Remembering Hana Alemu Today, and Reflecting on the Murders and Suicides of Adoptees

Six years ago today, on May 12, 2011, 13-year-old Ethiopian adoptee Hanna Williams, born Hana Alemu, died from hypothermia and malnutrition in the backyard of her adoptive home. In September of 2013, her adoptive parents, Larry and Carri Williams, were convicted of her murder, and will be in prison for decades to come.

While many of us adoptive parents of Ethiopian children have mourned her death, I don’t think we can underestimate the impact Hana’s death has had in Ethiopia. The news of her death made headlines there, and the subsequent trial and sentencing of her adoptive parents reverberated in many corners and conversations in Ethiopia. The circumstances that led to Hana’s death–the isolation of eating outside from the rest of the family and not being allowed to participate in Christmas or birthdays, the punishments of water on sandwiches and frozen vegetables for dinner, having her head shaved for cutting the grass too short, having food withheld as punishment, being forced to shower outside, being hit for failing to stand the right way, and being locked in a small, dark closet for hours at a time–are harrowing at best. The jury at the parents’ trial agreed that the treatment met the standard of torture, and that is not an easy legal standard to reach.

Hana Alemu (Williams)

For Ethiopians in government and in the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, for the average Ethiopian aware that thousands of Ethiopian children were sent each year to other countries for adoption, and for the Ethiopian parents who have placed children for adoption, the news of Hana’s life and death after only three years in America was heartbreaking and infuriating. My sense is that her death has been an undercurrent in considerations of policy changes regarding international adoption from Ethiopia.

We can say it was a rare case, and that’s true. It does not give solace. There may be some resolution in knowing that Larry and Carri Williams will be in jail for over 20 more years. That knowledge though is tempered by the fact that Immanuel, the other Ethiopian child they adopted and abused, will probably be haunted for the rest of his life by the trauma of his time with them. Their 7 biological children, who witnessed the abuse and testified about it at their parents’ trial, have also been badly damaged by the abuse and the death–which several of them witnessed–of Hana.

None of us can know what went on in Hana’s mind and heart as she endured the cruelty of the people who were supposed to love her and keep her safe. Three-year-old Hyunsu O’Callaghan, adopted from Korea, was killed by his adoptive father about four months  after he arrived in the United States. Hana and Hyunsu’s fates crush the popular narrative of adoption: the orphan in search of a family, the parents who take her in, the happy life then lived by everyone.

Another crushing blow to the fairy tale narrative is the reality and tragedy of suicide in the adoption community. Again, yes, it is rare, for which we are all grateful. Still, when we hear about the death by suicide of adopted persons, especially for example the suicide of a 14-year-old Korean adoptee just 11 days ago, all of us in adoption need to look at ourselves and what we are doing to educate and help.

I don’t know if there is a unique poignancy to the deaths of adoptees, but it feels that way. Adoption is supposed to mean a better life, right? That can be true (depending how you define “better”), but another larger and vital truth is that adoption follows loss. Loss can also be trauma. Adoption can be full of love and equally full of deep sorrow and grief. Many people struggle with depression and anxiety, and as a society, we are still reluctant to recognize those struggles as real. As an adoptive parent, I have known many adoptees, both young children and adults, who wrestle with depression that may well be rooted in having been adopted. That’s true for people growing up in deeply loving families who provide all available resources for mental health challenges, as well as for those whose adoptive parents are abusive. For those who get help, the struggle can still be difficult. For those who don’t, it can be excruciating. Add in the complexity of growing up as a person of color in our racist society (much of which does not/will not believe we live in a racist society), the bullying which has aways existed but is exacerbated by social media, the lack of racial mentors/mirrors/role models for adoptees, and a history of neglect and abuse prior to adoption, and it’s easy to see how a delicate balance can be tipped into despair and worse.

Please let me offer some takeaways from these haunting deaths:

Adoption is rooted in loss, in the cases of infants placed at birth with adoptive parents, in the cases of children removed from abusive or neglectful situations, and in the cases of adopted children who grow up with loving families. It doesn’t mean therefore all adoptees are doomed to despair and ruin. It does mean that as adoptive parents, we must be aware of the role that trauma and loss can play as our kids grow up, and even well into adulthood.

The screening process for prospective adoptive parents must include serious discussions about possible struggles with depression and anxiety for adoptees. Parents need to hear directly from adopted persons about their struggles. Anyone involved with preparation for prospective adoptive parents and with counseling of parents and adoptees must step up their services prior to adoptive placements to encourage families, after placement, to reach out for help and not live in isolation, as the Williams’ family essentially did. There is no shame in asking for help in difficult circumstances, whether children or parents are struggling.

Everyone, with or without a connection to adoption, should file away the phone number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255. If the Def Jam artist Logic can release a song about it, the rest of us can surely keep the phone number, share it when needed, and learn about suicide prevention. There are many resources available to anyone considering suicide and to anyone who fears that someone may attempt suicide.

And please do not think I am ignoring the needs of first/birth parents, and the loss and trauma that they experience. While my focus here is on Hana and other adoptees after an adoptive placement, I recognize that first/birth parents also need support and resources for depression or other challenges post-placement.

I keep Hana in my heart. What happened to her should never have happened to any child. The notion of children dying by suicide is wrenching as well. I know many adult adoptees are especially grieving the loss of their young counterparts, and looking for more ways to help. We need to keep conversations open, especially around adoption, depression, and loss. We need to acknowledge the pain and complexity, to speak up for vulnerable children, and to offer help to struggling families.

 

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.

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.