services staff, lawyers, police officers, and government officials receive encouragement and insistence that they do their difficult work conscientiously, aware that lives hang in the balance.

May justice be done.

May we never forget Hana.

A note:

I visited Hana’s grave this past Thursday (May 9), in anticipation of both Mother’s Day and the second anniversary of her death, May 12.

Hana's grave at Union Cemetery, Sedro-Woolley, WA

Hana’s grave at Union Cemetery, Sedro-Woolley, WA

As an adoptive mother of four children, including two daughters from Ethiopia, I have been both outraged and aching over Hana.

I wrote previously about Hana here.

Her adoptive parents Larry and Carri Williams have yet to go to trial. Hana’s body was exhumed and reburied in January, because there was a question about her actual age. If she is proven to be older (say, 16, at time of death), the charges against her adoptive parents could be reduced. Their next court date is in July.

Facebook group honors and remembers Hana. There is much interest in getting Hana a decent grave marker, and we hope that can happen after the trial concludes and justice is done.

In remembrance of Hana

Update: Unfortunately, the Senate Committee did not act on the bill. Let’s hope that positive change will occur in the next legislative session.

 

No child should ever be abused. I believe adopted children deserve a special level of protection, since their movement from their biological family and their placement into an adoptive family (if done legally, ethically, and transparently) involves local, state, federal, and sometimes international laws and regulations.

Hana Alemu (aka Hanna Williams), 13 years old, died at the hands of her adoptive parents here in Washington state, in Skagit County, on May 12, 2011. Her obituary said she passed away unexpectedly. The coroner’s report said she died from hypothermia, found naked and dead locked outside her family home on a rainy night when temps were in the 40’s. News reports said she’d been beaten, starved, made to use a toilet outside, and, at the time of death, weighed less than she had at her arrival in the US from Ethiopia in 2008.

Hana (Alemu) Williams

Hana (Alemu) Williams

Her adoptive parents have yet to go on trial.

To its credit, Washington State is working to ensure that additional measures are in place to prevent such horrors happening again to any adopted child. The Department of Social and Health Services and the Office of Family and Children’s Ombudsman issued a report on severe abuse of adopted children; it’s sobering, daunting information about adopted children who were abused in terrible ways. Hana is among them. The children whose abuse (and, in some cases, deaths) prompted this report were from both US and international adoptions.

The report also proposes several important, realistic measures that can strengthen the success of adoptions and the safety of children:

Improved oversight of child-placing agencies, including tracking adoption disruptions and dissolutions (when the adoptive parents end an adoption before or after the adoption has been legally finalized),  as well as developing a list of “red flags” regarding troubled adoptions;

Better assessment of prospective adoptive parents, including enhancement of minimum requirements for home studies; and

Improved training and post-adoption services, including additional support services for adoptive families.

These proposals, which would apply to US and international adoptions, are significant and necessary. Some of the recommendations require relatively small legislative changes, and HB 1675 was introduced in the Washington State House, passing by a vote of 90 to 7. On March 21, the Senate Committee on Human Services and Corrections held a hearing on the bill.  Several people from the Ethiopian Community Association in Seattle traveled to Olympia to speak in favor of the bill at the hearing, as did I.

Some folks would like to see this bill called “Hana’s Law,” to honor her memory. The ECA folks were there because of deep concern about the safety of Ethiopian children adopted to the United States. I was there as the adoptive parent of twin Ethiopian daughters, 6 years old when they came here, 24 years old now. All of our hearts ache for Hana; her death was a tragedy of suffering that never should have happened.

I hope I am wrong in hearing that HB 1675 will not be sent to the Senate floor by the Human Services Committee.  They have only until Wednesday April 3 to move the bill. It is a great opportunity for a state legislature to act publicly and positively on legislation to protect adopted children.